I was once shadowing a preceptor in the hospital setting who was providing me with on-the-job training. He would go perform various medical procedures, and I would observe and sometimes assist as needed. This was a large-scale hospital with many different departments.
One afternoon, we were called to the neurological (“neuro”) floor. My preceptor for that day had been called to insert a central venous line into a patient. Apparently the neuro floor staff had a reputation for being arrogant. I could sense that my preceptor was on edge on the way there. When we got there, we found out who the patient’s nurse was, but she was nowhere to be found. We asked around, because my preceptor wished to converse with the nurse before the procedure to make sure everyone was on the same page. Of a sudden, the patient’s nurse popped her head out of the staff break room.
“What do you want?” she asked my preceptor curtly.
“We’re here to do the central line,” my preceptor replied.
“Yeah, I don’t know if that’s gonna happen,” said the nurse, her head disappearing back into the break room like she was some kind of sporadic meerkat.
My preceptor was visibly frustrated. “This happens every time I come to neuro. They’re all assholes,” he said. He then began perusing the patient’s chart, searching for an order for the central line, which apparently did not exist.
A few minutes later, one of the desk phones rang. The meerkat popped her head back out, answered the phone, had a brief discussion, and hung up. She then cast a glance at my preceptor and said “Yeah, I’d hold off on that” before disappearing back into her burrow, leaving us still clueless as to whether or not anyone needed our services.
My preceptor had now gone from Dr. Cox’s normal demeanor in Scrubs to almost Jerry Maguire being fired. “Does no one need a f&%$#@g central line!?” he exclaimed, grabbing his supplies and storming out of the neuro unit. On the way back to our unit, I accepted the opportunity to be of service to him by allowing him a space to vent. He didn’t require much coaxing. “They’re always assholes up there. They think they know everything. I’ll be damned if I’m going to put a central line into a patient when her nurse is more concerned about her quesadilla than she is about her patient. . .” And so on, and so on.
During the rest of the day, our work, as usual, carried us to different sections of the hospital, during which my preceptor would “vent” . . . to intensive care, to registration, to radiology, to emergency medicine, to medsurg, etc. He would also continue to “vent” to me en route to different departments. It began to occur to me that as these “vent” sessions progressed, they were becoming less about the act of venting and more about perpetuating the original offense. I began to explore this phenomenon around my own life.
Soon enough in the days which followed, something happened in life which frustrated me. I don’t recall the exact event, so let’s just say it was an intoxicated patient who had come to the emergency department for an emergency syphilis check. I called my girlfriend afterward. In our usual manner, she asked me if I wished to vent or to get feedback (we are routinely up front about these type conversations beforehand, so that advice is not provided when it is not requested). I told her I wished to vent, and vent I did. But standing in the space of this new exploration around venting, I began to become present to how attached I was to the event which had just triggered my anger. My girlfriend was present to it as well, and gently reminded me of it, in addition to how much I was judging this patient who was clearly uneducated about the purpose of emergency medicine. I colorfully told her what she could do with her crap advice. She laughed and reminded me again, only this time with more aggression and some colorful language of her own. (What? Psh . . . I don’t love her).
Anyway, after I hung up the phone with her, guess what I had the strongest, most compelling urge to do? I’ll give you a hint: I doesn’t involve productive communication. The string of these thoughts and experiences led me to realize that we as a society have a great misunderstanding around the act of venting our frustrations.
Around this time, I created a little experiment for myself. It was simple. Anytime any event occurred which produced enough anger within me to feel the need to vent, I allowed myself to do just that. The catch? I was only allowed to vent once. I could vent to the person of my choosing, but only once. Afterward, I had to let it go and move on. This experiment produced some anticipated results; some surprising ones as well. In summary, here is what I discovered:
- a rapid decrease in the number of times I was triggered and felt the need to vent about anything
- a rapid decrease in the amount of time it took to let something go when I was triggered
- a surprising realization of longstanding issues about which I still felt the need to vent (after which I vented once about each issue and let it go)
My friends, this personal experiment eventually became a way of life for me. Here’s the long and the short of it: There is a world of difference between getting something off of your chest (or venting) and welding yourself to a point of view. Most of us do not truly know the power of the word. Language is creation in action. Be careful, dear friends, that vent sessions do not become disguised creations of bitterness and resentment. The more you vent about something, the more likely it is to become a permanent part of your thinking, which is counterintuitive to the purpose of venting.
Vent once, and let it go.