Learn the repercussions of venting and how to avoid
That is where your anger and madness come from, I tell you—the fact that you attach such value to trifles.
Everyone gets tempted sometimes to blow off steam with their coworkers. It’s a natural impulse because it often feels good in the moment.
There’s a common misconception that venting, or “purging” your anger by expressing it externally, really works.
But catharsis has its limits. Modern psychological research and ancient philosophers have written ad nauseum about how venting perpetuates anger in an emotional hamster wheel. There’s no exception for work frustrations either.
Let’s review the consequences of venting and some alternative strategies for dealing with frustration and anger in a work context.
The limits of catharsis
In a psychological experiment at Iowa State University, participants were “primed” into thinking one of two things—that venting was either useful or pointless. Then, they read articles about fake studies that “proved” either point. After the participants read these articles, they wrote short essays. Half were praised for their essays, while the other half were given intense criticism on their papers. The participants who read the article praising venting and then were criticized were far more likely to exhibit aggressive behavior than the other groups.
One group of psychologists explains this phenomenon of increased aggression after venting:
Because people sometimes feel better for a short time after they blow off steam, it may reinforce aggression and the belief that catharsis works. Also, people often mistakenly attribute the fact that they feel better after they express anger to catharsis, rather than to the fact that anger usually subsides on its own after a while.
In other words, anger begets anger. When you’re totally focused on an urgent project and receive yet another urgent request from someone else, or when a manager or colleague gives you critical feedback, it can be tempting to vent about it to a trusted coworker. But there’s a fine line between validating your opinion on a tense situation and going into a full-throated rant about it.
The consequences of the latter might not only lead to social problems at work but also hampered productivity and performance. By the way, let’s not forget the potential damage to your professional reputation.
Before you vent, try these strategies
Many evidence-based, philosophical approaches exist to deal with frustration and anger at work. But not all solutions work for all situations. Here are two strategies to try.
Delay your response
You’ve probably heard the advice to count to ten when you’re first confronted with an unjust situation. While it seems trite, it’s actually good advice. At work, take it even further.
When you’ve received a seemingly unfair request from a coworker or supervisor, or if you’re responding to a long-term situation that needs to be resolved, write down all your thoughts in an email—but don’t send it yet. Read it the next morning—or even the next hour, if you’re in a time crunch—and you’ll likely find that your perspective has changed. You’ll probably realize how undiplomatic your response was going to be and revise it.
Cognitively reframe or distance
Our beliefs that we’ve been wronged are what create that reality. Ancient Greek philosopher Epictetus said, “It is not things themselves that trouble people, but their opinions about things.”
So how do you just change your opinion? This process is known as cognitive distancing or cognitive reframing. UK-based psychologist Donald Robertson writes:
This doesn’t mean . . . suppressing our feelings or distracting ourselves from things, but rather something more subtle and fundamental: distancing our thoughts from reality by viewing them as merely mental representations.
It’s like taking off your glasses and looking at the lenses through which you see the situation, Robertson explains. Practice treating your own, automatic thoughts as hypotheses that deserve to be empirically tested.
Here’s a work example: you received some unsolicited, seemingly harsh feedback from someone via email. You would be tempted to say, “Why would they say it like that? Don’t they know how terse they’re sounding?” Or you might take it a step further and ask, “Is this person trying to edge me out of this initiative?” While understandable, those kinds of reactions are assuming the worst intentions of people right out the gate, when there could be far more likely explanations for the tense behavior.
Challenging your own hypothesis of a tense situation could look something like this: “They probably have a lot going on in their own workload and just didn’t have the time to really read their email before sending.” Or, “My work could have missed their expectations in a way they didn’t anticipate, so their frustration could be understandable.”
When you gain the ability to cognitively distance yourself from an angry impulse like venting, you gain the ability to reframe the events and understand the other side.
So, next time you feel tempted to vent to your coworkers about X project, X manager, or X initiative, check yourself first, not just for diplomatic reasons but also for your own well-being. The long-term effects of anger are well documented as increasing our stress levels.
It might feel good now to “get it off your chest,” but moderating how you express frustration could help you manage stress in the long run.