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An LEOs Prerogative to Vent

Mike’s take…

I’m not sure exactly where I once read this line, or if maybe it was a wry comment from a coworker (and even then I have no idea if it was original or quoted from another) that lodged in my brain.  I do know I laughed in recognition – both in myself and at seeing friends and coworkers reflected in its simple truth.  The particular line is (and may whoever originated it forgive me if I paraphrase):

“It is the policeman’s prerogative to bitch!”

And do we ever!

Sure, we tend to give it other names and perhaps we should here, too; so, for the sake of polite company (in case any “polite company” happen to wander onto a police website by accident, or something) let’s call it VENTING.

And do we ever vent!

To be fair, really, there’s no small venting in police work; we turn it into an art form!  We vent about the criminals we chase, the foolish/naïve/ungrateful citizenry we do our best to protect, and the bosses we work under (and, if you’re a boss, about the whiny, lazy, borderline insubordinate rabble-rousers below you).  Unions vent about management and management the unions (and woe to the former union president now climbing the ranks of management!).  We vent about politicians and prosecutors, defense counsel and judges.  We vent about appellate courts and the decisions they render and how it makes the job just a bit tougher… unless we agree and then we vent about the blind fools who don’t agree!  

But if you want to hear some extra special, exquisitely inspired venting, just bring up the media!  Wow!!… that’s some venting (for the record, as a part-time dabbler on that dark side, you – okay, we – ain’t always a walk-in-the-park even as the intended media audience, either).

Venting isn’t confined to the ranks of law enforcement, of course, and people from all walks of life are quite good at voicing displeasure with the status quo.  I grew up in a family of, and around, educators – further denizens of public bureaucracy – and was raised up in the fine art of beefing.  Check out the “comments’ section attached to most newspaper articles and observe how readily folks take advantage of the chance to gripe.  Nonetheless, it often seems we in law enforcement are particularly prolific. 

The thing is, venting feels good… at least, in the moment.  I used to believe it cathartic.  Healthy.  Even productive.  It made sense that blowing off steam allowed us to come together, put words to shared frustrations and feel solidarity with, and empathy for, comrades in arms (and perceived injustice).  Not so much anymore. 

Of course, there is a time for venting and, of course, getting frustration and pressure off your chest and put to voice does have its own value; sometimes venting is a good way to emotionally purge and then move on.  It becomes a problem when there is never anything else but venting and it is never simply a precursor to problem-solving.  More and more, I see venting for its own sake as a problem and not simply a symptom.  Too many who vent are happy enough to settle into their discontent and never move beyond venting.  Then I see it not as a healthy release but as a toxic habit.  And I see it as potentially emotionally – and maybe even physically – dangerous if not managed correctly.

Althea’s input

Mike is right, it feels good in the moment, but what are the long term effects on agency morale, your mood, and in your relationships?  Is it truly constructive or destructive?

I know those of you who vent and complain are going to argue with me on this, but venting and complaining is destructive.  It feeds into the problem rather than finding a solution or reframing our negative thoughts into the positive reactions that result in positive emotions.  Venting and complaining are often forms of unfiltered “I can say whatever I want with no consequences” type of communication.  And often the person vented on is being ambushed with no concern for how they are feeling that day or what they are doing.  Moreover, the person venting is often self-absorbed in their emotional response and is oblivious to how their words affect others. 

I’ve often found the person feeling a need or right to vent does not really want any solutions or help solving the problem behind their distress or anger; they just want to release their emotional upheaval so they can feel better but again, what about the other person?  The “venter” has just transferred all their negative energy onto the “ventee.”  The venter gets to walk away leaving the ventee feeling like crap.  The venter gets to feel better until bothered, frustrated, irritated, peeved, or angered by something else.  And there is always a something else.  For those of us on the receiving end, we get tired of it or, if we’re just the designated ventee about outside problems, the complaining just becomes so much white noise.

So venting and complaining is not a good solution, it just creates more problems.  As a therapist – or sometimes even in social situations - when I see a venter or complainer come my way, I get a knot in my stomach (which is how I know I’m in an emotionally unhealthy situation, am being manipulated, or maybe have an Axis 2 client) and want to walk away because the first thought that goes through my mind is, “What now?’ Habitual complainers always have a problem with something.

The research of the literature also suggests that people who constantly vent and complain usually have exaggerated an emotional response; they are not seeing the reality of the situation, but they distort it and see it for something it is not.  They make a bigger deal out of something than it needs to be or is.  They are also people who blame others, or circumstances they believe beyond their control, for their distress instead of seeking a solution or taking personal responsibility.  This puts them in a state of helplessness, and in the role of victim.  Venters and complainers will often state, as written by psychologist Matthew McKay in his book “When Anger Hurts” that “they experience less support, less enjoyment, and a greater sense of loneliness than their non-hostile counterparts. For many people, the price of anger is isolation. Friendships are distant, love relationships severed."  Inveterate venters and complainers often have a history of conflictual, broken, and failed relationships.

Another reason people vent is that they actually have very poor coping skills, struggle with change, and have poor emotional resiliency.  All these open a person up for lower immune system, depression, anxiety, and less contentment with life.

How I explain this to my clients is “if you are someone who is most often angry, venting, or complaining, people will get tired of you.”  They will walk away.  They experience you as emotionally immature, and in that you lose credibility.  You also lose trust because the people around you, who want to be there, never know what is going to set you off into your venting mode so that they feel like they have to walk on eggshells around you.  This only provokes anxiety for the other person.  It also puts the responsibility of your mood onto others and asks them to be your caretaker and rescuer instead of a peer.  It is an improper power balance.  In essence you are giving the other person control over how you feel and, when you feel bad, it is their fault.  When you get stuck in that mindset people around you will feel drained, worn out, and emotionally fatigued.  They eventually leave because nothing they do is ever enough and there is always – always -another problem.  And in all this you are not there for them.

So based upon the explanation of venting and complaining, can you imagine what happens when a husband is going home and venting to their spouse & family about the job?  Is that a place people want to live?  Imagine an agency of 50 LEOs with 10 of them habitually complaining?  What does that do for morale & job productivity, especially if that is being role-modeled by supervisors?  Imagine what it does for the person who is the venter and their mood.  Do they feel contentment, happiness, or fulfillment or do they feel angry, anxious, sad, and helpless?  Living inside of their mind is an emotional roller coaster. 

Next month we are going to look at other forms of communication that allow you to express what is getting you ramped up that are productive and emotionally satisfying for everyone.  It’s not about denying yourself of your emotions or holding them in, but learning how to manage change and frustrations effectively.


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About The Authors:

Althea Olson, LCSW has been in private practice in the Chicago suburbs since 1996. She has a Master of Social Work degree from Aurora University providing individual, couple, & group therapy to adolescents, adults, and geriatrics. Althea is also trained in Critical Incident Stress Management & is a certified divorce mediator.

Mike Wasilewski, MSW has been with a large suburban Chicago department since 1996. He holds a Master of Social Work degree from Aurora University and has served on his department’s Crisis Intervention & Domestic Violence teams. Mike is an adjunct instructor at Northwestern College.

Mike & Althea have been married since 1994 and have been featured columnists for Officer.Com since 2007. Their articles are extremely popular and they now provide the same training and information in person throughout the United States. This dynamic team was recently featured at the at the 2010 & 2011 ILEETA Conference & Exposition.

Out of their success has come the formation of More Than A Cop where the focus is providing consultation and trainings on Survival Skills Beyond The Street.