Venting vs. Emotional Dumping: What’s the Difference?

By Alana Smith-Grove, RYT Updated on — Medically Reviewed and Certified by Dr. Robert Kiltz

Table of Contents

When it comes to processing emotions with others, the difference between satisfaction and frustration comes down to whether you’re venting in a healthy way, or emotional dumping. 

With research showing that processing emotions with others are not only universal but healthy, it’s important to learn the difference between venting and dumping.  

What is Venting?

Venting is verbally expressing thoughts and feelings in a healthy way. This involves two people: the processor and the listener. The magic of healthy venting occurs when the vent is heard by another person. 

One study showed that simply verbalizing an emotion exacerbated one’s negative emotional state rather than alleviating discomfort.  But when a listener is present, talking about difficult emotions can provide a positive social experience of listening.

Another study showed that a listener’s supportive responses were the factor that alleviated stressful emotional states in the person venting.  

A venting session is most positive when the listener supports the person venting through demonstrating empathy and actively listening.  

Active Listening

Active listening is a process that involves verbal and nonverbal components such as asking open-ended questions, paraphrasing what was said to you, reflecting the speaker’s feelings, giving eye contact, and nodding. 

When healthy venting occurs, stress is reduced, perspective broadens, loneliness is reduced, feelings of wellbeing increase and one’s emotional state is eased.

What does venting look like?

A person who is venting is:

  • self-reflective rather than reactive.
  • clear and focused on one issue rather than many at once.
  • solution-focused.
  • Expressing within a specified time frame.
  • open to feedback and another’s perspective.
  • accepting of personal responsibility and integrity.
  • aware of the emotional states of both the listener and the speaker.

What is Emotional Dumping?

Emotional dumping is a toxic form of venting. When you emotionally dump you are unaware of both your own emotional state and the state of the listener.

Emotional dumping does not include the consent of the listener and ignores containment within time, topic, and objective. Because emotional dumping doesn’t respect the consent and boundaries of the listener, it is an act of stealing time and energy from the listener. 

Emotional dumping typically occurs as a heightened reactive response to a triggering event and can be a coping mechanism for stress.  While in a reactive state, the person who is emotionally dumping is typically unable to receive feedback or see another’s perspective. It’s a one-way street. 

Emotional dumping can feel good…at first

Emotional dumping may feel cathartic in the moment, but research shows that it can exaggerate an angry emotional state rather than alleviating it.  

The reason why emotional dumping can at first feel like a cathartic release may be due to childhood attachment patterns. These attachment patterns are the strategies you learned when you were an infant to feel safe and secure in relation to your parents.

Emotional dumping may have been modeled to people when they were children and interpreted as an experience of intimacy.  

Emotional dumping decreases intimacy

However, emotional dumping actually decreases a sense of intimacy because it lacks awareness of another’s emotional state or capacity. These actions that can feel like intimacy, but keep people a distance are called defenses. It’s a way of protecting parts of yourself from being perceived by others. Often these are parts of ourselves that, if seen by others, would make them abandon us. 

In light of attachment and defense patterns, learning to identify when you are emotionally dumping rather than venting may be critical to building safe, intimate relationships.

What does emotional dumping look like?

Emotional dumping is:

  • defensive.
  • avoidant of taking personal responsibility.
  • inconsiderate of another’s time, energy, or capacity.
  • ruminating on a specific triggering event rather than expressing underlying feelings.
  • playing the victim
  • filled with blame
  • not open to finding a solution
  • resistant to feedback or another’s perspective
  • a cyclical return to the same problem over and over

How to set boundaries around emotional dumping?

Do you often find yourself on the receiving end of emotional dumping? It may be time for you to set a boundary. Boundaries limit the amount of space, energy, or time spent between you and another person. They are clear, direct, and can vary in terms of their flexibility.  

Setting a boundary is a way of protecting your emotional energy and wellbeing. But boundaries are also helpful to the person you’re setting them with. They can offer a reflection to the person who may be unaware of their tendency to dump. 

Setting a boundary requires you to be aware of your own needs, energy, and what you will and will not allow. For many people, setting a boundary can at first feel mean or selfish, especially when another person is in distress. 

Yet, setting a boundary can build self-esteem and confidence while in the face of another’s challenging emotional state.

A boundary setting may require some practice if you’re not used to it. If you need extra support in boundary setting, here are a few places to start:

  • If you need to set a time limit: “You know I care about you, and right now I have limited space to offer you listening. I am available for 20 minutes, does that work for you?”
  • If someone starts dumping without your consent: “I’m noticing myself feeling activated. It would mean a lot to me if you could ask me if I have the space to support you before you begin processing.”
  • If you do not have the capacity to offer support through listening: “I can see that you are hurting and I wish I could offer support, but I’m aware that I don’t have the space to listen well right now.” 

How to active listen

Once you set your boundaries, you can aid in the transition from dumping to healthy venting by practicing active listening.

