Venting can be cathartic
Almost 80 years ago, early psychologists proposed that people become aggressive due to frustrated feelings that go unexpressed 1. It was believed that expressing one’s angry feelings, or venting, was a healthy way of getting rid of aggression and therefore preventing more extreme expressions of anger, such as physical violence. This healthy expression of emotions is also known as catharsis.
The word ‘catharsis’ originates from the Greek word kathairein, meaning ‘cleanse’ or ‘purge’ 2 . You may have heard people talking about having a ‘cathartic experience’ while watching a film or witnessing something beautiful in nature. Catharsis theory suggests that when we suppress our traumatic experiences and bottle away our emotions, sometimes experiencing an unrelated emotional event may trigger and release these built-up feelings. As a result, we feel relieved.
Sigmund Freud used the theory of catharsis when treating patients with psychotherapy 3. He would ask the patient to think about the traumatic event that caused them anger or grief, and ask them to relive it. By re-experiencing the event in a safe space, the patient is then theoretically able to let go of the associated emotions.
Although catharsis has a long history in the study and practice of psychology, there is also evidence that suggests venting may increase feelings of aggression as opposed to diminishing them. Studies that support this view propose that when people vent, they are focusing their attention on their negative feelings and that this exacerbates their negative mood 5. These theorists suggest that distracting oneself from the triggering event is more helpful in reducing associated negative emotions than reliving it 6.
Still, other researchers found that whether venting helps to get rid of aggression depends on whether the person venting believes that it will help them feel better 7. In other words, if you believe that expressing your anger or other emotions can have a cathartic effect, it probably will. However, if you have doubts, you would be better off looking for distractions from your feelings.