Bonding by venting: Because tearing things down together is a shared activity

December 16 | Guest post by Mina Kelly
Colour Talk
Photo by: garryknight – CC BY 2.0

People bond by venting. If you think about it, venting about something that's bugging you gives you a feeling of release, and it's easy to get hooked to that feeling. You start venting instead of "enthusing," because it's less risky…

People might criticize the thing you're excited about, and bring you down. But if you're being critical you're already safe from that let-down. Plus you can get the positive reinforcement of other people criticizing it too.

Often times, you don't even realize how much you're doing it, until it starts weaseling into your way of thinking. Or until you start bringing yourself down, and you have to make a real, active effort to stop. And part of that effort usually results in becoming distanced from other negative people, because now you're bringing them down by disagreeing with them about their venting.

For example, I knew a couple of people at my old job who were excessively negative. What got me about both of them was that they could see it in each other, but not in themselves. There was a lot of sniping about not getting promotions because they felt picked on "and it's not like I'm always putting this place down, unlike some people."

Even with stuff they loved, it wasn't, "I found a great salon!" It was, "all the other salons are crap." If you said, "I love your necklace," you got "I hated the seller, and the price, and the packaging, and that it wasn't as nice as this other necklace I couldn't afford."

When you would point out to them that they were being negative, it was always, "well, but this thing deserves it." Or, "but not as negative as so-and-so." If you didn't agree they'd keep changing the subject until they found something you also felt negatively about (or walk off to find someone else).

I'd be loath to describe either as depressed (though obviously it's a possibility) because in a lot of respects both were quite cheerful about being negative. It was how they had learned to bond with people. And it worked for them!

And while negativity is a great social tool — tearing things down together is a shared activity! — it's just also very, very damaging. Even if you're not depressed, the person you're tearing things down with might be, and they're not going to walk away from a negative conversation with the same little endorphin rush that you may have innocently got from it.

It's hard to move a friendship on when it's started with negativity, but if you can find something to enthuse about together, sometimes it's possible.

What do y'all think about bonding by venting? Super-fun? Harmless? Super-annoying? Let's vent about it together…

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  1. Wow, thank you so much for this article. I am both guilty of the negativity rush myself and in the boat of being annoyed by overly negative coworkers. This is a good reminder of how it can impact your own life and those around you. Good stuff.

    8 agree
  2. I'm struggling with this with my spouse right now. For the first time ever yesterday, I would rather not talk to them than hear the word "SUUUUUUCKS" yet again. Neither of us are overly chipper positive people, but I miss being in the neutral zone!
    We didn't start out this way, but we used venting a lot to get through a tough time in our lives… and now that that phase is over, I can't seem to get us back to neutral.

    6 agree
    • From time to time my husband and I fall into this bad habit and it brings us both down.
      To break the cycle of negativity, we each started sharing the best and worst part of our days (one each, no more, no less). It forced us to find positivity in the bad days, as well as appreciate the good days when the worst part really isn't that bad at all.

  3. I think it depends on the nature of the venting. Three of my favorite people and I met each other while working at the same toxic, harrowing workplace. Being able to vent about our abusive boss and the soul-crushing nature of our work truly bonded us and helped us stay sane in a miserable situation. We remained close after leaving those jobs, and fifteen years later we have strong, healthy, positive friendships that are not defined by the venting that brought us together.

    2 agree
  4. This is a big part of why I turned to Buddhism. I got tired of getting attention from my friends and husband by complaining, but I couldn't seem to get their attention any other way. Taking myself out of that cycle of negativity and bubble of their company and putting myself in a sanga full of people who were committed to living positively had a wonderful impact on my life. I've heard that you're most the five people you spend the most time with, so I work harder now to surround myself with people who make me happy and make me want to talk about joy instead of gripe.

    9 agree
    • I love this, Cassie! Were there any books or other resources that were useful to you? I've been doing some reading about agnostic buddhism myself lately, and would love to hear about materials you enjoyed.