Active listening is also a great way for people who emotionally dump, to make the sharing/listening relationship feel more reciprocal. And when we learn how to listen to others, we become better at listening to ourselves–a key to reducing your tendency to emotionally dump.

When actively listening, you place your focus on the person speaking and the perspective they are trying to communicate. Research has shown that a listener’s ability to pay attention to verbal and nonverbal behaviors are associated with greater emotional improvement and feelings of connectedness.

Verbal Listening BehaviorsNonverbal Listening Behaviors
Paraphrasing: “It sounds like you’re saying…”Eye contact
Clarifying: “Help me understand…”“Leaning in”
Summarizing: “I think the point of what you are sharing is…”Nodding
Reflecting feelings: “I hear that made you feel…”Remaining present-centered rather than focused on what you will say next

 

When active listening it’s important to avoid  “high-risk” responses.  Examples can include evaluating or judging, solving, or withdrawing. Remember, active listening is not about fixing a problem for another person, but about trying to understanding their experience and emotional state as best you can. Trying to solve the problem or constantly relating it back to your own experience can take the focus off of understanding the other’s perspective.  

How to be empathetic

Part of the venting process is being empathetic. Empathy is the ability to see, feel, or understand something from another’s perspective and to use that to inform action.  

Empathy can be conflated with kindness, sympathy, or pity. The difference is that empathy implies curiosity, active listening, and a willingness to “try on” another’s experience. 

Empathy supports another in their emotional venting and can increase feelings of connectedness and wellbeing.

How to honor someone’s emotional state?

Are you someone who tends to emotionally dump? First of all, take a deep breath and invite a feeling of self-forgiveness. Holding intense emotions is hard work. Learning how to vent will make it more likely that talking about your emotions will leave you feeling better. 

To learn how to vent, start with becoming curious about another person’s emotional capacity, time, and energy.

Try asking questions, such as:

  • “Do you have time to listen right now?”
  • “I notice that I’m feeling triggered, do you have space to offer some support?”
  • “I am having a really hard time right now and could use someone to talk to, but I wanted to check in with you first. How are you feeling?”

Encourage emotional dumpers to seek support in other ways

One of the most important things to remember when supporting another person is, to be honest with yourself about your own capacities. 

After reflecting on your own needs, you may realize that you don’t have the capacity to listen. This can be a difficult realization. Sometimes the most supportive thing you can do for another is to encourage them to seek help in other ways. 

Some ideas to encourage another’s self-care are:

  • Reminding them of others they can talk to within their social network
  • Suggesting they try talking to a therapist
  • Encouraging them to exercise or try mindfulness

Natural ways for reducing stress and anxiety

Self-awareness is key to understanding the difference between emotional dumping and venting. Here are a few proven ways for increasing self-awareness, reducing stress and anxiety that lead to venting, and coping with challenging emotional states. 

Diet

People with high levels of anxiety tend to have higher amounts of inflammation in the body. Inflammation stimulates anxiety-inducing neurotransmitters, which exacerbate anxious symptoms such as racing thoughts and triggering feelings. 

Studies show that high-fat low-carb diets are a “food-as-medicine approach” to reducing inflammation.  A high-fat low-carb diet also supports healthy gut microbiota. Keeping the gut healthy is key to reducing stress and maintaining the body’s serotonin production.

A 2020 study published in Cell, found ketogenic diets to positively affect gut health. The findings reveal that healthy changes to the gut microbiota–the billions-strong ecosystem of microorganisms–reduce inflammation.

Yoga

Yoga is a practice that can alleviate many of the factors that contribute to the need for enting and dumping. Yoga is an ancient spiritual practice that utilizes breath, physical postures, and philosophy to increase well-being. Research suggests that yoga can relieve stress, improve mental and emotional health, and sleep. Yoga can also help people manage symptoms related to anxiety and depression while increasing mindfulness.  

There are many types of yoga suitable for different physical abilities and energy levels. Take this quiz to find out what kind of yoga is right for you!

Mindfulness Meditation

Like yoga, there are many types of meditation, and you’ve probably heard of a popular type called mindfulness. In its simplest sense, mindfulness meditation is the intentional awareness and nonjudgmental acceptance of your moment-to-moment experience.

You can begin right now by bringing awareness to the most obvious levels of experience, noticing sounds in the room, your breath, or the sensations in your body. 

As you get better at noticing these experiences—not through perfect focus, but by being willing to start over, again and again—you begin to change how your nervous system responds to things that would normally feed anxiety, depression, and addictive behaviors, including emotional dumping. 

Other emotional benefits of meditation include gaining a new perspective, becoming more present, building stress-management skills, increasing patience and tolerance, while enhancing emotional regulation.

The Takeaway

Recognizing the difference between emotional dumping and venting creates clarity in relationships, increases wellbeing and connection with others, and is a fundamental form of self-care.

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©2020 Doctor ROBERT KILTZ. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED