Let’s face it, people can be difficult at times. Feelings get hurt. Misunderstandings can brew. You may need to talk to someone or you may be tempted to talk to everyone. What are the limits? How can you work through your feelings to a good resolution without falling into the gossip trap? Here are some ways to discern.

Counsel

I’ve been amazed over the years how often a client will express a sense of guilt or shame to me for expressing their anger with a family member or friend. For many, they’ve held their feelings in for years believing it’s wrong to talk about others. This is especially true for those coming from dysfunctional homes where the family rule is silence and denial. But holding it in has its price, not only emotionally, but physically as well. Seeking counsel is a wise decision.

When talking to a counselor, keep in mind that the goal is understanding and healing both for yourself, and in most cases, for the relationship that’s been damaged. When your feelings are strong, you may need to vent and allow them to be experienced and expressed before you can get a rational hold on them and work toward solutions. This is an important part of the therapeutic process and is not a sin. Working with a professional counselor or clergy person has its advantages.

First, they can help you sort out and define your feelings. There is usually an assortment of emotions you may be experiencing but can only define them as “upset” or “angry.” Anger arises in response to other emotions so by understanding each emotion you may be feeling you have the necessary information to eventually decide how to best respond to the conflict. For instance, you may be angry that your husband forgot your anniversary. But what’s under that anger is hurt—it made you feel unloved and that threatened your sense of security in the relationship. Expressing that hurt and fear to your husband is generally more productive than just expressing your anger. A good counselor can help you to sort things out and respond more effectively.

Second, a professional can offer you objectivity. Since they do not have a relationship with the other person they can evaluate the conflict without any preconceived notions or feelings of their own. Although their priority is to help you, a professional offers more than just a cheering section. They will take the whole picture into account and help you to explore what may be the other person’s perspective to give you a more balanced view.

Third, talking to a professional is private. You can safely express your feelings without the worry that others will find out or get hurt.

Venting

Sometimes things happen in the course of a day or week that may not require professional intervention per se, but you may need to vent your feelings and sort them out with someone. That’s understandable and can be very healthy—but some rules should apply here.

First, be judicious about who you choose to talk to. When you’re really upset it can be tempting to talk to the first person who’ll listen or to everyone who will. This can be a big mistake. Choose someone who is mature and objective. Whenever possible talk to someone who is unrelated to the person with whom you are upset. It can be a friend, a prayer partner, a priest, pastor, or counselor.

Clarify at the outset that you need simply to vent and that you would like them to keep what you share confidential. You may already know the right thing to do and simply need a listening ear as you process your feelings. That’s ok. Or you may be so upset that you can’t figure out how to respond and you need their input. Also ok. I know for me sometimes I need to check my feelings to see if perhaps I’m overreacting or missing something. A good friend will be honest with you and call you out when need be.

Remember, the primary goal of venting is to reduce the intensity of your emotions to restore your equilibrium. Every conflict doesn’t have to be discussed with the offending party to be resolved. Often simply getting those feelings out and praying is enough in minor situations and nothing more is needed.

A word of advice: as tempting as it is to talk to someone with similar problems, it can be a mistake. For instance, if you are upset with your spouse, talking to an unhappily married or bitter divorced friend may only fan the flames and not help you toward a good resolution. In such a situation, look for someone who is in or has had successful relationships. They will more likely give you the best advice.

Gossip

Can venting cross the line and become gossip? Sure. Here are some ways to know when it’s gossip.

First, consider what you’re saying. Are you sharing information about another that is not rightfully yours to share? You may have heard or been told that someone is having an affair or had an abortion or spends too much money on plastic surgery. Some of that information may be in the public domain but making it the subject of your conversation may be uncharitable. How does this information make this other person look in the eyes of others? Does it enhance their reputation or detract from it? Gossip is often referred to as the sin of detraction for that very reason.

Second, why does this other person or people need to hear this information? I’m amazed how often people tell me things about others out of the blue and for no good reason. For most, it’s simply a bad habit and they haven’t thought through the repercussions of what they’re saying. There are times it may be appropriate to share less than flattering information about another. If, for instance, a family member borrowed money from you and spent it on drugs and is now looking to other family members, letting them know your experience may benefit both parties. The intention is to warn or help, not to detract or gossip and should be done with charity, circumspection, and in privacy whenever possible. At other times you may share something to ask for prayers for another. Even then, simply asking for prayers for a special intention may be more appropriate and prudent.

But it’s not gossip if it’s true!

FALSE! Many people fall into that trap. Just because something is true does not mean others are entitled to that information or that you have the right to share it. Remember, we’re all fallen and each of us has our struggles. There’s often more to a situation than meets the eye. Err on the side of charity always. Words, once spoken, are not easily retracted. Silence is truly golden.