Back in the 1970s, at the height of the human potential movement, encounter groups, and third wave psychology, you couldn’t attend a class or workshop without boffers (cushioned bats) coming into play. We whaled away at pillows, batted at suspended weight bags, made sofa cushions beg for mercy. We were “letting our anger out,” expressing our rage, letting off the steam of repressed emotions. Yeah! It was exhilarating! It was energizing! It was fun!
Turns out it was also stupid.
Despite the popular notion that it’s good to let it out so it doesn’t build up, whipping up angry energy doesn’t neutralize it: It makes things worse.
The steam engine theory of anger is grounded in Freudian psychology. Freud, who came of age during the Industrial Revolution, was fascinated by the machine. He saw in the steam engine a metaphor for human emotion. If steam in an engine builds up and is never discharged – Boom! Disaster. He promoted catharsis as a prescription for emotional healing. Express anger. Don’t repress it. If you don’t – Boom! Psychological disaster. Neurosis comes out instead.
Fast-forward almost a hundred years. Brad Bushman and his team at Iowa State found that there is no evidence to support the notion that catharsis helps relieve or resolve anger. In fact, they found that while people may enjoy beating up a pillow, the more they like it, the more aggressive they become. One thought is that professionals’ encouragement to physically act out rage legitimizes it. Another idea is that catharsis as the route to healing is so culturally accepted that people go at it again and again in search of relief that never comes.
Our cultural insistence on the value of expressing anger violently, whether verbally or physically, is a huge mistake. Anger is, after all, only a feeling. It’s an internal signal that tells us that we are blocked or threatened or embarrassed or misunderstood. No fire has ever been put out by silencing a smoke detector. The issue doesn’t go away if we fan the flames.
When we respond to the signal well, we increase our effectiveness in the world. When we throw away self-control and become aggressive, we win a reputation for being hostile and unreasonable – not a helpful persona for sustaining relationships or a successful strategy for solving problems.
Throw away those boffers and use some good sense instead:
- Use your anger as information. The feeling is real. Something is amiss. Take a careful assessment of yourself, the other people in the situation, and the situation itself. Figure out what your feelings are trying to tell you. The problem is rarely the other person or personal. Often it’s about miscommunication, a difference in values, a frustration, or feeling misunderstood. None of those problems goes away by venting about them. They require lowering defenses and talking it out.
- Take a step back and relax. Learn to step back, count to 10, breathe, pray, or take yourself to your happy place. Do whatever you need to do to remain your best self. You’ll like yourself more and you’ll get more respect from others.
- Control your temper. People don’t lose their temper. They throw it away. Venting, ranting, swearing, insulting others, and generally blowing one’s top is self-indulgent and foolish. It may increase people’s fear of you but it won’t increase their respect. There’s very little that is worth the wreckage in relationships that follows angry outbursts.
- Walk in the other person’s shoes. Situations are rarely as black and white as we’d like to believe. If someone has made you angry, try to understand their perspective. The exercise will give you the moment you need to get past your own emotional response. You want the focus to be on solving the problem, not on accusing and defending.
- Develop your sense of humor. Angry people tend to take things – all things – much too seriously. Let molehills be molehills. Find the humor in the situation and learn to laugh at yourself for wanting to put on your gorilla suit instead of working on the problem.
- Increase your problem-solving skills. People tend to puff up when they can’t figure out any other way to solve the problem. The more skills you have for negotiating, the less likely you will feel you have to resort to an outburst to make your point.
- Reduce the overall stress of your life. Tired? Overworked? No time off for months? It’s a setup for losing it. People who are worn down or worn out are more easily frustrated and upset by the small stuff of life.