Saturday, 5 September 2020

Let It Out! How to Vent Powerful Emotions Safely

Let it go, let it go.
Can't hold it back anymore.

(Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez. “Let It Go.”)

In a previous article I discussed three kinds of conversation you might encounter in a mutually caring relationship. I call these “My Turn, Your Turn,” “It Will Be Your Turn in a Minute,” and “I Need to Talk Right Now.” Each has its place but the third is arguably the most critical — and perilous — because we’re at our most vulnerable when we allow ourselves to share powerful emotions.

There are times when we want and need to just let the words flow, to “dump” (although I hate that expression), to express whatever it is we are feeling or thinking without being interrupted, questioned, or judged.

In this article I want to explore how to let the words flow — to vent — as safely and productively as possible.

Who, How, When, and Where

It goes without saying that it’s best to vent to someone you trust; someone who can hold space without judging you or trying to stem the flow of what you need to get out. Fran and I write about this kind of trust in our book High Tide, Low Tide:

We believe it is healthier to be open about our thoughts and feelings than to dismiss, hide, or avoid them. We share what is happening with us, discuss things if we need to, and then move on. In doing so, we hold a safe space where we can “let it all out.” We sometimes get upset or angry with each other, but we deal with discord promptly if it occurs, recognising there is no need to fear even powerful emotions when they can be explored safely.

It’s what Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh has called deep listening:

Deep listening simply means listening with compassion. Even if the other person is full of wrong perceptions, discrimination, blaming, judging, and criticizing, you are still capable of sitting quietly and listening, without interrupting, without reacting. Because you know that if you can listen like that, the other person will feel enormous relief. You remember that you are listening with only one purpose in mind: to give the other person a chance to express themselves, because up until now no one has taken the time to listen.

Of course, not everyone wants or needs to vent in person like this. I find it hard to share really strong emotions, even with Fran and other friends I trust and feel safe with. I’m more likely to process strong emotions by writing them out. I’ve kept a daily journal for the past forty-five years and if I don’t have it with me I take notes on my phone. Venting onto the page like this helps me let things out without necessarily bringing them to others who might be affected by what I’m going through. Journaling does carry the risk of disclosure, however, unless you can be certain your words — whether digital or written in a diary or notebook — are secure from being read by others.

When words elude me, walking helps. It’s particularly effective when I’m in a rage or overwhelmed by feelings of abandonment, worry, or anxiety. It doesn’t matter much where I’m walking; what matters is the physical exertion and movement.

When I’m happy, I walk. When I’m sad, or lonely or lost. When I’m hurting, or numb. When there’s too much to think about Or nothing on my mind. I walk.

Walking is so important to me that I included it in my Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP).

Be Clear About What’s Going On

If you’re opening up in person or someone is opening up to you, it’s important you both understand what’s going on. Clarity protects us from oversharing or overwhelm, or what BrenĂ© Brown calls floodlighting (not to be confused with gaslighting):

Oversharing? Not vulnerability; I call it floodlighting. ... A lot of times we share too much information as a way to protect us from vulnerability ...

Being clear about our needs gives the other person chance to make space and prepare themselves, or to say they’re unavailable if that’s the case. A close friend messaged me recently:

I could really do with a call. As soon as it is convenient for you if you don’t mind. I’m raging so will need to have the floor at first then it’s all yours!

I was grateful for the heads up. In those few words, my friend gave me the context and let me know how urgently my support was needed — as soon as possible but not necessarily immediately. I cleared space to take her call and was able to hold space from the start without engaging in small talk or asking unnecessary questions. On this occasion, I was aware of the back story but I try not to anticipate what — or why — someone needs to share with me. Fran rarely gives me a heads up but I’ve learned to let her lead when we start our calls in case there’s something she urgently needs to share.

As Long As It Takes

Anger is perhaps the emotion we most commonly need to vent, or that someone might need to vent to us, but it might be any strong emotion such as anxiety, frustration, resentment, despair, jealousy, or envy. Venting safely can form part of a protective strategy which allows us to acknowledge the emotion for what it is without acting in unhelpful or unhealthy ways.

Bipolar anger is a common experience for many who live with the disorder. One friend described it as “bipolar’s go-to emotion.” That might sound like abrogating responsibility, but I find the description helpful. It conveys how hard it can be to handle a triggered response and engage more “reasonably.” My friend takes herself out of the triggering situation if possible. Having someone to vent to — whether in person or on the phone — allows her to handle her anger safely until it has passed.

Holding space for someone in this way can take anything from a few minutes to an hour or so. While my friend is talking I try not to interrupt her, ask too many questions, or offer suggestions. After ten or twenty minutes the flush of anger has passed. She is calmer and can focus more clearly on what needs to happen next.

These days, it’s rare for Fran to vent anger in this way, although it’s happened in the past, particularly when she has been in mania. More usually, it’s frustration at her life situation or something that’s happened within her immediate circle of friends. Letting go might fill one or more of our twice-daily calls. Some deep-seated issues have seen me holding space for up to an hour or so every day for several weeks.

It’s similar when I’m venting to myself in my journal. I might “write it out” for half an hour or so at a time, then set it aside and return to it later if necessary. This might continue over a period of days or weeks if the situation keeps recurring.

Moving Forward

Venting can help us move safely through overwhelming emotion, but it is not a fix for whatever condition, situation, or trigger brought us to crisis in the first place. It might be a one-off, an occasional occurrence, or part of an ongoing pattern. If you’ve held space for someone, consider offering your support in the future. Knowing there’s someone who will listen no matter what you’re going through without judging you or insisting on “fixing things” can be extraordinarily reassuring.

Be the person who won’t turn away when your friend or loved one needs to vent. I’d go so far as to say it’s the single most powerful thing you can do to help someone deal with whatever they’re going through.

 

Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash

 

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