We Asked a Clinical Psychologist About the Best—and Worst—Ways to Vent Your Anger
When you're mad, is your first instinct to vent on social media?
We're seeing that happen more and more, which got us thinking about whether venting helps or actually makes things worse. That's why we reached out to clinical psychologist Camila Williams of Living Well CBT for some answers. The expert on anxiety and anger filled us in on the history of venting in therapy, as well as the modern approaches that can accomplish a lot more than an angry Insta post. Keep reading to discover more.
Sweety High: Where does the idea that we should vent our anger come from?
Camila Williams: Venting is an interesting area because psychology kind of got it wrong in the beginning. In the '70s and into the '80s, it was actually part of therapy for patients to let it all out in this cathartic release of anger. They'd punch a Bobo doll, scream into a pillow or swing a foam bat at their partner during couple's therapy.
The idea was that if you let out all of the anger, it'd make you feel better, and then you could make repairs. But what we've learned over time and through a lot of research is that when you let out all of that anger through venting or outbursts, it actually turns the anger into a habit. The mind learns that when you're feeling frustrated and have all this anger pent up inside you, you can feel better if you let it all out. That can become a bad habit over time.
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We don't do that in therapy anymore. We've shifted to learning how to communicate assertively as a way to cope with anger.
SH: Can venting still be healthy or helpful?
CW: Venting is helpful when you do it in small bursts with a trusted person. It can be good to come home from school and talk to your mom or a friend—someone you trust—and have a conversation about something that happened in the day that upset you. It's best when it's private and you're using it to get some support. That can help you clearly think through how you want to respond.
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SH: What are signs it's veering over into unhealthy territory?
CW: When you start venting all the time to anyone who will listen, and you're venting in public forums, that's a sign it's becoming a bad habit—your default way of coping with pressures. You're putting it out there where others are only seeing you react in the heat of the moment.
Just recently, an actress was venting on Twitter regarding a decision made about her TV show. You can tell she was really upset and turned to Twitter in the heat of the moment. But then she dealt with a huge backlash because so many people misinterpreted her feelings. If she'd never put that out on a public forum, and just called a friend to express that frustration, get some support and work through it, that situation would have been entirely different.
That's really hard for people who live so much of their lives online. You have to be careful about what you put out there because people might misunderstand, and you might not get that support you were looking for. Instead, it can fan the flames of the fire and leave you worse off than when you started.
Where you should draw the line is where the emotions of anger or frustration start turning into aggression. That's when you act with the intent of hurting someone else. You might feel verbally aggressive and believe you should write a nasty comment on Instagram to get back at someone, but it's a very unhealthy way to vent.
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SH: How can people deal with those emotions in a healthier way?
CW: A self-care routine can be really beneficial. Even if you're just setting aside five minutes in the morning and five minutes at night for yoga, or breathing, or meditation, you're training your brain to settle down. You're focusing and making space for some of these emotions rather than going through the day without allowing yourself to feel them.
You might feel inclined to shut down your emotions, numbing or ignoring them and pretending everything is fine, but you should learn to sit with your feelings and meditate through them. That will help you gain the skill of listening to what your emotions are telling you. You'll find out what you need to work on, and where you need to make changes. I truly believe that every emotion is trying to tell us something we need to pay attention to.
If you're in school and you feel like your emotions are unmanageable, it can be really valuable to speak with a school counselor. If you're dealing with bullying or feeling that certain things at school are really unfair, it can be really helpful to chat with someone who has a bigger perspective and the ability to provide more resources to help. When you're angry, it's important to understand if it's because you feel hurt, or scared, or that a need isn't being met. They can help you get to that answer.
I also encourage all of the people I work with to do some type of journaling. Writing out your thoughts and feelings and making space to process what's going through your mind helps you step back and look at everything to get a bigger perspective on what's going on. They help you understand what these intense emotions are telling you about what's happening in your life. Sometimes, you might not realize exactly what's bothering you until you sit down and write it all out. That's why I like anger—because it motivates you to make a change. If you can learn to make that change in a way that's assertive rather than aggressive, you'll be on the right path to dealing with all of your problems in a more healthy way.
Curious about anger? Click HERE to find out what might make you most angry in a relationship, based on your love language.