Venting Isn’t Therapy
The term “talk therapy” is misleading.
It implies that the mere act of talking about how you feel is therapeutic. But as you may already know, that’s not always the case.
Venting feelings by talking about them is certainly something you can do with a therapist. But you can also do it with friends and family. Apart from the possible short-term relief from getting things off your chest, where’s the therapeutic benefit? The power of therapy lies not in your venting, but in the response you receive.
Venting vs. Therapy
Let’s look at how venting might go during a phone call with a friend who’s not a mental health professional.
You: I’m so tired of this pandemic.
Friend: Me too! I was supposed to go to Europe this year and had to cancel my trip. I’m so over it.
You: Yeah. I’ve been spending so much time alone, I don’t even remember how to dress to go out.
Friend: On the bright side, you’re probably saving a ton of money on dry cleaning.
You: I guess so.
Did you vent? A little. Was it therapeutic? You might feel better while talking with your friend; social connections can be soothing. But feeling better is likely to be temporary; once you’re off the phone, you feel as alone as ever.
Now let’s look at how the same conversation might go with your therapist.
You: I’m so tired of this pandemic.
Therapist: What’s the worst part of it for you?
You: I’ve been spending so much time alone, I don’t even remember how to dress to go out.
Therapist: What’s it like, being alone so much?
You: I feel like a freak sometimes, like I’m some sort of hermit.
Therapist: That sounds hard.
You: It is. I guess when it comes down to it, I’m sort of lonely a lot of the time.
Therapist: Many of us suffer when we feel lonely. How is it affecting you?
This conversation started in the same place but soon headed down a different path. Under the venting, there are deeper layers of pain to explore.
As troublesome underlying feelings emerge, your therapist invites you to feel them safely, holding them with you and helping you find compassion for yourself.
Your experience—in this case, loneliness—transforms as your therapist walks alongside you toward your pain, rather than away from it. In those moments, you are truly not alone.
Ideally, you and your therapist will gently approach emotional tender spots together, giving them the compassionate attention and room they need to resolve. (If you’re interested in trying this at home, see my book Constructive Wallowing: How to Beat Bad Feelings By Letting Yourself Have Them.)
Feeling safe and connected is usually necessary for emotional healing. In therapy, safety lies in the emotional visibility, respect, and acceptance you experience with your counselor or therapist.
That’s the difference between simply venting, and receiving effective therapy. To be helpful in the long term, a conversation that begins with venting must take you from surface complaints to the underlying distress that produces them.
Your unearthed distress is then handled with calm compassion so it can be worked through, and eventually heal.
So therapy is more than just venting. It’s about knowing you’ve been heard, understood, and invited to go deeper with a safe and caring guide.
If you’ve been in therapy for a while and feel like you’re spending most of your sessions just venting, it’s okay to ask your therapist to review your game plan together.
Get on the same page to make sure your therapist’s responses invite you to feel more, not less, and to heal and grow in the here-and-now of each therapy session.
If all your growth in therapy is supposed to come from insight, venting, and possibly completing homework, you might be leaving your deepest healing on the table.