Toxic Venting: When to Stop Listening

Good listening seeks to understand, but it is not always silent, and it does not automatically dismiss accountability. As a result, it is decidedly not what some people are looking for: a toxic dump site.
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Or whilst I can vent clamor from my throat,
I'll tell thee thou dost evil.

-- The Great Bard

An Orthodox priest I know and respect a great deal recently wrote to me about a meeting he'd had with some parishioners. They were upset about some personal issues and were soliciting his help, at least on the surface. As the conversation stretched on, it turned out that they were thoroughly uninterested in anything he thought, and even less in anything he had to say besides, "You poor thing." "Perhaps," he wrote with some bemusement, "sitting and venting your troubles is not as healthy as we think."

He was curious about my clinical take on the matter. I wrote him, explaining that I have had more than a few patients (and friends and family members) who just want to "vent," as we've come to call it. They want us to listen, but not to offer anything in the way of opinions, suggestions, advice, consolation or insight.

From time to time, this sort of gentle, non-judgmental listening is a good (even essential) part of friendship and therapy. We get hurt, we need a shoulder. We get scared, we need a hand. We get angry, we need an ear. We rant and rave for a few moments and we move on. Either we've seen the problem in a new light by virtue of our own expression, or we get bored with ourselves, or the listening itself has alleviated a great burden. This is especially true when a grief or loss is involved, and people need to talk about their loved ones or express the pain they feel. Sometimes the venting continues for a while, and the moving forward is difficult. That's all as it should be.

Women have complained about men not "just listening" for eons. "Why do you always have to fix it? Why can't you just listen?" That question opens another can of worms. But for the moment, suffice it to say that one of the really good reasons is that it's not just a man's problem -- it's a human problem that exists in relationships of all kinds. Listening well is hard. We're not born knowing how to do it.

But offering an ear or a shoulder is just a small part of it. Good listening is an art form. It elicits not just release, but exploration. It is not passive, as some would imagine, calling to mind that banal and silent Freudian nod. Good listening seeks to understand. It asks questions. It ponders. It examines. It searches for both manifest and latent meanings. It requires openness and bonafide availability. It is fully present and interested. But it is not always silent, and it does not automatically dismiss accountability. And, as a result, it is decidedly not what some people are looking for: a toxic dump site.

There are people who are simply venting. My mother calls once every few days since my brother died to talk about him with someone who also knew and loved him, to say she misses him, and still finds it hard to believe he's gone. It doesn't last long. She is relieved by some gentle reassurances, until the next time she wakes up to the shock of the loss. This is truly what love demands. It is as far from toxic as venting can get. It is the purest of human need. I never feel put upon by her need to talk, and I understand the wave of confusion that comes over her. For a few minutes I stand still as her ground wire.

Then there are the people who are looking for something more. They are looking only to see themselves as they imagine themselves to be perfectly reflected by our approval and sympathy. They are what that same priest called "coalition builders," and if you're not with them, you're against them.

An example: I knew a man who talked about almost nothing besides how much he hated his boss and how he was going to leave his job. He said it over and over, bemoaning his mistreatment (which was not nearly as bad as he claimed -- I knew the situation), doing nothing either to change himself or his situation for the better. It had been going on for a year when one day he announced that his boss was a blanket-blank and he walked out.

When he called, instead of saying, "Bully for you!" as he must have expected, I asked him how he planned to support himself (he is not married and had no other prospects). His answer: He was moving in with his mother, who only had social security and was not at all happy about his decision. In fact, she was scared. Even though I never blamed or chastised, when I asked questions about how she might handle it, or wondered how he would change the hate he was holding since his boss was out of his life and clearly wasn't going to change, or the cavalier slide into dependency and how that might be hard to reverse, he became irate. He said, "I thought you were my friend! I thought you supported me!" Then he hung up and refused to take my calls or speak to me any further.

I was surprised, but I shouldn't have been. I should have seen the pattern much earlier: the late night calls when he knew we woke up early, the interminable complaints, the total lack of interest in anything that was going on in our lives and the petulant indignation about every relationship he had. No one understood him. No one really appreciated him. No one supported him quite enough.

He was a whiner. I knew that from day one. But I thought it was benign. New Yorkers are used to some whining -- it's part of the cultural milieu. Besides, he had other qualities that distracted me from the central issues. He was charming, funny, self-deprecating at just the right moments, creative and bright. He was the star of almost every get-together.

