“‘So he did this, and then I said this, and then he texted me this,’” says Merydith, 23, describing the intricacies of a venting session. “It’s basically rehashing every conversation.”
Her goal is to get it off her chest and feel better about the issue. But often, Merydith finds that venting about her problems has the exact opposite effect. “It makes you more amped up about the problem,” says Merydith, of Charlotte, N.C.
Voicing your frustrations is a natural way of dealing with them — but watch out for when a conversation dissolves into a bitch session. Talking your problems to death can make you feel even worse.
A recent study found that teenage girls who vented to each other about their problems, from boy trouble to social slights, were more likely to develop depression and anxiety — and the same is likely true for adult women, says Amanda Rose, the author of the study.
“There’s a definite belief in our culture that talking about our problems makes you feel better,” says Rose, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Missouri, Columbia, whose research was published in the July issue of Developmental Psychology. “That’s true in moderation. ... It only becomes risky when it becomes excessive.”
Be more like a boy
Rose also studied the venting habits of young men, but found that guys don’t tend to analyze their problems as deeply as women. That might be because relationship issues tend to spark the most obsessive discussions, and that’s a subject women are more likely to dwell on.
Sometimes a kvetching session can spiral out of control, admits 21-year-old Amanda Beattie. Instead of making her feel better about the problem, it reinforces the small fears she already had — or even introduces new ones.
“It goes from statements about how I’m feeling to, ‘OK, so-and-so must hate me,’ to ‘I bet they never liked me in their life,’” says Beattie, who lives in Kansas City, Mo. “The more you talk, it hypes up your emotions.”
Still, there’s an upside to all that complaining. Rose points out that in her findings, the girls who vented to each other also reported feeling closer to their friends. It can establish an instant bond because the listeners know the complainer trusts them enough to spill their emotions — and the complainer’s just grateful that someone is willing to listen.
For 24-year-old Elizabeth Spencer-Green, a good griping session has often been a way to connect with other women. When she first moved to Seattle as a teenager, she hated her new school — and she bonded with a group of girls who felt the same way.
“I guess I used that as a way to fit in,” says Spencer-Green, who now lives in New York City.
But she noticed that as she complained with her friends about how much she hated the school, she started to hate it even more.
Confirming worst fears
That’s the danger of talking to friends who let you wallow in your sorrows. It can confirm your worst fears: Maybe you weren’t overreacting. He really did wrong you. She really was flirting with him.
And now you’re convinced: This is so a big deal.
“If I tell you my problem, and the way you listen to me is sort of agreeing with me, then it escalates the feeling, without having a practical solution for it,” says Matthew Anderson, a psychologist based in Boca Raton, Fla. Instead of spilling your problems to those friends who encourage your rants, turn to someone who’ll point you toward a solution.
In Beattie’s case, that was her mom. Beattie was stressed about the tension between herself and her co-workers at her new internship, and she called her mom to talk about it.
“She’d let me run out of steam, and then she’d remind me of what I needed to do to remedy the situation,” says Beattie.
Psychologists also warn against ranting over and over to the same audience. You don’t want to become known as the complainer of the group. That can take a toll on friendships; it’s draining to be around someone who’s always moaning about their troubles.
When faced with someone who’s intent on wallowing in their problems, give them some time to talk it out — maybe 15 minutes, suggests Annette Annechild, a marriage and family counselor in Del Ray Beach, Fla. After that, move away from complaining and on to problem solving.
Merydith, the conversation rehasher, says she’s trying to redirect her venting habit into healthier territory by seeking solutions instead of just complaining. “If you talk about it forever and ever, at some point, you have to be like, ‘OK, let’s move on.’”