Real talk

How to Vent to Your Friends Without Bringing Them Down

Gentle reminder that your BFF is not your therapist.
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Yulia Lisitsa/Adobe Stock

So you’ve had a really bad day. Maybe it’s because of the annoying work drama you got sucked into, or you’re reeling from an intense argument with a parent or partner. No matter what’s got you worked up, a good old-fashioned vent session with a friend can be a comforting way to blow off steam and talk it out. This means that sometimes you might hit up your closest pals with the nitty-gritty details of childhood trauma, say, or a difficult breakup, in hopes that they can at least make you feel a little better. But have you ever stopped to think about the emotional toll venting can take on those on the receiving end?

You may think that’s what friends are for: listening to all of your problems and offering sympathy, right? But venting can also cross a line. We often forget that our friends are not our therapists, and treating them as such can be damaging to the relationship—and to their mental health, Jaclyn Bsales, LCSW, a trauma-informed therapist based in New Jersey, tells SELF. “Yes, venting can help reduce stress when you’re able to express what’s bothering you,” Bsales says. “But unexpectedly disclosing traumatic or distressing experiences, without considering if the recipient is willing, open, or able to receive this sensitive information, can be harmful and overwhelming.” 

That doesn’t mean you should bottle up all your feelings. Instead, the experts SELF spoke with recommend trying to be mindful about how you choose to vent to a friend. Here are some pointers that can help ensure you’re letting it all out in a way that feels good for both of you. 

Before you vent, give your friend a heads-up.

You might be thinking: Do I really have to ask my best friend for permission to vent? This may feel awkward and unnatural, but something as casual as sending a text before you call, or asking, “Are you free to chat this evening? I really want to talk about this thing that happened at work,” can show them that you respect their time and boundaries, Racine Henry, PhD, LMFT, a therapist and core faculty member at Northwestern University, tells SELF. 

If you give your friend a heads-up, they’re less likely to feel overwhelmed or blindsided when you hit them with your issue of the day, Dr. Henry says. Plus, you’re giving them the option and space to say no or suggest a time when they’ll be better able to support you, she adds, which brings us to our next pointer…

If you’re dealing with something intense, consider scheduling an appropriate time to talk about it.

There’s a time and place for emotionally heavy conversations—and a spontaneous Facetime call on a Tuesday night probably isn’t it. As important as it may seem to get your feelings off your chest (right here! right now!), some conversations may not be appropriate for the moment, Bsales says. There are no hard and fast rules here, but if you’re dealing with a sensitive issue—like a toxic family member or a potential breakup with another friend—scheduling a time to unpack it can help ensure that it gets the attention it deserves (and, again, that you don’t overwhelm your pal).

Of course, it depends on what you’re venting about; if it’s an emergency or some other immediate crisis, you should certainly call your bestie (schedule be damned). But if it can wait, it’s worth giving them a chance to prepare or opt out. Maybe your friend is also having a crappy day and just wants to be alone. Or perhaps they, too, are going through a nasty breakup and aren’t in the right headspace to give advice about your ex. That’s why Bsales suggests asking them if there’s a good day and time to talk about whatever tough thing you’re dealing with, whether it’s in-person or over the phone. 

Think of it as a conversation—not just your personal vent session.

Even if your priority is to rant, it’s important to remember friendships are a two-way street. You may be the one with a pressing problem at the moment, but there’s still a way to make the conversation feel mutually supportive. One way to do this is to thank your friend for their time and return the favor, Bsales suggests. Ask them what’s going on in their life, say, or if there’s anything they want to get off their chest. “Hold space for them to express their emotions and, possibly, their desire to vent as well,” she says. 

This is especially important when discussing more sensitive topics, like grief or abuse, Dr. Henry adds, in order to ensure you’re not inadvertently triggering them. For example, check in and ask if it’s okay to continue sharing or if they need a minute—or to change the subject. “Allow your friend to have a say in the conversation, because they want to be seen and heard too,” Dr. Henry says. “That reciprocity, of letting them know you’re here for them as well, is so important for a mutually supportive relationship.” 

Find other ways to relieve stress. 

When crisis strikes, your first instinct may be to run to your bestie and word-vomit any and everything going through your head. But try not to make it a habit, or else you’ll run the risk of overwhelming them, tiring them out, or making them feel lousy because they couldn’t help you, Dr. Henry and Bsales say.

“It’s important to learn to cope with stress and negative emotions on your own,” Bsales says, whether that means getting some mood-boosting activity (might we suggest a nature walk or a rage run?), writing your thoughts down (or trying a journaling alternative, like voice notes), or maybe taking a quick nap. What you do doesn’t matter so much, as long as it calms you down in the heat of the moment and allows you to take a minute before you dump your difficult emotions—anger, frustration, sadness, anxiety—onto your friend. 

Know when it’s time to see a professional.

A friend can certainly support you through hard times, but if you’re struggling with ongoing, deeply rooted problems (like trauma of any kind or out-of-control anger), the best course of action is probably to see a licensed therapist—a.k.a. someone who is qualified to help you navigate your emotions. A mental health expert can help you work through painful thoughts and feelings and teach you healthy coping skills along the way, Bsales says. (If you’re not already working with a therapist, here are some tips for finding a culturally competent and affordable one.)

Not sure whether seeing a therapist is the right move? Here are some signs it’s time to consider professional help, and Dr. Henry also recommends asking yourself: How much is this issue interfering with my day-to-day life? For example, is the problem temporary like, say, the stress of a big move across the country? Is it fixable in the near future, for instance, if you’re anxious about an upcoming work presentation? Or is the issue you keep venting to your friend about recurring and disrupting your ability to eat, sleep, or work—or even just to feel good and enjoy your life? 

“Friends can be such a great support system and help us get through the toughest of times, but if your mental health is really deteriorating, it may be time to pursue professional care,” Dr. Henry says. Ultimately, no matter how much they care about us, our loved ones can only do so much to make us feel better. And when you rely on a friend as a salve for every emotional struggle, neither of you is going to feel truly supported, seen, or heard.