Monday, March 28, 2011

Demystification: Is Venting Really a Good Idea?

Last week was intense. For some reason, I found myself discussing anger management--for both children and adults--with several people.

And one thing I heard, possibly five or six times, went something like this: "Maybe we can get him to go punch a pillow."

It wasn't surprising. You've probably heard it, too. And it makes decent sense. When you're angry, don't take it out on a person, take it out on a pillow. Or a punching bag. Or some other inanimate object that sits around all day just asking to be pummeled.

I suppose, if the choice is between hitting a person or hitting an inanimate object, smacking a pillow sounds pretty smart.

It's a popular idea, embedded deep in our culture. There are even a few therapies based on this idea, which was in part legitimized by Freud with his concept of "catharsis". Maybe you've heard of "primal therapy" or perhaps "primal screams"? Yeah. I'm not sure I'd ever want to do a kind of therapy where I encouraged people to let all their deeply buried pain out in a volcanic explosion of unbridled emotion (I'd much rather have them identify the root of the problem and deal with it constructively). In truth, most of these therapies are pretty outmoded at this point, but that doesn't mean the ideas behind them aren't still with us.

As an example, check out this clip from a golf invitational, which presents its "club throwing competition" to help players "get the anger out." This idea is everywhere, from movies like Anger Management and Analyze This to certain toys (that have now been discontinued by the manufacturer) that encourage people to choke the life out of a doll dressed up as a boss.

But does venting really dispel anger? Does letting it blow, getting it ALL out there, result in some sort of cathartic release, emptying you of your rage and leaving the rational you intact?

Research suggests ... nope. In fact, findings from lots of different studies indicate that the more you vent, the more prone to aggression you'll be. And yes, yes, of course you'll feel better shortly after you vent, but that might be because the normal progression of things is for intense emotions to disperse with time, no matter what you do. Saying that the venting itself CAUSES you to feel better might just be faulty logic.

Now, I'm not saying folks shouldn't express their anger. That can be healthy--but mostly if it comes with active, constructive problem-solving. Just screaming and yelling and punching and kicking without actually changing the circumstances is likely to lead to disappointing results.

So--are you a proponent of venting? Do pillows cringe as you walk by? What do you do to cope with anger and frustration? If you're a writer, you probably have your share of frustration, so what do you do with it?

Be sure to check out Lydia's Medical Monday post and Laura's Mental Health Monday post!


  1. Seriously? A toy that you strangle dressed as a boss? Okay, that is a little sick. :) I write stress away. It's more socially accepted to do mean things to awful people in fiction. That's okay. Right? LOL

  2. I believe parents need to teach their children how to process the feelings that cause anger. Angry children grow up to be angry adults. If venting is just whining, OK...but hostile behavior even against a pillow, not.

  3. My anger and frustration is usually vented into writing...which is probably why I write horror. Ha! Kidding...or am I?? In all seriousness, I usually play a mindless computer game and song really loud. Also beer and whiskey is usually involved. I do like going to the range but that's when I'm in a good mood. I don't know what that says about me, but I don't really care either. Lol!

  4. So you mean smashing the computer when I'm mad doesn't work? Oops. ;)-

    Seriously, though, this is SO TRUE.

    When I get frustrated, I usually have to take a step back and evaluate what's going on. It gives me time to dissipate anger and find a solution to the problem.

    Great post!

  5. You guys wanna see something funny? Check out "destructotherapy" from Spain:

    They equip folks with safety gear and sledgehammers and encourage them to destroy various things while listening to heavy metal music.

    It's as frightening as it is hilarious.

  6. You know, other than talking to family and close friends, I don't do much in the way of venting. It doesn't help me. I remember in college during finals there was this ring called "primal scream" where you were all supposed to go outside at the same time and literally scream to vent your stress. All it did was give me a headache;) good post!

  7. Oh, boy--do I ever vent! My problem is that I normally let my anger and frustration fester until I explode like that volcano. I don't pummel a pillow or throw a golf club. I scream and lash out at generall the first person I come across (my poor husband). All the anger spews out and is directed at that one person, no matter who caused it to begin with. If feels good to get it "out", but then I feel like crap because the person it got "out" on isn't the reason I was so bent out of shape. I need something more constructive.


