Call me an idealist, but I truly believe, even on a bad day, that life is good. There is always something to be grateful for, something to look forward to, or something to smile about. I am certain of this. So then why is it easier to think and talk about our problems instead of the good in our lives? We have all uttered the phrase “I just need to vent.” Many of us, myself included, use venting as a free pass to complain, express anger, drown in our sorrows — you all know the drill. But we tell ourselves that venting is healthy and necessary. It is an effective method of catharsis…right? Maybe not.
We have all experienced moments or stretches of time when life seems to be failing us. Perhaps your partner is driving you crazy or you are unhappy with your job. Whatever the situation may be, when things don’t go our way we have a habit of talking about it to anyone who will listen. We talk about how bad things are, how frustrated we are and how worried we are that nothing will ever change. But is this really the best way to handle the tough stuff? To answer this question I decided to pay closer attention to the aftermath of my words and actions.
As I became more mindful of how I spoke and what I spoke about, I realized that venting often left me feeling worse. Venting about my bad day exaggerated, rather than calmed, my initial emotion of frustration or sadness. Psychological studies have also proven that venting and expressing anger results in increased, rather than decreased, anger and aggression. Unfortunately, however, venting is a reflexive response for many of us. I was so addicted to venting that I could easily turn a bad five minutes into a bad day. My own experience and scientific research told me that venting was bad for me, but I couldn’t stop. It wasn’t until I replaced venting with a good habit that I was able to change.
In The Power of Habit, business reporter Charles Duhigg explores the science of habit. He explains that habits are a sum of a cue, a routine and a reward. In my case, my venting habit consisted of a negative situation (the cue), talking about this situation incessantly (the routine) and a temporary feeling of relief (the reward). The problem with my reward was that it was short lived. That sense of relief I felt from getting something off my chest was momentary. I usually vented beyond the point of relief, until I was exhausted and more upset. Nevertheless, the habit persisted.
Duhigg also explains that in order to change a habit, we must keep the old cue and the old reward, but change the routine. For a smoker this would mean finding a substitute for cigarettes at the onset of a nicotine craving. For me, this meant replacing venting with speaking about my joys. Talking about things that interest and excite me has become my greatest weapon against my venting addiction. The cues are still there, but I have replaced the habit. Now at the end of the day I speak about good moments and what I am looking forward to instead of focusing on what may have gone wrong. Not only did this make me happier, but it made the people around me happier too. The effort to kick this bad habit was worth it.
Now just because I stopped venting doesn’t mean there wasn’t anything to vent about. There always will be. But it’s how we interpret these moments that counts. To be clear here, I am not advocating for a complete shutdown of all emotions. It is important to acknowledge when something or someone has upset you, but it’s when we get stuck on these moments that we run into trouble. I am a big fan of the Headspace app, which provides guided meditation led by Andy Puddicombe. During meditation sessions he uses a technique called noting. Noting is “simply labeling our thoughts and experiences, making it easier to let go of thoughts.” Andy encourages his audience to “note” rather than ignore or perseverate on a moment of anxiety or sadness when meditating. We can do this throughout our day too. Yes, you may be annoyed by your job or frustrated with a friend, but instead of talking about it for hours on end, try acknowledging that you feel that way, note that what you are experiencing is frustration or stress, and then move on. Talk about your joys. Trust me, you will be better off.
So why is venting so common and borderline advocated for? I don’t know for sure, but I suspect it’s because venting is easy to partake in and hard to give up. To truly give up venting requires an immense amount of self control, but I found it was easier to do when I substituted it with something else to talk about. If you can truly avoid the temptation to vent about all the pesky annoyances you come across, you will notice positive change. Of course there are times that life hands us problems so large that a simple substitution of emotions won’t do the trick. When that is the case it is always best to consult professional help. But for life’s daily turbulences, we would all be better off focusing on the good in our day rather than emphasizing the bad.
After much trial and error I was able to break my venting addiction. I am happier, calmer and on my way to becoming my best self. It requires discipline, but I am convinced that this shift in focus is a key ingredient to happiness. Now join me on this one and start watching your words too. It will make the world a happier place for all of us.
Bushman, BJ. Does venting anger feed or extinguish the flame? Catharsis, rumination, distraction, anger and aggressive responding. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. June 2002, vol. 28 no. 6 724–731.
Duhigg, Charles. The power of habit: why we do what we do in life and business. New York: Random House, 2012.
Trying the noting technique? Watch this video. Retrieved January 15, 2017, from https://www.headspace.com/blog/2015/11/04/noting-technique-video/
Originally published at medium.com