In my mind, I was his friend. But when push came to shove and the whining became not only endless but destructive, I could support neither the decision he made nor the way he made it -- self-righteously, thoughtlessly and hatefully. Does that make me less a friend? I don't think so. If anything, it might be the other way around. Perhaps he was less of a friend than I had imagined, and the relationship was based only on my unwavering approval of whatever he did -- right or wrong, good or bad, wise or foolish. He wanted a mirror with a smiley face slapped on top of it, not a separate person with thoughts and ideas and principles of her own.

There are points at which we all have to take stock of what is happening in a relationship. These reviews occur all the time, like anti-virus software running in the background, constantly assessing whether something is dangerous or not, whether it should be let in or not, whether something that has been let in should be escorted out. But occasionally, there are precipitants that make the examination more urgent, and we are red-flagged.Toxic venting is one of them.

The way we can tell we're the object of a toxic vent is when we begin to get a sense that we are about as important in the relationship as the chair we're sitting on, that there's nothing personal about the conversation, and if our companion were not venting to us, she'd be venting to a stack of two-by-fours. We have been objectified. We can't get a word in edgewise. We're quickly dismissed if we do not become a part of the venter's consensus. We might even find ourselves bored or subtly angered by the nature of the monologue. It's usually not a pleasant sensation. Even if we're not conscious it's happening, we can feel something is wrong.

The people who are best at this sort of venting are narcissists. Not only are they good at it, but they use conversation very deftly to satisfy themselves, not to engage another mind, or to learn, or to understand or even to actually converse. They are not much interested in the reception of their ideas, unless it is their own reception of applause or commiseration that fuels their distorted self-image. And they may not even be interested in hearing the confirmation, "You're right" because, Lord knows, they're not worried about that. Their venting is self-centered, even idolatrous. In it they become their own tin gods and everything they do is righteous. It's the rest of the world (us) that has the problem.

The priest who wrote to me mentioned what he called the "counter-point" to this toxic venting: reflective silence. He explained that when couples come to him either before marriage or with marital issues, he encourages silent communion between the two individuals. And I thought, "Now that's a rare idea."

How many times do we sit quietly after a fight, or a clash of wills, or a failure of performance or an injustice? How easy is it for us to be silent with ourselves, wait for wisdom, examine our consciences or our accountability for the way things sometimes turn out?

It's barely within most of our repertoires. It's certainly not my first inclination, and I don't think I'm that different from most people in the country. Most of the time, we react. We talk too much, think too much, pace too much or drink too much. Sometimes, we fight. Sometimes, we do worse. And we do it all fast.

Narcissistic venting is the perfect opposite of reflective silence. It hides in its own verbose self-pity and anger. If we don't join in the tirade, the claw of accusation gets turned against us. Our friendship, decency, attitude and compassion all get called into question.

Allowing ourselves to be used as emotional dumping grounds doesn't do our friends much good, even if they think it does, even if they feel ever so much better after they've drained the sludge out of themselves and spilled it onto us. Ultimately, it makes us both worse -- spiritually, psychologically and physically.

How to Stop Listening

At first I thought that would be the simplest part. After all, wouldn't a simple to say, "Can we talk about something else?" or, "Enough," or a blunt, "Be quiet and let me speak"? I thought that even a tersely phrased opinion would suffice: "Instead of complaining, what are you going to do?" To not listen, all we'd have to do is stand up (figuratively or literally), right? Eventually, they'd say, "Oh, so sorry I got carried away like that." And then we'd sit back down, and all would be well.

Not so with narcissists. People who have so much secondary gain invested in their problems are not easily weaned off of them -- even when a relationship is at stake, even when their own happiness and health are hanging in the balance. Sometimes, standing up can require that we also be ready to walk out.

On introspection, I saw that it was not all that simple for the same reasons it's hard to tell a narcissist "no." In order to do so, we have to let them go, including their opinions of us. We have to see them and the situation for what it really is. Sometimes that means seeing that they weren't really in the same relationship we were. Or that we were at cross purposes the whole time. And that can be painful.

In a healthier relationship, it would be possible to say, "When you complain about things and aren't willing to do anything about them, it frustrates me. I want to help you, but I only see you going around in circles." Or, "I know he's not the best boss (or husband or friend), but he doesn't seem to be changing right now. So, is there something you can do differently?" The person may feel wounded or frustrated, but the relationship -- being more flexible and adaptable -- would survive, and some new limits would be drawn. Both people might even learn something. That's never easy or comfortable, but it's do-able.

With narcissists and toxic-venters, it's different. When they are "wounded," it's always mortal, and we are always to blame. The only way out, unless you would rather make peace with the toxicity, is out.

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