  8. Depending on how angry I really am, I cry. That's how I vent. It's the overwhelming frustration of not being able to do anything about the situation (yet) that finds me weeping. Once I get that out of the way, then I can take a look at what it is about the situation I can change. Great post.

  9. this has made me think of lots of things...
    while i don't think that anyone would disagree with the fact that healthy venues to vent are optimal, i actually don't know if this kind of extreme "venting" is always wrong.

    hear me out. first off, i don't think this "primal scream" stuff should be called venting. i think of venting as a completely healthy moderate practice of releasing emotional tension in a socially aceptable venue, such as the arts or talking it out with a friend.

    just like in your house- the vents funnel the hot air and direct it towards the living spaces. they enable the flame to serve a beneficial purpose by allowing it an outlet to disperse it's warmth (passion) as well as an inlet to keep the light burning- as opposed to becoming a cold, dark, dead place. venting is not the full blast of the flame- or the denial of the breath of life... does that make sense?

    anyway, i believe that some people have built their duct work better than others. some had a master plummer (ok, i'm amittedly not handy so i don't really know who does the actual ductwork-it was a plummer in our house so we'll go with that. :P) who laid most of it in for them, and all they need to do is minor maintenance to keep in healthy functioning order. these people may very well be the majority of society.

    on the other hand, some people may have had a negligent or abusive or ignorant plummer who- for whatever reason- made their ductwork all screwy- or not supplied them with any ductwork, and they have a lifetime of tearing down and rebuilding along with the maintenance and whatnot to eventually arrive at a place where they can effectively heat their house.

    in other cases, it could be a condition a person is born with that could result in outbursts. i think of the amazing carly fleischman who writes of feeling like a shaken up soda can and that sometimes all she can do is burst.

    sometimes, i fear that those whose ductwork isn't yet finalized are in danger of having their furnaces explode-- too much oxygen intake and no viable outlet... so, screaming or punching a pillow or running off a stream of profanities in private are prefferable behaviours than other more destructive ones.

    i don't know. usually, people who need these kinds of outbursts have other things they are figuring out how to handle as well as their anger. and it's preferable to me to have compassion and dole out encouragement than to joke about them for falling short of the optimal outlet for release...

    i know i'm not saying it right, but you get what i mean, right?

  10. I guess the thing that scares me is what if you get used to "venting" by punching a pillow, and in a major meltdown, there's no pillow nearby but only your boss's face in front of you? That's what scares me.

    Great post, Sarah!

  11. Great post! I also really enjoyed reading the comments and various opinions.:)

  12. Ummm...I live with a teenager. I'm going to have him read this. ;)

  13. Thanks for the comments, everyone! For those of you who say you write to cope with anger, me too! But if I'm too angry or upset, of course, it doesn't work. There's a certain point where intense emotion impairs my rationality.

    To aspiring_x--I responded to you by email, but I wanted to share a bit of what I said here, because you make such good points. I like the analogy of the actual vent, though there's a certain point at which metaphor ceases to match life exactly. I work with children and adults who experience significant dysregulation, and I work with them to build on their strengths and use those things to help them better cope with the challenges they are facing. I would never, ever joke about them, or about that. I'm concerned if I gave that impression.

    What I WAS poking at, however, is professionals who use this form of therapy to "help" people. See, I have a VERY strong opinion that it is the responsibility of helping professionals to stay current with the literature and pay attention to what research says. In this case, the evidence points to venting actually having the opposite effect to what's intended. And that's not just one study. It's numerous studies, all pointing to the same conclusion. Therefore, I don't think that type of treatment has any place in practice.

    When people come to therapy, they expect and deserve to not have their time and money wasted. They expect and deserve to be helped. They make themselves vulnerable because they believe it will be worth it. I can't imagine a more serious obligation than the one we have when that happens. And I admit, it makes me quite frustrated when mental health professionals persist in practices that have been shown to fall short (or even be counteractive). I hope that makes sense!

  14. The thing with emotions, especially ones like anger or resentment, is that if you don't express them somehow, in a responsible manner, they're going to find a way to express themselves, soon enough, usually in an irresponsible manner.

    I'm not a proponent of hitting pillows, though.