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      • My favorite Buddhist book is The Joy of Living by Youngey Mingyur Rinpoche. His descriptions of how to separate one's emotions from the object of the emotions (the emotion of anger is not the object of my husband) have really helped me deal with my feelings, especially during arguments. He focuses on a lot of things that modern psychology and science reinforce, which helped me with my skepticism.
        I also kept a version of the Five Precepts as my computer wallpaper for a long time, and that reminder of my goals helped me remember to watch my tongue.

        2 agree
        • Great recommendation. I've been reading Pema Chodran who mentions Youngey Mingyur Rinpoche a lot, so I snagged his book too!

          2 agree
  5. This is something I need to be mindful of!
    I generally go to my husband to vent because he's always there and knows me best. But I do have to remember that it's tiring, and constantly being negative won't be good for us. Recently, I've started banning certain topics if I see that I'm just too overwhelmed with negativity. That usually means no venting about work right when I get home! I don't always need to, but sometimes it works out better to just come home from a hard day and *leave it at the door* instead of venting. I know he appreciates it too 🙂

    3 agree
    • This is so true. I gave a public talk related to my work recently and my Husband surprised me by coming along. Afterwards, he said he enjoyed it so much because it helped him understand exactly what I do and how cool my job is. Turns out, all I'd ever told him about my job were negative things like office politics and stress! It made me realise how much I offload on him about the negative without telling him about the positive things too! And you're right about it being tiring (for both of us).

      1 agrees
  6. Yes! I also think that venting is often a cover for true vulnerability over things that really do make us feel negative. Sometimes, we're venting because it feels safer than being enthusiastic, and sometimes we're venting because it feels safer than really laying bare the depth of our negative emotions. There are things that genuinely make us feel crappy (like being passed over for promotions) that we really do need to share with others, but the vulnerability of admitting true hurt and insecurity in these times is much harder than just engaging in a good long vent. And like you pointed out, the vent may temporarily make us feel better, but it very rarely leaves us feeling connected to and understood by our peers because we've very rarely truly opening up about how we're really feeling when we do so.

    9 agree
  7. I think venting is a super necessary tool for coping BUT it has to be in small doses. I come home and vent about my day to my boyfriend, but then it's done, and it's off my chest. I can move on to better stuff.

    I may vent about how frustrated I am with my band mate, but once we start rehashing it over and over it stops being useful and becomes hurtful.

    Like so many things, its about moderation, and making sure you aren't Johnny One Note.

    5 agree
  8. Oof. My boyfriend and I are in graduate school, which is a breeding ground for stress and insecurity. I have good days and bad days. On the bad days, it helps my imposter syndrome immensely to know other people feel the same way. On the good days, I can't stand any sort of venting.

    I'd be happy to rid myself of venting entirely if I could find something that felt as satisfying for a bad mood. Bad thoughts just tumble around in my head, repeating over and over and getting heavier and heavier until I just say them out loud.

    1 agrees
    • You might want to try replacing venting with a gratitude practice. This really changed my life. Instead of focusing energy on stuff that's annoying/stressful, I've shifted to focusing on what's good, what's uplifting, and what I'm grateful for throughout the day. I actually started keeping a gratitude journal, a tiny notebook that I carried around with me and wrote down the good stuff. There was always something that went into that notebook, every day, no matter how small. Sometimes it was little stuff like, "I'm grateful that they nailed my coffee order" or "I'm grateful for kitty snuggles", and sometimes bigger stuff like, "I'm grateful my boyfriend opened up and deeply shared emotionally". I would read it over at the end of the day. Even on the shittiest days, there would be something I had written down that was good about the day. Over time, it literally completely shifted everything for me. I have so much more life satisfaction. I actually don't vent like I used to (which was often) and also find it pretty draining when others want to vent. After they are done venting, I'll ask, "So what was good about today?" or something along those lines…hoping it can help shift things for them too. Don't take my word for it though, give it a whirl for yourself and see what happens. I was a skeptic in the beginning, and now a total convert.

      6 agree
  9. I find venting to be positive and negative.

