10/15/2012 04:19 pm ET Updated Dec 15, 2012

How Venting Will Keep You Stuck

To illustrate how venting keeps someone fearful and stuck, I will tell you the story of Rachel, a former patient of mine. Rachel had been seeing her therapist for years, but she wasn't getting better. She was still just as fearful and anxious as she'd been before her first appointment.

Her friend Linda, however, also had fear and anxiety issues, and she had gotten better after just a few months of seeing me. Rachel wondered how Linda had overcome her issues so quickly. "Are my issues more extreme? Maybe I'm more screwed up than Linda is?" she wondered. She suspected, however, that a different reason was to blame. Could it be that her therapy was ineffective?

Rachel decided to find out. She called to ask me a few questions. She told me that she'd been seeing her current therapist for six years.

"How's that going?" I asked.

"Well, it's good to vent," she replied.

"What have you gained by venting for six years?" I asked.

"Well I haven't gotten worse," she said. "It feels good to vent."

Oh, the "it's good to vent" line. I can't tell you how many times I've heard that line, especially from countless patients, like Rachel, as they describe their old therapy. The problem is that venting is merely a way to get temporary relief. It doesn't teach patients how to get better. Case in point: Before seeing me, these patients had been mired in therapy for years. For them, the patient-therapist relationship was one of codependence: The patient depended on the therapist for emotional support, and the therapist depended on the patient for money. The patients had a need to feel listened to and heard. The therapists had a need to pay their overhead and even their summer vacations. To keep the patients coming back, the therapists would warn them of all of the horrific emotional consequences that might befall them if they stopped the therapy. End result: The patients never got better.

I've heard this story way too many times from patients who talk about their former therapists. It's frustrating. Aren't therapists supposed to help people? Why instill fear by telling a patient that she can't stop the therapy? What a tragedy!

When I first counseled Rachel, I said, "There's a difference between feeling better and actually getting better. I want you to get better."

I explained that my approach was different and I didn't just nod my head and listen as patients vented about their problems. Rather, I helped them do something about those problems. My approach was engaging. It was interactive. I gave homework and I held my clients accountable with the goal of them getting better.

Here's how the non-venting approach helped Rachel:

I suggested Rachel come in for an appointment, and I asked her to bring a list of her goals for therapy with her. At the first meeting Rachel told me that she was overworked in her high-stress job in sales, unhappy in her current relationship, lacked confidence, and was fearful of marriage given her parents' divorce. None of it seemed like something that would require six years of therapy. We talked a little about her issue of the day: She didn't know how to get her boyfriend to attend her work functions and was growing increasingly frustrated and depressed about it.

"What have you tried?" I asked.

"I tell him he should be going with me because he's my significant other. Each time he tells me he's busy, that he has his own obligations and events to attend, and that he's never bothered me to attend his events with him," she said.

I knew right away what was wrong with her approach. It was demanding, negative, and uninspiring. Why would he want to go? I asked, "Would you attend his event if he asked you the way you ask him?"

A look came over her face that sort of said, "Oh my."

I gave her paper and asked her to write down all the reasons she wanted her boyfriend to join her beyond just "because he's my significant other." She wrote things such as, "He's charming. He gets along well with a lot of people. It would give him an opportunity to meet my colleagues and understand my job better. It would be fun to get out and break up the work week routine."

She had never told him any of this.

Later, I talked to Rachel about her previous therapy and she told me why she decided to part with the venting only approach: "A few weeks ago I asked my therapist if he had any advice. He answered, 'See you next week.' That's when I realized that things weren't going anywhere and that they never would."

Her venting story, unfortunately, is a common story. It's the norm, not the exception. Defy the norm, stop the venting, and be fearless by thinking about solutions.

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