Let it out or let it be: Why the cathartic approach to anger management doesn’t work.
“I’ve had one hell of a day – first someone reversed into my car, my colleagues hadn’t done what they promised at work on our project and took no responsibility, and as I was racing to watch the kids soccer game, I got caught running a red. $180 later I just want to scream!” Matt explained as he strode into my office.
If you were the therapist in the above scenario, would it cross your mind to suggest to Matt to let out his anger (by hitting a punching bag, screaming into a pillow or go to the gym and picture his colleagues faces as he hits the treadmill?) Though you wouldn’t be alone if you think any of these are a good idea, psychology research indicates such interventions do not reduce anger.
The evidence on venting as a strategy
A mountain of evidence spanning more than 50 years suggests that contrary to popular opinion, pounding a pillow or boxing bag (or other similar ‘outlets’) increases levels of aggression rather than the expected decrease. Consider a University of Iowa study (2002) entitled “Venting anger feeds the flame.”
600 participants (university students) were made angry through being told another person had criticised their written work in a disparaging rather than constructive way (This procedure had been tested and tried in previous research and found to anger people). They were then randomly assigned into 3 groups:
- rumination condition– where they had to think about the person who had given them the scathing criticism while hitting a punching bag for as long and as hard as they wanted
- distraction condition– they had to think about getting physically fit while hitting the punching bag again for as long and as hard as they wanted
- a control group who sat quietly for 2 minutes, doing nothing.
Anger was measured by a mood form at the end. After this when given the chance to punish another person by blasting them with noise, those who had “vented” were more aggressive (they gave louder and longer blasts of noise to others) than those who had done nothing to decrease their anger. The conclusion: “venting to reduce anger is like using gasoline to put out a fire…by fueling aggressive thoughts and feelings, venting also increases aggressive responding.” (Bushman, 2002, p729).
A more recent study published late 2013 in Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking found that rant sites (websites that provide people with a forum to rant about whatever they want) are double edged: after a rant people describe feeling calm and relaxed immediately and thus get the feeling their rants are worthwhile, BUT over the long term, frequent venting leads to increasing anger in daily life. This has its own consequences with nearly half the participants having been told in the past that they had an anger problem.
Theory of catharsis
The notion that we should express how we feel is widespread. Here are some of my clients on the subject of releasing anger:
“I don’t want to hide how I feel” “I feel much better once it’s out” “Once I’ve let it out I can move on” “I should be able to express myself to my partner.” These beliefs form what is known as catharsis theory.
The word catharsis, from the Greek Katharsis, literally translated means cleansing or purging. According to catharsis theory, acting aggressively is an effective way to purge angry and aggressive feelings. The hydraulic model of anger is that pressure (frustration/anger) builds up inside individuals which needs to be released. If people bottle it up, the notion is that it will eventually explode out, in an uncontrolled and violent way.
The downside of venting
What this perspective leaves out is the impact on close relationships.
“I have a problem with him constantly coming home and acting as if it’s ok to dump his bad day on me” Dianne admits of her partner Sam. “He grumps about and seems really irritable if I ask him to help out around the house.” Dianne’s complaint is not that Sam shouldn’t be angry, but that it seems to be taken out on her.
A colleague of mine was fond of saying “Anger is often justified but seldom effective” which points to the need to show restraint and manage anger effectively, in a way that other people can hear. When people see anger in others, they often don’t know what to do, so it can have a distancing effect; a problem when most of us want to fit in and be likeable.
Interestingly, rather than a positive mood resulting from venting as many people assume, keeping angry feelings and aggressive thoughts in memory just makes people angrier.
Anger the feeling vs. aggression the behaviour
In talking about anger, most of us would probably want to draw a distinction between anger and aggression. It is normal to feel anger when our needs haven’t been met or we feel our goals have been thwarted in some way. This is what we would call the “function” of anger. According to most psychologists, emotions have a reason for showing up (their function). It is important to understand why anger is showing up (i.e., to understand the message it’s sending) before choosing a response rather than just reacting.
When anger leads to positive outcomes
Anger typically tells us about injustice, real or imagined, and is accompanied by the urge to do something. It can be associated with feeling in control and can lead to motivation to take action. For example Malcolm X, the African American human rights activist said “Usually when people are sad, they don’t do anything. They just cry over their condition. But when they get angry, they bring about a change.” This speaks to the transformation of anger into a positive direction – noticing the reason for the anger, and then channelling that for good. This is obviously very different from venting, which makes no effort to understand the situation and process how different people might be viewing it.
When anger leads to negative outcomes
Chronic repression of anger can create resentment, bitterness and hostility. We’ve all probably come across people who seem constantly angry. You don’t have to spend long in their company to pick up the hostile “vibe” or the unspoken message that the world has wronged them.
Thus there is some truth to the idea of getting the anger out, but rather through processing it in the ways described below than reacting through venting.
What is another way to manage anger that you can try?
Remember Matt, the guy who had had “a hell of a day?” He was probably experiencing the urge to yell and swear ““Ahhh, damn it! how can you not have looked?” when someone reversed into his car this morning.
The term ‘urge surfing’ comes from Alan Marlatt, a psychologist, who in his work on drug addiction recognised that we all have urges all day long that we don’t act on (starting with the urge to stay in bed in the morning, spend ages in the shower, keeping drinking coffee instead of starting on the first work project of the day etc). Willpower research tells us that we are resist 50% of the urges in our day.
Anger is a powerful emotion which has a strong urge to attack associated with it. In the moment it can feel like we don’t have a choice and it like it would be so gratifying to follow the urge and show how we feel. But we can surf any urge including those that come with strong emotions. It might be useful to have the image of a wave in mind -starting small, slowly building, reaching a crest, and then subsiding.
-start by noticing where in your body you feel the urge
-acknowledge to yourself that you are having an urge and rate its strength out of 10
-watch the urge rise and fall (be the person surfing the wave, you can’t control it but you can move with it)
-breathe into the urge and let it be there, don’t try to resist the urge- you will only get into a struggle with it
-if your mind starts generating thoughts of “I can’t handle this,” let the thoughts be there and return your focus to the sensation you are focusing on, getting curious about how your body is making this so compelling and continuing to take the observer perspective
That’s it! It might be useful to start noticing other urges that you don’t usually give in to during the day and practice bringing awareness to them, as like anything, surfing urges takes time and practice.