by Hayley Doyle
It’s so simple.
Yet, how often do we act upon this?
When somebody we care for is upset, it feels instinctive to try and offer them a solution. But what if they just need to let off steam? Have a total blow-out? The outcome of a big venting session can release tension and cause much good in the long term, but is there a stigma attached to venting? Is it categorised with plain old moaning?
I think we should all take a minute to give a little love to Team Vent. The underdog.
Helen Hunt won the Best Actress Oscar for playing Carol, a single mother with a chronically ill son, in the movie, As Good As It Gets. The year was 1998, but I remember watching the clip that showcased Hunt’s Oscar-winning performance, a scene which has forever stayed with me. Carol is writing a thank you letter, obsessively trying to get it perfect, and Carol’s mum Beverly just wants them both to go out, “Like people do,” she insists. But Carol ignores her and continues to write, frustrated. Beverly presses on, dishing out unwanted advice, all with good intentions. Carol’s frustrations intensify. So Beverly pauses, changes tactic. She allows Carol to… vent. Helen Hunt nails this moment, with real tears and embarrassment and relief and shock and bravery. At one point, Beverly tries to intervene, to help. “LEAVE ME BE!” Carol yells, and continues to vent until it’s all out in the open; the good, the bad and the ugly. The next time Beverly suggests that they go out, Carol answers calmly, “Okay.” And off they go.
Dr. Mark Goulston, psychiatrist and award-winning coach, writes for the Harvard Business Review. In a recent article, he says, “When people are upset, it matters less what you tell them than what you enable them to tell you. After they get their feelings off their chest, that’s when they can then have a constructive conversation with you. And not before.”
Having worked for myself for a long time, I do vent behind closed doors, i.e to my husband. I don’t have the luxury of colleagues to let off steam with. Don’t get me wrong, being your own boss has its perks. Except when my head gets into a chocker-block state, he gets the brunt of it. This can cause an argument for one reason only; my husband wants to fix whatever I am venting about. But because there isn’t a fix - a fix that he can personally fix - he reacts negatively. Whether in the form of a sigh, an outburst or - my least favourite - silence, he takes on my problems with the attitude of solving them, and hates his incapacity to do so. Last week, I was overwhelmed. My head had reached its limit of being crammed with an unhealthy cocktail of To-Dos and Anxiety. No linear or constructed sentences exist in this state, only a jumble of words and pictures and scenarios both real and fake. When this happens, I start talking. Venting. Bit by bit, things start to make sense. Some parts sounds silly and I welcome a mix of relief and shame; maybe things aren’t quite so bad. Then, there’s the flip side. I might voice a worry that feels heavy and valid, and it resonates with my husband; he understands. Although, he doesn’t have the answer. In this instance, I don’t want him to say, “I don’t know how to help,” or “What do you want me to do about it?” Please, just nod and say, “I get it.” Then, a hug wouldn’t go amiss either.
Oh! Can we now take a moment to appreciate the power of a hug?
There is no advice in a hug. No judgement. Just human connection. Just, love.
Anyway, he’s a good egg, my husband. He listens to me vent a lot. I actively encourage him to do the same, but hey, we’re working on that. And he’s not the only person who tries to offer advice and fix situations out of their depth. My mum, my ex, many of my friends… It’s a natural reaction to hearing a problem. But that’s the key; hearing. More so for the person speaking than the person listening, too! When unwanted thoughts are inside your head, they are mush. Released outwards into words, these thoughts become solid.
When I was pregnant with my first baby, I turned my nose up at the thought of playgroup. Ugh. Why would I want to spend my mornings in a cold church hall with broken toys and a bunch of “mums” I didn’t know? I had my own friends. Why would I need to become one of them? Oh, how little I knew. I will happily shout it from the mountaintops, “I was wrong!” Playgroup, with its endless tea and coffee and biscuits, with its chopped up grapes and apple toddler snacks, with its empty dolls houses and grey-blue-brown Play-Doh, with its sleeping lions and row-row-row your boats… IS. FOR. VENTING! Seriously, it’s the perfect place to blow off baby steam because everybody understands. They get it. Advice? Noooo. There’s no time for advice at playgroup. You can be the vent-er or the vent-ee and you still have to keep one eye on your kid not whacking - or being whacked by - another kid for taking the tricycle whilst not spilling your coffee on somebody else’s kid’s head. In a room where babies and toddlers are all as chaotic as each other, the grown-ups are also equally as chaotic. The difference being, the grown-ups are in complete solidarity, whereas the children are at war.
When it came to needing advice, WhatsApp groups with my new-found mum-mates became the holy grail for this. Nobody would bother to send unwanted advice because, frankly, what new parent has time for that? But it was a safe space to ask. On many occasions, the response would be, “Sorry, no advice here, I’m in the same boat!” or, “I feel your pain!” And honestly, this was enough. Suddenly becoming aware that I wasn’t doing something terribly wrong, if other mums were experiencing it too, was so much better than a thread of advice.
Clinical psychologist and bestselling author of Why Has Nobody Told Me This Before? Dr Julie Smith, says, “Don’t be tempted to give too much unsolicited advice, people are much less likely to act on advice if they haven’t asked for it”. If a friend reaches out to talk to you, it can seem plausible that it’s because they want your advice. However, if you do offer your words of wisdom and realise too late that it’s not welcome, the situation is going to race into awkward territory. Your job here might just be to listen.
I went out for dinner with a couple of friends shortly after one of the lockdowns. We didn’t have much to catch up on as such, we’d all been stuck inside juggling working from home with small children to entertain. However, we all had a lot of mixed emotions and tension that needed to be unleashed upon somebody who wasn’t our partner. We decided to each take it turns to throw our feelings onto the table and vent. It felt great. Then, one of my friends had a further issue to explore and our advice was welcomed. I’m not sure if it helped to fix the problem, but it helped her in that moment. Because she wanted our advice. She asked for it.
One final thought… When does venting turn into moaning? When the vent is repetitive? When the same problem keeps arising? When you’re stuck in a rut that you could possibly get yourself out of, but aren’t putting in the effort to shift? Thinking about it, I always feel better after venting. I gain clarity. A moan though? Nah. I don’t feel better at all. I feel worse. And that’s when you have to dig deep and create change. Ask for advice along the way if you need to. Remember people are more than willing to share their two pennies worth…