DOES VENTING ANGER FEED THE FLAME?
Last week we discussed the theory that anger suppression can be harmful (see ANGER SUPPRESSION VERSUS CHALLENGE). We found that there is some evidence supporting the theory, and we therefore looked at the possibility that rather than suppressing anger, we can learn to transform this mischievous experience into a state of challenge without suppression. Since a popular alternative to either suppression or challenge is venting anger, here we take a good look at it.
What do we Mean by Venting?
The first thing that comes to my mind when I think of venting anger is slugging a punching bag, cushion, or bobo doll as a means to provide a safe outlet to release the energy contained in the anger. Early in my training, in one of my assigned books the author encouraged his readers to smash a pillow while imagining smashing the person with whom they are angry. Additional proposed ways to vent have been taping a picture of the person who aroused our anger onto a punching bag and then pounding it, throwing darts at the picture; smashing an object , and screaming at the top of our lungs either without any words, or by emitting curses and insults at the party who angered us.
Some people have told me that they vent when they become angry but when I asked them to describe what they do when they vent, they give me surprising answers. Here is an interesting example:
“When I vent,” replied one pleasant woman, “I stand and pray. I reach for the stars. I talk to a good friend, and I like to take comfort from a person who is genuine and understanding. Then I usually meditate… and my mom is always by my side. I never vent right at the person I have become angry at. I find a safe outlet. Venting my anger at innocent people is not an acceptable outlet either!!!”
“After I have excused myself from the angry situation, I go to a private place to give myself a few minutes to settle down. As I do this, I will notice my angry self chattering away, saying things like, ‘That idiot who made me angry is a stupid jerk.’ Other derogatory statements about the source of my anger may come to mind. Perhaps I will think about how I can do harm to the person my mind is insulting. I accept that this is part of the anger process, but I don’t deliberately say anything insulting to anyone; it seems to pour out of me. When it does pour out of me in this way, it feels like I am venting.
“At such times, I see if I can observe my angry self in a nonjudgmental manner. If I can’t, there is no need to punish myself. I understand that anger is a strong emotion, so I seek to be kind to myself as I go through this process—just like a good, compassionate friend would.
“From time to time, I see if I can take a few seconds to observe the physical sensations I am experiencing. The chattering in my mind may make this difficult, so if this does not happen, again I do not seek to punish myself. I just gently remind myself that observing the physical sensations I am experiencing could be useful to do if I can. Usually after a few minutes I calm down.”
And so, venting means a lot of different things to different people.
Research on Venting
In my last post I reviewed some of the research on venting directly at the person who has aroused our anger. In brief, we found some evidence that:
People who believe that freely expressing their anger will discourage future negative responding from their antagonist experience relief after anger outbursts. Those who believe that freely expressing their anger will spur even more severe threatening responses from their antagonist maintain their elevated blood pressure subsequent to angry outbursts. Those who believe kindly responses to provocation will discourage future negative responding from the antagonist experience relief after providing a kind response. Those who believe kindly responses to a provocation will lead their antagonist to take advantage of them will maintain their elevated blood pressure after providing a kind response.
But what about the research that deals with venting anger not directly at the antagonist, but at some object like a punching bag? Brad J. Bushman published an important study that seeks to answer this question (Does Venting Anger Feed or Extinguish the Flame? Catharsis, Rumination, Distraction, Anger, and Aggressive Responding, Pers Soc Psychol Bull, June 2002 28: 724–731).
