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.