Who doesn’t love a good venting session? It can be sooo therapeutic. Unfortunately, not all venting sessions are created equal. Why is this? Venting sessions often require some boundary setting ahead of time. Does that seem extreme? Have you ever been on the end of a venting session where the vent-er told you something so traumatic you felt icky and possibly even a little triggered? You were ambushed. My guess is the venter didn’t set the stage first, see if it was a good time for you, or think about what gory details they could omit before they opened their mouths. (FYI in this post when I refer to “venting sessions” I will be more focussed on ones where potentially sad/traumatic info is being shared, not so much a venting session about traffic, the subway, or a bad haircut.)
I’m not even going to pretend that I’m an expert venter. In fact, I have witnessed the face of the ambushed vent-ee following a story I was processing and thought to myself, “Yeah I think I just gave them nightmares, crap….” Regardless of the field you work in or how you spend your days, you are going to be exposed to some rough stories and experiences. Some of us need to process by verbally working it out, and if this is your mode of processing I’m right there with you. However I think us verbal processors could do with some reminders with how to respectfully process with one another.
There are times when you may not be able to wait for supervision, or a coffee date with your BFF or an evening catch up about the day with your partner. So when a difficult story presents itself you may suddenly rely on the person who is around you in that moment to help you work it through.
Francoise Mathieu, author of “The Compassion Fatigue workbook” has a list of questions to as yourself before you lay into the gory details of a traumatic story.
“Is this conversation a:
Debriefing? Case consultation? Fireside chat? Work lunch? Parking lot catch-up? Children’s soccer game? Holiday party? Pillow talk?
Is the listener:
Aware that you are about to share graphic details? Able to control the flow of what you are about to share with them?
If it is a case consultation or a debriefing:
Has the listener been informed that it is a debriefing or are you sitting in their office chatting about your day? Have you given them fair warning?”
Why are these helpful things to be aware of ahead of time? Because often when you have just been faced with a particularly traumatic story, your self awareness and awareness of what others are experiencing is thrown out the window. I’ve been on the train listening to people loudly process a rough sexual abuse story with children within ear shot (and no doubt some sexual abuse survivors as well.) Had they paid better attention to their volume, and those who could hear them, they might have limited details or even decided to find a better processing spot that was not the subway.
As caregivers we want to make sure we are not spreading trauma by not having an awareness of our surroundings. Additionally, folks will be more prepared to help you process something if you set the stage a bit. If you are grabbing an ice cream cone talking about your weekend with a friend, set the stage before you “slime” them with your venting session. ASK them if they are up for processing something first. Be deliberate about the details you share. If it’s an awful story involving abuse of any kind, spare folks the details if they are not pertinent to the story. Pay attention to their body language and facial expressions. Are they squirming and looking like they want to run? Check in. This might not be the right person to vent with.
Vicarious trauma is real, let’s try to not be the instigators of it.
On the flip side, if you find yourself suddenly getting ambushed remember you have every right to take control of the venting session and state what your capacity is in that moment. You do NOT have to be a victim of a vicarious trauma ambush if you are not a willing or able listener in that moment. Just like all boundary setting, in may feel awkward to do initially. But go ahead and be awkward. We often give awkward moments way too much power over us. You can’t pour from any empty cup, right?
Take care of YOU.