Venting may feel good in the moment but studies show it often does more harm than good. As a patient bluntly explained to me one day: "I hate coming to your office. All I do is complain about my life. All the bitching makes me feel worse."
My patient was not wrong. Dwelling on one's problems can make you feel worse.
Psychology professor Jeffrey Lohr points out the downside of being a Debbie Downer all the time: "Venting anger is an emotional expression. It's similar to emotional farting in a closed area. It sounds like a good idea, but it's dead wrong."
Research shows that girls who talk extensively about their problems with friends are more likely to become anxious and depressed. It takes an emotional toll, leading to a sense of helplessness and hopelessness.
Related studies illustrate the negative effects of venting online. Internet rants have been shown to make people even angrier. Those who vent are more likely to engage in physical and verbal fights and to drive recklessly.
Letting off steam often ends up backfiring. It actually fuels the fire.
As Lohr explains:
The problem with venting is that it's a negative reinforcement process. Anger and hostility are specific emotions and expression of them begets more anger and hostility. What people fail to realize is that the anger would have dissipated had they not vented.
Here is how you can complain strategically:
1. Count to 10 and back again:
Anger dissipates more quickly when you focus on your breath.
2. Take a walk:
Spending time outdoors helps put anger in perspective.
3. Pick your battles:
Only complain when it serves a purpose. Stick to facts and logic and know what you want and how you can make it happen. Choose when to complain and to whom.
4. Give it a name:
Putting your feeling into words reduces their impact. Acknowledging you are upset or angry dampens the emotional toll. Writing about it in a journal that you don't share can help you better understand your feelings and feel more in control.
5. Make a "complaint sandwich":
If you are complaining to someone about their behavior, "sandwich" the complaint between two positive statements. By positively packaging your complaint, the person on the receiving end will be less defensive and more motivated to make a change.
Bottom Line: If you need to complain, please do it with purpose.