How To Vent To Your Friends Without Bringing Them Down

There’s a fine line between venting and becoming a burden. Here’s how to walk it.

middle aged man venting to his friend at a bar

Good friends are a cherished commodity. They help you move and cut down trees. They invite you over for the game. And they listen to your problems. And they listen. And sometimes they listen some more. You love their support and patience — and return it in kind — but there’s a part of you that worries that you’re overstaying your welcome and venting too much.

You don’t want to become that guy. You know, the one who goes on and on about his problems at work or with his family and has no clue that he’s going on and on, and eventually becomes a drag.

The good news is that the transformation to that guy doesn’t happen immediately. “You’re only that guy if you’re that guy all the time,” says Carol Landau, clinical professor emerita of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University.

But what if you are that guy all the time, or just most of the time? The problem is that it’s hard to know, because what’s saying too much to one friend on one day isn’t to another on a different day. The simple solution is to just keep quiet, never say a word, right? But that’s not healthy or really feasible and it also jettisons the vulnerability that many good friendships require.

You want to vent and share. Scratch that, you need to vent and share. Releasing that steam valve is important. You gain perspective, maybe a solution, and you end up feeling good. And so do they, because people love to be relied on and valued, which only comes when asked to help.

It says “Oh you trust me enough to confide in me,” says Sarah Epstein, licensed marriage and family therapist in Dallas.

Of course, you don’t want to lose that support, which is really hard to do, but the following can help you head it off long before it happens and keep your friendships strong and your friends from feeling burnt out by you.

1. Pick Your Moments Wisely

You might know intrinsically what your friends can and can’t do, but you sometimes forget, especially when you’re caught in a crisis and need to vent. Some friends are great at listening. Some love to give advice. Some have five minutes of patience. It’s up to you to know who to call on and play to their strengths, Epstein says.

With that, have more than one person you can go to for any problem. You collectively save their energy and you don’t keep hearing the same advice or get the same reactions. In this setup, everybody stays fresh.

“Spread the love. Spread the venting,” offers Mike Brooks, licensed psychologist in Austin, Texas.

2. Start With A Plan

Before you speak, take time to figure out what you actually need. Is it to purely vent? Is it to get advice? Is it some combination of the two? It can be anything, but the more you know, the more chances you have to get it. Then clue in your friend. Don’t just dive bomb them with your problems. With the expectations set at the beginning, there’s little chance for people working at cross purposes and for anyone to get frustrated.

And then add whatever else would help. Tell them to call you out if you’re repeating yourself, going on too long or if it’s becoming too much. You always need to be aware of your friend’s non-verbal cues. And by doing this you’ve built in a valve for the other person to give feedback and to say if it’s too much, a necessary component to making this work.

“You don’t get to decide if you’re having a negative effect on the friendship,” Brooks says. “They do.”

3. Check In With Yourself

Venting and sharing can be great, but they’re not guarantees. You have to take a second and ask yourself, Is what I’m doing getting me what I need?, Brooks says. It should be making you feel better, and if it does, let the other person know specifically what they did or said that helped and gave you a “twinge of something different,” Epstein says.

If you’re not moving forward, it’s for one of two reasons, Landau says. Venting isn’t working or it’s the wrong friend. Try someone new. Try a different setting or time of day. If that doesn’t work and you’re stuck on the same negative thoughts, that’s when you start bringing up the crisis of the week, Brooks says. It’s when a friend might tap out, because it’s a sign of a bigger issue, like depression, which calls for professional help.

4. Check In All Around

Even if your friend always says “Yes” to listening, never jump right in. Start with, “Is this a good time?” or “I knew I’ve brought this up before, but …” If it’s not urgent, say that it’s not urgent. You are not responsible for their schedule, but it’s hard for anyone to say “No” or “Not now” when something is sprung on them.

“After that, I wouldn’t be so worried about it,” Landau says.

But it’s still not completely about you. During the vent, ask, “You still got time?” After you’re done, say thanks, and that you want to hang out again and hear about what’s going on with them. And when you see them, you ask what’s been going on with them. You take on that responsibility and establish that you’re relationship is two-way, and you’re equally there for them.

“That’s what friendships are built on, and that’s what people are like, and that’s why you won’t be that guy,” she says.