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-=[ Practicing Hate ]=-
I wrote last week, listing five myths about anger. The first one, the belief that venting anger (“letting off steam”), is one of the most destructive. The idea that venting is necessary and helpful has become a cultural assumption. I believe it stems from a misconception from theories expressed by Freud and his followers.
The way the myth goes is that frustration can build up over time and that it must be released one way or another. Bottled up, unexpressed anger supposedly festers in your mind and body, creating both physical and emotional disease and poisoning relationships at work, play, and romance (Bry, 1976). The basic cure, then, is to express your anger, “letting it all out,” in order to cleanse and purify your mind and body (Janov, 1970). This so-called cleansing is sometimes called catharsis, which literally means “purging.” The assumption being that clearing the air results in healthier and happier communication and increases self-esteem.
If that were the case, then my family should be the healthiest family in the known universe. LOL!
After many years of research, the venting idea has been finally put to rest. Dead.
Blowing off steam is not beneficial. One of the most renowned researchers on anger, Carol Tavris, discovered that people most likely to vent their rage simply get more rather than less angry when they do so (Tavris, 1989). In addition, those on the receiving end of their outbursts get angry too. Perhaps you have noticed this in your own interactions. An angry outburst is followed by more anger and shouting, maybe even crying or violence, reaching a climax. Eventually this is followed by exhaustion and withdrawal and/ or an apology. I used to experience the aftermath of an anger event like an alcohol hangover: physical and emotional wreckage and remorse. Have you noticed how this cycle can be replayed repeatedly with no catharsis or decrease in the level of your anger?
Let anger out and it is met with more anger -- the simple law of cause and effect. It is also the exact definition of karma. Negative energy breeds more negative energy. Behavior such as yelling or even talking out an emotion doesn’t reduce anger, it is literally rehearsal for more of the same. Punching a pillow or a punching bag while thinking of someone you dislike or are angry with is rehearsing punching the person. By doing that you are creating more anger, more justification for your hate. There have been numerous studies showing that venting anger actually serves to “freeze” hostility. In other words, it serves to keep you stuck in the anger mindset or attitude (Tavris, 1989).
If you have the awareness, you would know from your own experiences that venting does not make hostile feelings go away. Instead, they tend to stick around longer and haunt you. The fact is that the popular assumption about the way to deal with anger, venting it by letting it all out, is worse than useless. Expressing anger does not reduce anger. It actually makes you angrier. Venting also serves to solidify an angry state of mind, escalates anger and aggression, and does nothing to help you resolve the situation. Furthermore, buying into the idea that letting it all out somehow purifies you is dangerous because it becomes a rationale to hurt others. You may have even done this yourself.
I know what you’re saying right now. You’re probably thinking back to the times where you felt relief after venting your anger. The kicker is that numerous studies have shown that such relief is not a function of venting your anger, but a learned reaction (Hokanson, 1970). Some people have learned to feel relief following the expression of anger just as others have learned to feel shame or increased compassion after venting. This learning involves making the mistake of falsely connecting acting out our anger and the calm that follows after the anger has passed. This is a false connection because the fact is that people would have felt calmer and better anyway after a while, even without acting out their anger.
Yesterday, as I was heading toward the subway an older man brushed against me, gave me a dirty look, and told me to watch where I was walking. I wanted to tell that muthafucka to go fuck himself and a few other choice ideas, but what I said really threw him off his game. While he was in the process of shooting me the bird, I calmly, but firmly, suggested he seek therapy or sex and even offered to help him pay for it. It made everyone (including me) laugh and he actually looked foolish.
The good news is that you can learn new responses and change how you respond to angry feelings. From this perspective, responding to feelings of anger with angry actions becomes a choice rather than an inevitable self-fulfilling prophesy. Reacting impulsively (acting out) as a response to anger is not inevitable or something you need to keep doing.
Bry, A. (1976). How to get angry without feeling guilty.
Hokanson, J. E. (1970). Psychophysiological evaluation of the catharsis hypothesis. In E. I. Megargee & J. E. Hokanson (Eds.), The dynamics of aggression
Janov, A. (1970). The primal scream.
Tavris, C. (1989). Anger: The least understood emotion.