  15. sarah!!! sweetie!!! i didn't mean that's what i thought you were doing!!! i knew i wasn't saying it right! eeks!
    i'll email you in a little while!
    i'm sorry sweetie! i didn't mean to make you think i was saying that! you know the mad respect i have for you! :)

  16. I vent. I think its helpful, like tiny little quakes that stave off the Big One.
    Edge of Your Seat Romance

  17. I believe the more you vent the more you are likely to not let things go. So one day, you throw a pillow. Years from that day, when the pillow doesn't work anymore, do you throw the dog? I always follow Yoda in times like this. "Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering." And when people completely give in to aggression, we all suffer!

  18. Maybe we should look at why a person would be so filled with angry emotion in the first place. I know for myself personally, when I begin to have angry dreams or am in danger of losing my temper at work, I know I have crossed a line somewhere and need to take a breather or make some changes. I have found venting only leads to bad consequences in the long run.

  19. Awesome post as always. And really great point! Just getting the physical out doesn't eliminate the cause.

  20. I remember once throwing a strudy nokia mobile phone multiple times to the point that it broke, when I was angry. After the destruction, I felt relieved.

  21. It seems fairly logical to me that encouraging people to throw golf clubs or strangle boss-dolls -- or stick pins in voodoo dolls, for that matter -- really just encourages and reinforces aggressive behavior! Humans develop habits based on their behavior, don't they?

    The club throwing competition is just sad. Why show off bad behavior? Ugh!

  22. Interesting... I would be lying if I said I'd never broken something in frustration. But the destruction is usually so satisfying--and I end up cleaning up, laughing at how stupid I was, and able to see a little more clearly. BUT it doesn't get rid of the problem...

  23. Love this post. People who vent constantly are exhausting to be around. And it seems to feed on itself. Having said that, yikes! We all need to vent sometimes. When I'm too upset to be able to write it out, the only thing that seems to help is going for a long walk to get the oxygen flowing freely, and letting myself mutter like a bag lady for a while (but not too long). Thanks for your insights. I feel a bit better about my feelings on this subject now.

  24. I'm in trouble. I do major venting, mostly to my husband. There's no punching involved. I find that when I hold something in, it just festers until I'm even more angry than I started. Of course, like you said, the smart thing to do would be to talk it out.

  25. hi miss sarah! for me i dont get real mad so much. when i do first i wanna be left alone and i dont wanna talk to anyone. i get past it by reading or coloring or drawing or playing a computer game but not a shooting or war game. maybe a word game. sometimes i just do some of my tai chi stuff or go on a walk in the woods. i get not mad anymore pretty fast. after that me and one if my brothers or my sister could talk on how come i got mad. my mom used to say "never let the sun set on your anger" so us guys dont never hold stuff til the next day.
    ...hugs from lenny

  26. I curse. There's an old cartoon of Yosemite Sam locking himself in a closet and letting loose--that's me.

  27. Well that was really helpful, thanks.
    I am always encouraging my kids to kick the bed or the pillows (rather than me) when they get really frustrated. I say "you can't break things or hurt people, but you can hit a pillow."
    Now, mind you, we also do deep-breathing and I always sit with them in the rocking chair, cuddle and chat about the feelings they were having and why (and apologize for my own behavior if necessary--which is often enough as I may well say things and do things I regret when dealing with a nasty tantrum).
    What about that? Venting, then slower processing? Is the venting helpful or not? These are young children--3 and 6--and tantrums are the go-to response to anger at that age (well, for the 3 year old, anyway--less often for the 6-year old).

  28. This post has made me a follower of your blog :-)

    Some of our kids have had anger and attachment issues, and my wife and I have often discussed what to do about it. We never felt very good about the "hit a pillow" idea, but it seemed a lot better than the child's normal behavior of "hit a brother" or "break something Mommy and Daddy really care about".

    I think you're right, though. I haven't seen venting help them any. It seems the anger goes away whether they vent or not, but some forms of venting are more destructive than others.

    Giving them time to calm down, then talk with us about it, seems to work best. The difficult thing is when they can't calm down without screaming or (in the most extreme cases) hurting themselves.

    Anyway, thank you. You've given me a lot to think about :-)