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: