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Anger, the Misunderstood Emotion

In turning to the regulation of anger, the catharsis (venting) theory of anger regulation persists to this day. This was first suggested by Freud, who postulated that acting aggressively purges angry feelings. However, from the first investigations of this theory by Hornberger in 1959, research has shown this to be a myth. In fact the opposite has been repeatedly found. That is, venting has been shown to increase anger and aggression.123 This is because the venting process acts as a form of negative reinforcement, helping people to feel good in the short term, but increasing their tendency towards anger and aggression in the longer term.4 Put simply, venting is a method of practicing being angry.

This is not to say that suppression of anger is the answer, as we know that suppressing emotional experiences tends to intensify them as well. But an acknowledgement of the anger episode and doing nothing, in terms of expressing it, has been shown to be more effective than venting (i.e. “I’m feeling angry” vs. “they’re a bloody idiot for doing …”).

These points do not mean to suggest that there are not healthy forms of annoyance, frustration, and dislike of others behaviors. However, as Ellis (1994) suggests, these have different cognitive, behavioral, neurological, and emotional profiles to anger. It is through these healthy emotions and underlying values (e.g. respect, acceptance) that we are best motivated to make change when we have been wronged or threatened (i.e. I want to respect you as a flawed human being, while at the same time respecting myself and fostering your respect of me).

Such a focus on respect allows for a more nuanced understanding of the factors contributing to other’s behavior, which allows us to then respond in a more adaptive manner. It also allows for measured defensive behaviors, if required, and is the basis for efforts at truly assertive communication that is respectful of both parties.

The process required to get to such a position typically involves letting go of one’s expectations.5 The trick with this is that many of the expectations we hold appear reasonable. The problem here is that expectations are a rigid cognitive process and block understanding and acceptance of issues we don’t like. They are also unrealistic, in that they deny the reality of life. For instance, expecting that others should treat you with respect denies the fact that there are numerous reasons why people may be motivated to act in a manner that you view as disrespectful (e.g. stress, generational differences, cultural differences, being substance affected, mental health issues). The more adaptive version of the thought is instead stated as a preference or desire that is matched with acceptance (i.e. I would like to be treated with respect but accept that this is not always going to be the case). Typically, this isn’t overly difficult with less important issues or when more distant from a situation but can be much more difficult when we are directly confronted with challenging situations.

Thus, it is important to consider how we relate to our anger, and how we let it influence our decision making. However, if we can also change how we relate to the external world, letting go of our expectations of others, and life more generally, we can reduce the initial experience of anger and the potential for its impact on our decision making in the first place.

Anger, the Misunderstood Emotion

Footnotes:

  1. Hornberger, R.H. (1959). The differential reduction of aggressive responses as a function of interpolated activities. American Psychologist, 14 []
  2. Bushman, B.J., Baumeister, R.F., & Stack, A.D. (1999). Catharsis, aggression, and persuasive influence: Self-fulfilling or self-defeating prophecies? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 76(3): 367-376. []
  3. Bushman, J. (2002). Does Venting Anger Feed or Extinguish the Flame? Catharsis, Rumination, Distraction, Anger, and Aggressive Responding. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28(6): 724-731 []
  4. Lewis, W. A., & Bucher, A. M. (1992). Anger, catharsis, the reformulated frustration-aggression hypothesis, and health consequences. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 29(3), 385-392 []
  5. Denson, T.F, Grisham, J.R., & Moulds, M.L. (2012). The effects of analytical rumination, reappraisal, and distraction on anger experience. Behavioral Therapy, 43(2). 355-364. []


Dr. James Collard

APA Reference
Collard, D. (2019). Anger, the Misunderstood Emotion. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 14, 2019, from https://psychcentral.com/lib/anger-the-misunderstood-emotion/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 28 Feb 2019
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 28 Feb 2019
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