You’re Not Alone. Feel Free to Vent!
by Gary McClain, MS, PhD, LMHC
Living with a cancer diagnosis is a challenging road to travel, to say the least. You’re only human. And the challenges you are facing can bring up a range of emotions. Frustration, anger, fear, disappointment … All these feelings build up over time – and you’ve finally had it up to here! What are you going to do? Maybe you need to let it all out.
Yes! Sometimes you just feel like hollering. And so you do. But is that OK?
A Good Vent Can Promote Emotional Wellness
Yes, there are benefits to a good vent. Venting helps you work through your feelings, which in turn, is a step toward accepting the challenges you’re facing. It’s a way to release all those feelings that have been building up in your mind, taking up valuable space that could be better used for managing your self-care and making decisions about your treatment.
Not getting bogged down with trying to “swallow” your emotions can help you to maintain your optimism.
Look at it this way. Fighting your feelings is fighting yourself. And when you stop the fight, you’re in a better position to find solutions.
But, first, a word of caution. Venting can turn into a rant, which is a lot of angry words that go on and on and don’t really go anywhere (and drive others away in the process). Venting helps you to release feelings, but ranting is a way of hanging on to them.
How to Vent Effectively
Not sure how to vent in a way that promotes your emotional wellness? Here’s how:
- Give yourself permission to express strong emotions. Human beings experience a wide range of emotions. Some emotions, we label as good – like happiness – and others, we label as bad – like anger. Instead of labeling emotions as good or bad, let’s label them as human. And then tell the positive-thinking police to take a break while we feel how we feel. Look at it this way. Not getting bogged down with trying to “swallow” your emotions can help you to maintain your optimism.
- Find a willing listener. Not everyone in your life can listen while you vent about a challenge you’re facing. Some people may be uncomfortable with strong feelings. Others will think they should do something to help you and, as a result, may feel helpless. And some people have too many of their own problems. In other words, don’t choose a listener who wants to run for the hills as soon as you open your mouth. Also, avoid those who will judge you for not “staying positive” or who will try to “fix” you in some way instead of just listening. Do you have anyone in your life who can be that supportive, objective listener? Can your partner be a listener, or are they too overwhelmed by their own feelings? What about a work colleague you have a friendly relationship with? A neighbor? A friend or family member?
- Be mindful of your intentions. Ever had a political discussion that you realized later was really all about how angry you were at the other person and not about politics? A vent can be just that – a way of indirectly expressing anger at someone. Again, this kind of vent can easily turn into a rant. So, take a step back and ask yourself what it is you need to vent about and why.
- Keep in mind that venting has consequences. A positive consequence of venting is that you are giving voice to your feelings. Doing this can take away their power to do harm or to keep you stuck. However, venting that is directed toward a person, instead of toward a problem, can have the consequence of alienating people.
- Start by asking if the other person is willing to listen. Say something like, “I just need to talk to someone about how I’m feeling. Would you mind listening?” It might help to add, “I don’t expect you to have any answers for me. I just need a listener.”
- Then, state clearly what you want to vent about. This accomplishes two purposes. First, it gives your listener the opportunity to decide whether this is something they can hear. Second, it will help you to stay focused and not drift into a rant about everything that has frustrated you for the past 20 years.
- Be mindful of how the other person is reacting. Body language says it all. Nodding, leaning forward, eye contact – these are signs of involvement. Look- ing away, moving away, interrupting you with comments like, “You’ll be fine” – these are signs that the listener has heard enough. It may help to ask, “Is this hard for you to listen to? If so, I understand.” Don’t take it personally. Not everyone can sit with uncomfortable emotions, their own or someone else’s.
- Say what you need to say and be done with it. Set limits on your vent by being mindful of what you need to say. Signal that you’re done by expressing appreciation: “Thanks a lot for being here for me. It helps to have a listening ear.”
- Be realistic about your expectations. Your listener may have a few words of support, some suggestions, or nothing to say at all. Remember, people do the best they can, and all you asked was for them to listen. But if your listener does respond with a whole list of solutions – or orders – you have a choice as to whether you want to receive this information or just let it go. Who knows, they may have a perspective you haven’t thought about. But you can also say, “You’ve been really helpful by just listening. I don’t expect you to make it better.”
- Healthy venting can be a way of connecting. A good place to start is with your partner. You may both be walking about your home stepping around the elephant in the room that keeps getting in the way of your communication. And what is the name of that elephant? Maybe it’s something like frustration, disappointment, or fear? Address the elephant by name. Talk to each other about your feelings, beginning with encouraging each other to vent as needed.
- Offer to be a listener, too. Remember that your listener, whether it’s your partner or another listening ear, may have some of their own challenges and frustrations and may also need a listening ear. Be willing to return the favor if you are able.
Do It for Your Health
Don’t underestimate the health benefits of venting. Releasing negative emotions that have been building up can lower your stress level. And research has shown that lowering stress improves your overall wellness – physical, mental, and emotional. Body, mind, and spirit!
Caution! Venting can turn into a rant, which is a lot of angry words that go on and on and don’t really go anywhere (and drive others away in the process).
Venting helps you to release feelings, but ranting is a way of hanging on to them.
Furthermore, there is no greater way to connect with another person – your partner, your children, another family member, a friend, a coworker – than by listening. Really listening, with an open mind.
So, if you need a good vent, have at it. And then give someone else a turn. We’re stronger together.
Dr. Gary McClain is a therapist, patient advocate, blogger, and author, who specializes in helping clients deal with the emotional impact of chronic and life-threatening illnesses. He works with people to help them understand and cope with their emotions, learn about their lifestyle and treatment options, maintain compliance with medical regimens, communicate effectively with the medical establishment, and listen to their own inner voice as they make decisions about the future. You can email Dr. McClain at gary@JustGotDiagnosed.com.
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, March/April 2021.