    In an old job I would vent about things and people, while it was good to be reassured and talk about how it wasn't unique to me, sometimes a coworker would believe that I had exactly the same feelings as them and validated there dislike and negative attitude. I had to work at not doing it towards the individual and changing that interaction.

    In my personal life I have gone through venting (bitching) as a coping method but found I was getting into a very negative head space as mentioned in other comments above, I found turning it into a story or speaking the emotions behind it helped alter how I felt about it, I would also give a follow up later that I felt better about the situation or managed to change it.

    1 agrees
  10. Great article. I think it’s so important to recognise the difference between talking about something that has happened that is bad and the kind of venting which either just dumps your shit onto someone else (of course you feel better after, you’ve literally just voided) or which involves circling over whatever it is not really requiring any input form your listener and actually ending up more hurt/angry then before you started talking about whatever has happened. I agree it can be very hard to move on from friendships started like this. I do however have many good friendships that have started over mutal supportive bonding over adversity, that’s perfectly healthy as far as I’m concerned! I also think especially amongst women it’s one of the primary ways we get to know other women.

    However I have had to end one that looked like that in the beginning but in fact the other person didn’t like it when things started to go better for me and I was less interested in bitching. When I got to a place where I was less angry about the things we both used to bitch about and was beginning to heal and move on, this person didn’t like it AT ALL. I tried to be sympathetic to their pain and offer the uncritical listening I so value myself but each time I received another bucket load of vent emptied over my head it seemed wrong to not try and very gently and as kindly as I could, highlight the obvious positives this person was wilfully ignoring. If I did this it was met with anger and I would be argued with until I warily gave in. Eventually our interactions became exhausting, fraught and guilt ridden, I felt bad this person was still hurting and bad that I really didn’t want to be around them anymore because when I was with them I just had to go along with everything they said or risk a blow up. Finally it all came to a head when I stood my ground about an interpretation of a situation they wanted to bitch about and which concerned a mutual friend and was summoned to a meeting where I was accused of being a bad friend and not supportive enough and told I had to shape up or else. I took the freedom offered and walked, I felt bad that this person was still in pain but they were not interested in moving on in any way and only wanted my company as a venting receptacle and as a stand in for the people they were really angry with and who they had no intention of confronting. I was actually enabling them.

    I think Sarah hit the nail on the head a few posts up; the unhelpful, scab picking, shit dumping venting is precisely about not sharing true vulnerability, it’s about self-protection, denial and before this sounds too judgemental we are all more than capable of doing it under pressure to some extent. It is the exact opposite of a pair of good friends offering each other support and a shoulder to cry on, the not-good venting is really a only one-way process, even when two people are doing it at each other they are not really connecting. For me a good friend is someone who can listen but call me on overly negative interpretations , gently, supportively (and I’m a big fan of with humour). That’s something I want to receive in my life and something I want to give out too.

    2 agree
    • Thank you for Posting! The novel was worth it! I just had a fallout with a very similar type of friend. I'm done complaining, my life is better, they just want the holding pattern and will take any shots at me possible to control my behavior as inferior to them as well. How dare I move on from my money problems or cope with stress better.

      I love your line: " … only wanted my company as a venting receptacle and as a stand in for the people they were really angry with and who they had no intention of confronting. " THIS a thousand times! Thank you for wording it that way!

  11. I agree completely that venting is necessary at times, but can become habitual and toxic. I have a friend who is terribly unhappy and finds something negative to say about almost everything. I am trying to be a good friend to her, but I have to limit my time with her and then watch my attitude after so I don't "catch" the negative bug. I continue to be her friend because she has many good qualities and I hope to see her find happiness. There was a time in my life when I realized I was that person, so I know it is possible to change.

    For me, the balance comes from my cousin, who is my perfect "venting partner". When I vent to her she will be sympathetic for awhile. Then she will find something outrageously funny to say about the situation to make me laugh & this puts things in perspective. That is usually the end of the vent and then we move on to more fun and interesting topics. I can usually do the same for her when she needs to vent. Unfortunately it just doesn't work that way with my husband. He is overwhelmed by it and wants to fix it when really, all I need is a good laugh.

    2 agree

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