Anger Revisited

I don’t deal well with anger, rarely express it, and when I’m the target of another’s wrath, I withdraw, literally if possible. I have few memories of angry outbursts in my childhood home, nor were they part of my marriage or later family life. Only vicariously have I been witness to rage, that of actors or characters in a book.

Have I been proud of this? No. For as a young adult I was schooled in the Freudian psychoanalytic theory that the expression of anger yields the catharsis of purging aggressive feelings, a premise still widely accepted. I’ve criticized the absence of such displays in my family, even in my marriage. What hidden harm was being done by these learned but questionable repressed behaviors? Wasn’t denying the expression of strong emotions a major source of depression? Surely the healthier way to live was to release angry feelings as they arose.

The former mediation clients who bring this issue vividly to mind told me they were determined to maintain a friendly connection as parents, and their conversations in my presence were amiable, if somewhat guarded. In private, however, both described many unhappy years as they drifted apart, and each blamed the other for the failure of their relationship. Nevertheless, our work was proceeding well.

Then one morning the husband sent me a copy of an email written to his lawyer instructing him to inform his wife’s counsel that he had cancelled her car insurance and that maybe her health insurance would be next. Without delay I contacted him to find out what had sparked this hostile act.

He told me that something his wife said the night before aroused his resentment and he gave full force and voice to his pent-up rage. The end result: the next morning he cancelled her insurance.

I assured him I understood that venting in this way had provided a welcome release, but suggested his move might well derail the almost completed settlement process. I urged him to deal with his anger in some other way. He was a golfer. Why not go to a driving range and whack an entire bucket of balls. He indicated he might well do just that.

I felt wise and helpful. But apparently I was not.
For, coincident with these events, I started reading a fascinating book by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, “Mistakes Were Made (but not by me)”. Both authors are prominent social psychologists and their text cites a number of studies that conclude that the commonly held belief that the expression of anger results in a healthy catharsis that gets rid of anger and reduces blood pressure, is dead wrong. Quite the opposite is true. And here is what they point out:

The premise that “if you throw a doll, hit a punching bag (while imagining the source of your anger), or shout at your spouse, you’ll feel better afterward is simply untrue”. In recent decades experimental research has found exactly the opposite: that “when people vent their feelings aggressively they often feel worse, pump up their blood pressure, and make themselves even angrier.” This, the authors reason, is because “when you do something that harms someone else—get them in trouble, verbally abuse them, or punch them out— a powerful new factor comes into play: the need to justify what you did”. Studies detailed in their book show that following angry outbursts, the mechanism of self-justification takes over, so that we can continue to see ourselves as the good person on which our self-esteem is based. In mitigating or excusing our own behavior, the predictable next step is to place blame on the “other”, which in the moment of increased aggressive feelings often leads to revenge (canceling the insurance).
The conclusion: “Justifying the first hurtful act sets the stage for more aggression. That’s why the catharsis hypothesis is wrong. . . a vicious cycle is created. Aggression begets self-justification, which begets more aggression”.

I understand that mental health professionals today distinguish between suppressed and repressed anger, suppression being perfectly fine if done for good reason (i.e. to avoid losing a job), while repressing awareness of anger, and its source, can indeed lead to trouble. An important distinction.
So, I called my client back, described these newly gained insights and then said: I think it’s a good thing to recognize and even taste your anger, and do your best to understand the source. But scratch the golf ball plan.
            He reinstated the insurance.

20 thoughts on “Anger Revisited

  1. I found this one especially interesting and thought provoking.
    Thanks,
    Mary

    Mary Asbury, Executive Director
    Legal Aid Society of Greater Cincinnati
    215 E. 9th Street, Suite 200
    Cincinnati, OH 45202
    (513) 362-2800 Direct
    (800) 582-2682 Toll Free
    (513) 241-0047 FAX

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  2. Bea-your insight in this post is so relevant and helpful. I continue to find new ways to look at life’s up-and-downs thanks to you! Pam

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  3. Thanks, Bea. That’s an important observation. I agree that “venting” anger, giving full force and expression to it, does not reduce or cure it. I do think that working out or working through the problem giving rise to anger, especially with a close person perceived as a cause, is usually healthy.
    My wife advocates “mapping the contribution” to such problems: each person names their own part rather than blaming the other. It probably takes more than an average amount of emotional intelligence; fortunately for me she has it.

