While griping to friends, peers or loved ones about work can feel cathartic in the moment, research shows it may not be all that productive
Take a breath before you blow your lid.
While venting excessively to friends, peers or loved ones about an intolerable boss, colleague or subordinate can feel cathartic in the moment, it may not be all that productive: A 2017 study in the European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, for example, linked low “sportsmanship” — i.e., putting up with workplace annoyances and discomforts without complaining — with diminished positive affect and engagement. On the other hand, the authors wrote, “withholding complaints on days that negative daily events happened worked to minimize their impact.”
Research 10 years earlier also found venting could backfire: “In study after study, the conclusion was the same: Expressing anger does not reduce aggressive tendencies and likely makes it worse,” University of Arkansas psychologist Jeffrey Lohr and his colleagues wrote in a chapter for the 2007 book “Anger, Aggression, and Interventions for Interpersonal Violence.” “If venting really does get anger ‘out of your system,’ then venting should result in a reduction of both anger and aggression. Unfortunately for catharsis theory, the results showed precisely the opposite effect.”
“Venting is kind of like an out-loud ruminating that can keep us stuck in negativity and the negative emotion longer rather than noticing it, letting it go and then being more solution-focused,” workplace psychologist Christine Allen told Moneyish. “In general … (complaining) tends to make people feel worse and not better. It tends to make the person that they’re complaining to feel worse as well.”
Tyree Rush, a 24-year-old development assistant at a talent management company, says he used to be a venter — but discovered it wasn’t super helpful in a field that binds employees by nondisclosure agreements and where friends and family lack the full context to fully understand your grievances. “The anger I had hoped to assuage was merely exacerbated by an inability to express my misgivings,” he told Moneyish in an email. “Once I decided that I would not vent about work to my friends/family and only focus on the positive aspects I had to figure out a way to deal with the stress.”
For Rush, that meant writing down his experiences in a journal. Articulating and documenting his gripes allowed him to catalog his problems, he said — “allowing me to develop a better sense of how to proceed and ultimately alleviating some of the stress I feel by creating a reasonable way to effect change.”
But Sarah Johnson, a public relations specialist for FitSmallBusiness.com, says she found venting beneficial. A “certifiably crazy” micromanager at her former PR agency, the 49-year-old told Moneyish, drove her and her then-coworkers to kvetch constantly both in and out of work.
“If you’re in one of those job situations where it’s hell, and your other coworkers are experiencing that same hell … I think talking about it, especially with other people who are in it, is very helpful,” Johnson said. Plus, she argued, the anger that arises can actually propel you to “make a change for the better”: She and her coworkers, she said, all ultimately left and landed in better jobs.
Also read: Here’s how to stop being a jerk boss
If quitting your job isn’t an option — and you can’t quit venting either — here are some expert-recommended alternatives that may prove more beneficial long-term. (Both experts distinguish between simply getting something off your chest and spiraling into negativity.)
Get moving and take a walk or run around the block. “I think people don’t necessarily connect a physical solution — they’re often looking for a psychological solution,” workplace psychologist Karissa Thacker said. Take deep breaths, she added: “People make fun of it and say it in jest, but it really does work.”
Don’t give the subject of your gripes have power over you — especially when you’re off the clock. “Do you really want to let that person continue to rob you of your enjoyment, of your personal time?” Allen said. “If it eats away at you that way, then work is taking up way more of your life, maybe, than you want it to — and it’s robbing you of your joy and your wellbeing.”
Put a time limit on it. Complaining for five or 10 minutes is fine, Allen said, as long as you pivot to a more solution-oriented mindset afterward: “It’s really just about setting a boundary — it’s about concretely setting a time limit so you don’t allow yourself to go on and on,” she said. After you vent, resolve to let those feelings go and “actively, intentionally, purposefully try to shift into a different mode.”
Write down those negative feelings — and then get rid of them. “It gets it out of the rumination in your head,” Allen said, “because you’re putting it on to a concrete piece of paper” and then “symbolically, ritually letting it go.”
Seek counsel from someone further along in their career — even if they’ve only got three to five years on you — and ask how they’ve dealt with dissatisfaction at work, said Thacker. “Listen to how they do it and you’ll pick up tips,” she said. “But you know, honestly, the most powerful part of it is realizing that you’re not alone.”
Make a real connection. The onslaught of emails, conference calls and digital information can drain your energy and render you isolated and frustrated, Thacker said. Simply grabbing a cup of coffee can help alleviate that stress, she said: “It doesn’t have to take a ton of time — it can be three minutes at the coffee machine just to pause and have a real conversation with someone.”
Have checks and balances. If you’re trying to break the cycle of constant venting, Allen said, deputize a trusted confidante or partner to nudge you “in a nice way” when you start going down that road. “If I’ve given you permission to say that to me, then it could be helpful,” she said. “If it’s a bad habit, which venting can be, then how do I even realize it at the time (and) catch myself?”
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