It starts with the speeches. You know the little speech you rehearse in your head, getting ready for the big moment when you finally let them have it.
Perhaps you practice it in the shower, or your car. Or perhaps you share your frustration with others. Maybe it’s the angry rant you do in the break room, with your peers discussing your awful boss. Or maybe it’s the call you make to your best friend complaining about your spouse.
There’s a widespread belief that venting is a good thing because it releases negative emotions. But in reality giving voice to negativity, often simply gives it more power.
Social psychologist Brad J. Bushman, who teaches at Ohio State University and has researched aggression and coping says, “Research clearly shows that venting increases rather than decreases stress. People say that venting feels good, but the good feeling doesn’t last, and it only reinforces aggressive impulses.”
Here’s the nuance: repressing anger or any other negative emotion doesn’t work. It stays inside of you, festering because you haven’t identified the root cause. Processing your emotions to understand them so you can take action works. Venting isn’t processing. Venting doesn’t work because you’re not releasing the thoughts; you’re simply rehearsing them, over and over again.
Speaking your mind is not always a good thing.
This same dynamic happens with prejudice. Giving voice to negative thoughts strengthens them. For example, when my father was born over 80 years ago, most of his family, his peers, and the authority figures in his life were racist. They thought racist thoughts; they spoke in racist terms and they acted like, well, racists. But at a certain point, being a racist became politically incorrect. People in polite society stopped using racist language, because they didn’t want to embarrass themselves. They may have still thought racists thoughts, but they stopped giving voice to them, at least in public. My dad, who has since passed away, described it like this, “First you stop telling racial jokes, then you stop laughing at racist jokes, then you get to the point where you’re offended by racist language. Finally, you speak up against racism.”
Notice, the change is all rooted in language. The first step is to stop using the words; then over time, you quit thinking the thoughts. Your spoken language doesn’t merely reflect your belief system; your words form your belief system.
In this election, people are parsing the difference between words and actions. Some have even been lauded for “saying what other people are thinking.”
Here’s the thing, saying everything you’re thinking is not a good idea. Take me for example; I often think horrible completely inappropriate thoughts. I think people are stupid; sometimes I want to tell people to just shut up. I think these thoughts because I am an imperfect frequently ungracious human, who is routinely, particularly when under stress, selfish and judgmental.
If I regularly give voice to my worst thoughts, I start becoming a person who thinks those thoughts more often and they get more powerful. And worse, I attract people who like to hear those things.
Words matter. Words are not actions; but they do incite actions. Venting your worst thoughts tells your brain, this is OK; this is normal. It’s only a matter of time before your actions reflect your very impulses. Being an adult means learning not to act on your every impulse. Those impulses include your language.