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    1. Bob, and Chris, I would like to know more about “mapping the contribution”. Suggest something to read? Does it work for those who are not yet fully aware of the source of their feelings? Bea

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  4. Anger is a tricky emotion, isn’t it? Your piece expresses it well. I appreciate how you share the process you went through to learn about anger and help others deal with it better. I remember the days of recommending punching a pillow and punching a punching bag to “work through” anger. Doesn’t work, as you point out.

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    1. I am especially grateful for validation from those, like yourself, wise in the ways of the human condition. Thank you, again, for giving me the needed push to get this blog going again. Bea

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  5.  I found this one especially interesting, Bea. My mother used to tell me to punch a pillow if I was angry! Dan and I never did raise our voices in anger..just got quiet, I think..and then time would pass and life would go on. One grown daughter has told me she was quite frightened when her husband raised his voice in anger as she had not experienced that before!. Sent your post on to all three daughters as I found it good food for thought.Trust that’s ok.Meanwhile life continues good for me…Have just completed a piece of writing too long to be a short story but not long enough for a novel..Great fun to research and write..I am so grateful to be unendingly creative as I see folks here in this retirement home kinda lost without anything of interest to light up the day.Keep writing!Vivian

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    1. Thank you, Vivian. I’m delighted to know you sent this commentary on to your daughters. Len and I also would go silent, then usually talk about whatever the issue was at some later time. As for writing, I loved reading your previous book of letters between you and Dan and now would like to read your “novella”, if that is what it might be called. Is it likely to be available in some form? I have a book in the works which is really a collection of essays. I should talk with you about your publivation experience. And I have a friend I would like to meet you to talk about your retiremenet home decision. So, thanks for the encouragement. Bea

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  6. Hi Bea, Just wanted to let you know I really enjoy your posts. You have great insight, writing style and I appreciate your sharing your life lessons with us. I get a lot out of them. Amy

    AMY MURRAY aymurray@mac.com 513-290-1196

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    1. Amy,
      Thank you so much. Praise from someone I admire is so very welcome. It is good to watch, from a distance, the goings-on at City Hall. We can always count on you for a civil, intelligent and constructive statement. And for that, many of us send our thanks.

      Bea

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  7. Bea: Thanks for another thoughtful post. Anger is a complicated emotion. We generally think of it in negative terms. When we get angry, we lose control, and act in ways that are destructive and at odds with our humanity. Many times we keep our anger bottled up inside because of the fear of losing control, which is not healthy. At other times we find ways to vent our anger, the punching the pillow routine, or hitting a bucket of golf balls. We might be tired at the end but at least we haven’t hurt someone. In this regard I am skeptical of the research you cite. I think is is a good thing to go to the driving range, or do something equivalent, to vent anger. If you don’t do something like that what would the social scientists you cite have us do? That kind of activity for me at least clears the anger and helps get things in perspective. In a different context, anger can also be a positive emotion when directed to good ends. I don’t think there is much doubt that it was the anger of voters in suburban congressional districts — particularly women — that delivered the resounding victory for Democrats in the midterm elections, restoring the House to Democratic control and offering the first ray of hope that the insanity and corruption of Donald Trump and his administration can be checked and ultimately ended. Ginger and I vent our anger practically every evening by hurling obscenities and epithats at the television whenever Donald Trump appears on the screen — clearly a loss of control! I would be terribly embarrassed for anyone to see, or hear, us, but I suppose we feel a little better afterwards. It is true, I believe, that our anger coping skills are a carry over for how anger was or was not dealt with in our childhoods. That is not an easy thing to overcome but having good communication skills and a trust relationship go a long way to heading off serious problems. In any case, as always, thanks for your good work. Ginger and I send warm wishes and hope you are well. John

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    1. John,

      So good to hear from you. I hope the healing process is going well.

      I find your thoughts challenging. You always did cause me to take a step back and think.

      I certainly would promote recognizing anger when it arises.

      As a third party witnessing it in a mediation session, I urged my client to do just that but then to become strategic. Sometimes i called for redefining the goal first, then to make a plan. That, I believe, is just what women candidates did this past November. They became strategic. That became their fuel.

      That said, I am delighting in imagining you and Ginger hurling epithets at the TV screen.

      Love and good wishes to you both, Bea

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