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Is It Just Venting, or Do You Need a Therapist? Here's the Difference.

And what is emotional labor, anyway?

by Gretchen Brown
December 11, 2019 | Health

Isn’t every popular sitcom just friends sitting around venting to each other?

There’s “Friends” and that famous coffee shop couch. The thousands of brunches on “Sex and the City.” That bar in “How I Met Your Mother.”

Venting is usually at least part of the conversation. There’s a problem that needs to be solved. That’s the whole point of the episode.

It’s hard to know whether we model our conversations off of these shows, or whether they’re modeled after us. But there’s no doubt that unloading worries on friends is part of our social vernacular.

It’s common to share your frustrations with your friends, whether it’s in person, or via a string of 10 texts to the group chat. Sometimes you just need someone to understand you. Sometimes you want advice.

But is it healthy? And, more importantly, is it OK to regularly burden your friends with all your problems?

A woman is upset using her phone. REWIRE PBS Love Venting
It’s important to find ways to manage and deal with stress. A professional can help you do that. Your friends likely can’t.

On the internet, that idea — that you might be burdening your friends — has gained more popularity in the past few years under the label of “emotional labor.”

While the original phrase, first used in the 1980s, described putting on a happy face to do your job — like in the service industry — its definition has become much broader.

Some use it describe the unpaid work women often perform in heterosexual relationships, like housework and organizational tasks. And now, it’s being used to describe the burden you take on as a friend when you’re listening to heavy stuff, all the time.

Friendships, naturally, are give and take, says Jessica Eiseman, a licensed professional counselor. Some venting is normal.

But she says there’s a point when it becomes too much.

Are you venting? Or 'dumping'?

Are you screening your friend’s calls? Do you dread conversations, or cancel plans because you can’t deal with it?

That might be a sign that your friend isn’t venting. They’re emotionally “dumping” all their problems on you.

“It normally is overwhelming, goes on for long periods of time, is draining and eventually becomes toxic,” Eiseman said.

“I think dumping also feels very one-sided, whereas when someone vents there is still a level that both are participating in the conversation.”

It’s much harder to recognize yourself as the guilty party than it is to recognize it in a friend. But if you’re going through something major, it’s important to do a self-check, Eiseman said.

Is the issue impacting your everyday life and your friendships?

If so, you might want to seek professional help, such as therapy, instead of solely relying on your friends for support.

This doesn't mean you’re not allowed to lean on the folks around you in hard times. But venting is a short-term solution, even if it feels good in the moment.

“You’re not learning anything new, you’re not learning how to manage your stress, you’re not learning to manage conflict or anything like that,” said Stephanie Woodrow, a licensed clinical professional counselor.

“The next time that that situation or a similar situation occurs, the need to vent is gonna come up again.”

Woodrow says it’s important to find ways to manage and deal with stress. A professional can help you do that. Your friends likely can’t.

Read the room

Somebody cut you off on the road? You were put on hold for hours with your insurance company? Sure, those are things that make sense to complain about.

But if there’s something that’s been bothering you for quite a while, you might want to consider whether your friends are the best avenue for that discussion.

Just as you checked in with yourself, you can check in with your friends to make sure they’re up for handling what you want to talk about.

“A rule of thumb could be making sure you ask the other person how they are each time you bring your issues to them, also giving them time to share,” Eiseman said.

“Read the room, so to speak. Most of us are pretty good at telling if someone is really listening to us or are interested in what we are saying.”

This discussion made it to Twitter — it always makes it to Twitter — after a viral tweet from social justice activist Melissa A. Fabello. Fabello shared a text message from a friend:

“Do you have the emotional/mental capacity for me to vent about something medical/weight-related for a few minutes?”

In the thread that followed, Fabello argued in favor of that text message: that this sort of venting is “emotional labor,” and you must ask for permission before doing so.

“It gives the listener the ability to do their best job; I can set myself up to have this talk, rather than being put on the spot,” she wrote.

“It communicates ‘I respect that you are your own person who is already carrying a lot’ – and it reminds me that it's okay for me to say no (or to come up with another arrangement) sometimes.”

Fabello also shared a script for how to respond if you don’t feel up to listening to your friend.

Checking in doesn't hurt

She was ratioed. That means more people responded than retweeted, and a bunch of it was pushback.

Folks argued that friendship isn't a transaction. Or that she was being selfish by considering her own emotions.

Though the language might have been overly formal, Eiseman and Woodrow said Fabello wasn’t wrong: it’s not a bad idea to check in with a friend before you send a chain of venting texts.

An easier way to do that might be: “Hey, do you have a minute to talk?” or “Not an emergency, but I need you when you can.”

Naturally, you’re going to categorize your friends. It’s helpful to understand which friends you have a relationship where sharing emotional baggage is acceptable and reciprocated, and which friends it isn’t.

“There are just some people who are people we would drop anything for, within reason, if they needed us,” Eiseman said.

Eiseman said that most people aren’t good at dealing with the tough stuff, like death and hard breakups, no matter how great of a friend they are. So they might not be responding to a conversation about it like you’d hope.

If you’re the friend, know that it’s OK to opt out of a hard conversation sometimes.

And if you’re the one who wants to have the conversation, it’s important to know that a rejection isn’t a rejection of you as a person.

“It’s not saying, ‘You’re too much to handle,'” Woodrow said. “It’s saying they’re dealing with their own stuff and that’s OK.”

Gretchen Brown
Gretchen Brown is an editor for Rewire. She’s into public media, music and really good coffee. Email her at [email protected], or follow her on Twitter @gretch_brown.
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