Myth: Better to express anger than to hold it in?

Posted on September 8, 2016

Sigmund Freud, an influential proponent of catharsis, believed that repressed fury could build up and fester, much like steam in a pressure cooker, to the point that it caused psychological conditions like hysteria or trip-wired aggression. The key to therapy and rosy mental health, said Freud and his followers, is to dampen the pressure of negative feelings by talking about them and releasing them in a controlled manner in and out of treatment. The Marvel comic book and movie character, "The Hulk", is a metaphor for what happens when we fail to control the rage lurking at the fringes of consciousness. When mild-mannered Bruce Banner lets too much anger build up, or when he is provoked, he morphs into his rampaging alter-ego, the Hulk.

Anger, as popular psychology teaches us, is a monster we must tame. A host of films stoke the idea that we can do so by "letting off steam," "blowing our top," "getting things off our chest," and "getting it out of our system". In Analyze This, for example, a psychiatrist (played by Billy Crystal) advises a New York Gangster (played by Robert De Niro) to hit a pillow whenever he's angry. In Network (1976), an angry news anchor (played by Peter Finch) implores irate viewers, outraged by the high price of oil, the plummeting economy, and the country being on war footing, to release their frustrations by opening their windows and hollering, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore." In response to his urgings, millions of Americans do just that.

Some cathartic therapeutic techniques can get even more bizarre. People in the town of Castejon, Spain, now practice "Destructotherapy" to relieve office stress: Men and women destroy junked cars and household items with sledgehammers to the beat of a rock band playing in the background.

Shenanigans aside, research suggests that the catharsis hypothesis is false. For more than 40 years, studies have revealed that encouraging the expression of anger directly toward another person or indirectly (such as toward an object) actually turns up the heat on aggression. In one of the earliest studies, people who pounded nails after someone insulted them were more, rather than less, critical of that person afterward. Moreover, playing aggressive sports like football, which are presumed to promote catharsis, boosts aggression. And playing violent video games like Manhunt, in which bloody assassinations are rated on a 5-point scale, is associated with increased aggression in the laboratory and everyday life.

So getting angry doesn't "let off steam." It merely fans the flames of our anger. Research suggests that expressing anger is helpful only when it's accompanied by constructive problem-solving designed to address the source of the anger. So if we're upset at our partner for repeatedly showing up late for dates, yelling at him or her is unlikely to make us feel better, let alone improve the situation. But calmly and assertively expressing one's resentment ("I realize you probably aren't doing this on purpose, but when you show up late it hurts my feelings") can often go a long way toward resolving conflict.

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Category(s):Aggression & Violence, Anger Management

Source material from Psychological Science