A recent article on NPR explores the age old question of whether it’s therapeutic to act on your anger. Alex Spigel writes about a woman in San Diego who has built a store for the sole purpose of letting people in, covering them in protective gear, and giving them plates to smash to vent their anger. He then brings up new research by professor Jeffrey Lohr of the University of Arkansas that points to evidence that says venting this anger isn’t effective and the anger just continues to return.
I love Alex Spigel, but sometimes these topics can be oversimplified. It’s kind of like much of the spirituality research out there that measures level of spirituality by church attendance. Just because someone goes to church doesn’t mean they’re spiritual, they could be doing it out of family obligation or a longing for community. What’s not explicitly spelled out here is the difference between anger and aggression. Just because someone is expressing anger, it doesn’t mean they are aggressive or hostile. He points to this briefly when he says “Now, to be clear, Lohr isn’t pro-repression. Repression, he says, can also be bad for you. The key is to speak out your anger without getting emotional about it. Basically, we’re not supposed to yell at anyone anymore.”
To be clearer, there is absolutely nothing wrong with feeling or expressing anger. Whenever we’re frustrated or irritated we are feeling angry. We can be angry for a myriad of things from our partners making plans for us without asking to being abused as a child.
How we express this anger does make a difference.
Daniel Goleman writes about how the expression of anger can be a good thing. It is at times our outrage over injustice that moves us to action to help. It is our anger over the atrocity in Darfur that creates the motivation to help out, or maybe it’s the anger in getting abused that leads to the cry out for help, or if you’re a teenager, maybe it’s the anger over mom or dad just opening your door without knocking that leads to a discussion around new boundaries. Goleman calls this “constructive anger.”
It’s not that we need to express anger without emotion, because then we’d be like robots. It’s that we need to learn to express anger without acting out with aggression. It’s this aggression that may breed more aggression. In his book Taming the Tiger Within, Thich Nhat Hanh writes about how anger could be held mindfully. We can see our anger as a child within us that needs to be taken care of. He endorses the idea of noticing when you’re feeling aggressive, taking time-out to care for that struggling emotion and then returning to the scene in a calmer state. At this point it is more constructive to express the anger.
It’s the differentiator between anger and aggression or hostility that makes the difference. Learning to become aware of the space in between the stimulus and our reaction is a practice that can get better over time. The next time you notice anger, see if you can take a moment to pause and breathe and acknowledge your anger, without judgment. This anger is not good or bad or right or wrong, it is simply an emotion that you are experiencing right now. If it is very strong, excuse yourself from the situation, see if you can practice being kind to yourself in this moment as you are struggling. Sometimes we find that underneath the anger is sadness or another emotion. Feel free to write out what you are experiencing. Sometimes getting it out on paper can help it not swim around so much in the mind.
When you have calmed down, return to the situation and if it feels right, express what made you so upset. See if you can also see the other person’s perspective.
As always, please share your thoughts and questions below. Your interactions here provide a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.