Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Why Venting Actually Increases Anger

Back in the repressed Victorian days of Sigmund Freud, women used to faint or become paralyzed when something upset them, and men did what men in repressed emotional environments do---destroy things, drink too much, have affairs, and develop strange disorders. What Freud and others learned from this dysfunction fest is that repression is not a good coping strategy. Feelings need to see the light of day so they don't fester.

From that came the idea that expressing one's feelings was necessary to maintain emotional health. We should cry when we're sad, communicate honestly when necessary, and vent our frustration when we're angry. In fact, therapists even went so far as to recommend that we beat a pillow or punching bag and pretend that this object was the target of our anger. The idea was that this practice would safely get the anger out of our systems.

The funny thing about this still widely accepted theory is that research is now finding that venting one's anger only exacerbates it. It's like throwing kindling on a fire. Beating a pillow might feel good in the moment and wear a person out, but it actually reinforces one's aggressive tendencies, and functions as a rehearsal for future anger responses.

Likewise, ruminating about one's anger (or injustices suffered) also exacerbates it. What helps? According to a landmark study and article entitled, Does Venting Anger Feed or Extinguish the Flame?, "distraction" proved to be a better option than venting or ruminating. Do something else. Think about something else.

Well, that makes sense, but how long before the anger creeps back into our thoughts? We're not robots who can program our minds to never to think of something upsetting. That sounds a lot like repression, if you ask me.

Personally, the most valuable wisdom I've encountered on this topic came from the book, Anger, by Thich Nhat Hanh (which I shared about in the November 26th post). According to Hanh, anger is not something to be repressed or acted out, but something to be honored and transformed. In it's true form, it's not a dangerous beast, but a cry for help, and when we go within and take care of our anger, it changes into something gentle. It heals, and so do we.