He had three groups of people experience an anger arousing experience (someone providing very negative criticism of a paper they wrote). Participants in the first group vented by hitting a punching bag as long, as hard, and as many times as they wanted to. While they hit the bag, they were told to think about the other participant who had criticized their essay. For a visual aid, they were shown a photo ID of a same-sex college student described as the “other participant” on a 15-inch computer monitor. Participants in the second group also vented by hitting a punching bag as long, as hard, and as many times as they wanted to. But while they hit the bag, they were to think about becoming physically fit. As a visual aid, they were shown a photo ID of a same-sex athlete from a health magazine on a 15-inch computer monitor. Participants in the third condition did not hit the punching bag. Instead, they sat quietly for a couple minutes while the experimenter supposedly worked on the other participant’s computer. No attempt was made to reduce the anger of participants in this group. After participants in the first two groups finished hitting the punching bag and the participants in the third group sat quietly, they all reported how angry they felt. Next, they were given the chance to administer loud blasts of noise to the person who had angered them. People in the first group (those who were told to think about their antagonist while punching the bag) felt angrier than those in the other two groups. People in the first group were also the most aggressive, giving more loud blasts of noise, followed by people in the second group. Those in the third group who had sat quietly for two minutes after being negatively criticized were the least aggressive.
Whereas Bushman’s study doesn’t condemn every form of venting, the results do suggest that venting to reduce anger can be like using gasoline to put out a fire.
When people try to release their anger by hitting something, eventually they get tired, the workout leads to the release of endorphins which produces a natural high, and eventually they begin to stop the violence against the relatively safe objects. Thus, they are led to believe that they have now released all of their anger energy.
In my view, people calm down more quickly without the banging, kicking, and punching. If they want to enjoy a high from exercise while they wait for their calm to return, a good walk or run does the trick.
If you find that your angry self is using this banging, kicking, and punching approach, it is not the end of the world. Nevertheless it can be helpful to let your angry self know that there are some problems with this violent-like approach. While carrying out the hitting an object approach you are practicing actions that are very similar to violence. This makes it more likely that if you can’t get to a private place to calm down, you will display these types of behavior in public. This can come across to some as frightening and immature. Your reputation may diminish. Moreover, you may accidentally punch something that you think is soft and find that something in the softness was hard. You can injure your hand or break something valuable.
Of course, if you have practiced the mock-violence technique for a long time, it is not easy to break the habit. If you go about trying to stop in the wrong way, you will experience frustration that you can easily interpret as suppression.
It is better to first become convinced when you are not angry that you will be better off learning to substitute the mock-violent actions with something more constructive. If it doesn’t work the first time, there is no reason to turn violent toward yourself, or even insulting. Instead, be kind, and say to your “angry self” that you will get another chance to try this new approach again in the future. In time, you will find yourself getting better and better at this.
What may be a more productive way to deal with anger? I have in previous posts made some suggestions (see for example BEING A WISE FRIEND TO YOUR ANGRY SELF, PART 1, and BEING A WISE FRIEND TO YOUR ANGRY SELF, PART 2). Here’s a slightly different approach.
During the time when you have arrived at the time and place where you can fully experience your anger in private without any effort at suppression, you will find that knowing that you have eliminated the pressure of a quick response, along with the passing of time, will result in a period in which you will have calmed down enough so you are capable of a thorough job of problem solving. Begin by imagining that you have returned to the time and place of the angry experience, and you are preparing to observe the scene just as it happened. As the unfolding of the event gets underway, take a few steps back. Move away from the situation to a point where you can watch the event unfold from a distance and see yourself in the event. Focus on what has now become a distant you. Watch the situation unfold as if it were happening to the distant you all over again. Replay the event as it unfolds in your imagination as you observe your distant self. After going through this imaginary exercise, take advantage of this relatively calm period to map out a strategy to address the concerns raised during the anger arousing situation.
Well, that’s just about all the time we have for today. I hope that you will stop by again real soon.
Evidence for the effectiveness of this strategy can be found in the following: O. Ayduk and E. Kross, 2010, “Analyzing Negative Experiences without Ruminating: The Role of Self-Distancing in Enabling Adaptive Self-Reflection,” Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 4, 841-854. E. Kross, A. Ducksworth, O. Ayduk, E. Tsukayama, and W. Mischel, 2011, “The Effect of Self-Distancing on Adaptive Versus Maladaptive Self-Reflection in Children,” Emotions, 11 , 1032-1039.
Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on. This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional intelligence. To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.