esther m palmer

why venting won't really calm you

It's great when scientific studies confirm for us what we can easily experience for ourselves.

Take venting, about which I learned a little tidbit from NPR's new science show Invisibilia. Apparently when something irks you, venting about it to someone who'll agree with your point of view --validating your reason for venting-- helps to calm the nervous system and relieve the irk-associated stress. By sharing and receiving affirmation, your brain gets a reward, a chemical rush that encourages you to hold on to your point of view and continue to live by it.

We've probably all been there at some point. Say my colleague does something ridiculous that causes me more work and I let it anger me because this extra work "isn't my fault," but carry on anyway without addressing the cause or the result. Someone's gotta do her job well, right?

Then I take that attitude out to dinner with my friends and tell them all about it --about how my colleague is silly, stupid, or whatever bad thing occurs to me, and meanwhile I am of course portrayed fully virtuous in this scenario. Ever the consoling listeners, my friends agree readily with how "in the right" I am and feed my opinion that my colleague causes problems that I shouldn't have to deal with. This affirmation makes me feel great; my brain recognizes the validation as community support which helps alleviates my stress and all is well.

Of course, all is not well. The validation in this one-sided story immediately or eventually feeds a sense of superiority. Next thing you know, I'm acting out my thoughts without a trace of compassion for anyone's comfort but my own (because, after all, I'm right and better).

Venting may relieve stress in the short term, but it encourages us to associate with a one-sided illusion. We don't live in bubbles, and it doesn't serve our true happiness to concoct hierarchies of value amongst ourselves.

I am no more or less worthy of compassion and understanding than my meanest foes --or my silly colleague. My colleague's blunder, whatever it was, has an explanation, even if that explanation is that she had one too many drinks the night before and she's just not herself at work because of it. Who hasn't been in a situation of that sort?

My irritation with my colleague would be equally and more immediately soothed by simply getting the facts, trying to see things from her perspective, and holding space for her misfortune not as a cause for value judgment, but as an opportunity for compassion. Not only will I feel better, but I'm more likely to then be empowered with the emotional desire to help her.

Even if I can't help my colleague (like how I feel powerless to help a homeless person I pass on the street), remembering another person's humanity and holding space for a forgiving thought will at the very least help me feel better, and if I feel good, I'm more likely to smile at someone down on her luck than to growl at her for getting in my way.

We are all pretty much the same. Compassion is one way we can show that we know it. And on the plus plus side? It comes with its own brain high, too.

hari om tat sat!

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