Verbal Ventilation: The highway to intimacy and the key process of therapy By Pete Walker, MFT on 5/14/13 - 12:21 PM

I was standing in the waiting room before my first session with a new therapist some twenty years ago, when I perused a cartoon that she had displayed on her bulletin board. In panel 1 of the wordless cartoon, a woman with a dark cloud over her head is talking to a friend who has a shining sun over hers. In panel 2, as the first woman gestures in a way that indicates complaining, the cloud covers her friend’s sun. In panel 3, the cloud emits a bolt of lightning, she angrily catharts, and her friend glowers along with her. In panel 4, the cloud rains on them as they embrace, commiserating in the rain of their own tears. In panel 5, relief spreads on their faces as the cloud moves away from the sun. In panel 6, the sun shines over both of them, as they smile and slip into pleasant conversation.

I have come to call this process verbal ventilation, and I believe it is a key healing process in therapy and a key bonding process in intimacy. Verbal ventilation occurs when an attunement to our feelings guides us in choosing what we say—a powerful enactment of Jung's dictum that feelings tell us what is important to us.

In therapy, verbal ventilation is the penultimate metabolizer of emotional pain. It is speaking or writing in a manner that airs out and releases painful feelings. When we let our words spring from what we feel, language is imbued with emotion, and pain can be released through what we say or write.
When my wife and I join each other on the couch after one of us has put our son to bed, we often reconnect via some version of this process. Spontaneously taking turns checking in with our feelings to use them to tell us what is most important right now, we share and process the ups and downs of our day.

Many times like my clients, what seems to arise in each of us is the need to share about what was most difficult, before the lighter stuff naturally arises to the forefront of our consciousness. Perhaps this is a reflection of a reality that the novelist David Mitchell describes thusly: “Good moods are as fragile as eggs, bad ones as fragile as bricks.” I once had an ex-priest client who called verbal ventilating traveling through the catacombs to get to the cathedrals.

I specialize in working with clients who were extensively traumatized in their childhood families. Many of them present as developmentally arrested in their ability to relationally regulate their emotional stress through verbal ventilation. Their parents routinely attacked, shamed or abandoned them for emotional expression. Now, whenever they have the urge to verbally ventilate, the critic steps in and slaughters their self-expression with self-contempt.

Neuroscience research increasingly suggests, perhaps through the vehicle of mirror neurons, that human interaction is a powerful process for helping us work through states of hyperarousal and intensely dysphoric emotion.

A key therapy task for my traumatized clients is the practice of verbal ventilation. While the client vents, we work together to deconstruct her critic. It seems that as I compassionately respond to her painful disclosures, we are engaged in a process of co-regulating her emotional pain. Perhaps mirror neurons are also the circuitry behind the process of modeling.

The cartoon described above also reminds me of my archetypal, favorite session, which fortunately occurs increasingly with my clients. Here is an example of it: A well-practiced client begins his session lost in an emotional flashback to his painful past. He verbally ventilates about it. He is the regressed hurt child, feeling bad, and part of him is sad and part of him is mad. He has lost the experience of feeling whole and integrated, and this loss is like a death that responds well to grieving.
As he cries and angers out his pain from his right brain, he is welcomed by my right brain commiserating with his grief. Our dialog also helps him to connect his feelings with an integrating, left-brain understanding. Typically, during the hour he moves back from the past to the knowing and integration he normally has when he is not regressed or in a flashback.

And typically, this is accompanied by an authentic return of his sense of humor (Duchenne laughter*), not the sarcastic, bullying, non-Duchenne* humor of his critic, with which he prefaced the session. He laughs with the surprised relief of having been released from what moments ago felt like interminable suffering.

Finally, I also notice that in the most successful therapies, my clients move on when they have formed a primary relationship in which reciprocal verbal ventilation is well established.

*See Judith Kay Nelson’s excellent book, What Made Freud Laugh, for an excellent exploration on these two types of laughter.

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy