Your co-worker just made you so mad. Or maybe it was your husband who said something insensitive this morning. Or your teenager who rolled her eyes when you asked her to empty the dishwasher. Again.
You feel like a pot ready to explode, so you just need to let off a little steam. A few minutes of “can you believe he just said…” or “she’s so obnoxious when…” will make you feel so much better. Right? Right?
What is commonly viewed as “letting off steam” or “venting” is actually a myth. It can feel very satisfying, in the moment. But it ultimately changes us. And not in a good way. I’ve seen this truth for years in my own research and in other studies. That’s why the first assignment in my newest book, The Kindness Challenge, is to say nothing negative about the person with whom you want a better relationship. This includes saying something negative to them as well as about them to someone else.
I do quite a bit of work helping companies develop women’s leadership programs, and one high-level corporate client, Nadia, told me that she could trace her rise in corporate America to this one change. Years ago, with a harsh boss, she would regularly gripe to a female co-worker. But even though the co-worker was equally mistreated, she refused to join in. Finally, she asked Nadia, “If you complain, does it change anything?” When Nadia admitted that it wouldn’t actually change anything, her colleague shook her head. “You’re wrong,” she said. “It does change something. It changes you.”
Brain science researchers like Dr. Brad Bushman at Ohio State University have discovered that our idea of “letting off steam” as a way of dealing with negative feelings is completely wrong neurologically! Instead, it actually further activates an interconnected anger system in the brain. So when we vent with our friends or co-workers, we’re building up steam rather than releasing it.
A better analogy: expressing our frustrations turns up the heat under the pot – and stopping our negative talk is like putting a lid on the pot and removing it from the heat. That choice actually changes the way ours brain process the negative situation. We’re just not as angry anymore! Even better, if we can actually look for something that is worthy of praise in this person or situation, positive feelings often replace the negative ones – which can help improve even the most difficult relationships.
This doesn’t mean you should repress negative feelings, or that you can’t share something important with a supportive friend. It does mean to be careful about why you are sharing and how.
A friend recently decided to do the 30-Day Kindness Challenge for her 7 year-old adopted son. As a child from a hard place, he had spent years fighting attachment and exhibiting difficult and unpleasant behavior, mostly directed at his new mom. When she first started the challenge, my friend was honestly stumped about how she was going to participate in her regular support group for adoptive moms since she couldn’t say anything negative!
What occurred was fascinating. She was still able to share concerns and seek advice, but because she wasn’t sharing those “can you believe it?!” comments, she found she was much less angry with him. As she sought support, her words were less heated – almost like reporting facts in a news story rather than fueling the fire of her frustration and anger. In the end she felt more positive about her relationship with her son and she still felt heard and understood by her support system. Win-win!
So the next time you find yourself picking up the phone to call a friend to complain, or start venting around the water cooler, stop yourself. Remember that it will not make you feel better. Try it; you will see the difference it makes. And it will help you want to go the next step, which is to live a life evidenced by graciousness even when others are harsh. To be kind even when it isn’t warranted. To notice the things that are worthy of praise, not just those that are worthy of driving you crazy. And to be the one who reaches out to others, to share the truth that living life this way is a lot more fun.
Want to know how to be kind, when you really don’t want to be? My research uncovered three daily actions that will transform your relationships – and you. Check out The Kindness Challenge, now available!
Shaunti Feldhahn loves sharing eye-opening information that helps people thrive in life and relationships. She herself started out with a Harvard graduate degree and Wall Street credentials but no clue about life. After an unexpected shift into relationship research for average, clueless people like her, she now is a popular speaker and author of best-selling books about men, women and relationships. (Including For Women Only, For Men Only, and the groundbreaking The Good News About Marriage).
Her newest book, The Kindness Challenge demonstrates that kindness is the answer to pretty much every life problem, and is sparking a much-needed movement of kindness across the country. Visit www.shaunti.com for more.