On Building and Venting Anger

There are two popular theories about how to best escape the hold of our angry emotions. On the one hand we often depict anger like the boiling water in the tea pot. As the pressure builds the tea pot must blow off its steam in order to keep from exploding. So, we suggest that we too must vent our anger as a cathartic means of processing it. In other circles, however, it is suggested that anger is always bad and dangerous and should, therefore, be suppressed. “Shove it down,” we are told. Neither approach, however, adequately deals with anger. Neither suppression, nor ventilation, works to relieve the negative emotions of anger.

In our current day, most of us recognize the danger of suppression. I will not, then, spend very long dealing with it. It remains a common enough though as to warrant some level of response. It is particularly common among religious people, where misguided understandings of the Bible’s teaching on emotions leads us to see all negative emotions as bad or sinful. The problem with suppression is that it doesn’t actually deal with the problem. Often suppression works for awhile but because the problem has not truly been dealt with the anger seeps out somewhere. We may pretend that we are not angry, but inside we actually are and because we are not addressing the problem, only masking it, the negative feelings will persist inside us. Often these feelings come out somewhere else. An example may help to demonstrate the principle.

Bobby could not stand his boss. They often got into terse conversations and while Bobby was restrained, he felt his anger boiling inside. He wanted to scream, to yell, to “rip his head off.” The man, according to Bobby, was ignorant of the requirements for the job to be done well and therefore his instructions to Bobby were often wrong. But “there’s no talking to that guy.” Bobby, of course, knew that he couldn’t blow up at his boss, at least not if he wanted to remain employed. So, he buried his anger. “I just brush it off,” he said. But anger at his boss didn’t just go away, he could’t just forget how frustrating things were. By the time he got home each day, he was visibly agitated and often he took his frustrations out on the kids. He would yell at the slightest provocation and become distant and moody by evening. If you ask Bobby if he was angry at his boss he would say, “No, I’ve just learned to accept that things are the way they are.” In reality, however, he was angry. He wasn’t, however, actually dealing with that emotion.

On the flip side we may discuss venting as the most the commonly accepted way to deal with anger. Anger must be expressed, we are told, and so the healthiest way to deal with this negative emotion is to express our anger in a safe context. Scream into a pillow. Write a nasty letter that you never intend to mail. Ventilation of our anger, we are told, makes us feel better. In some sense that is true. We do feel good when we give vent to our emotions, but venting our anger doesn’t actually dispel it. It is not like the steam coming out of the kettle and dissipating into the air. In fact, venting our anger actually builds it up and eggs it on. Multiple studies have proven this.

As far back as the 1950s, researchers have argued that giving vent to our anger may feel satisfying but doesn’t actually relieve the anger. In his book Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman speaks of some more recent research that indices this practice of venting anger. He writes:

Tice found that ventilating anger is one of the worst ways to cool down: outbursts of rage typically pump up the emotional brain’s arousal, leaving people feeling more angry, not less. Tice found that when people told of times they had taken their rage out on the person who provoked it, the net effect was to prolong the mood rather than end it. Far more effective was when people first cooled down, and then, in a more constructive or assertive manner, confronted the person to settle their dispute. As I once heard Chogyam Trungpa, a Tibetan teacher, reply when asked how to best handle anger: “Don’t suppress it. But don’t act on it.” (64-65)

It may be true that venting is “cathartic,” but not in the sense that we usually mean. That is to say we do feel good when we yell and scream and say all the nasty things we think. It is satisfying to “go off” on someone, at least in the moment, because it gives us a sense of control or power. Anger can make us feel strong. But, ventilation never relieves anger. The more you yell the angrier you become. The more you say those hurtful things the more heat you feel. Why is it so easy to go on an angry rant once we start? Because with each word we are increasingly enraged. Ventilation does not resolve problems.

And that’s the goal, or at least it should be: resolution. Anger is an emotion given to us by God in order to solve problems. Anger motivates us to action. But resolution is the ultimate goal. James warns us that sinful anger does not “produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:20). Furthermore, our anger is often driven by our own selfish desires (James 4:1-3). Processing our anger means, then, cooling down, analyzing our motives, and addressing issues. We must be able to calm our emotions, analyze what we are upset about and why, and then begin to make a plan to address that issue.

Neither suppression nor ventilation work to resolve our problems. Suppression just pretends like there is no problem, when there really is. Venting builds up our anger and keeps the problem fresh. Processing our anger takes time to analyze, understand, and appropriately respond. In this way, we can repent of sinful anger and address real issues.

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