Anger Revisited

As the scientific study of anger evolved, I failed to keep up. Until very recently I continued to believe that suppressing this emotion leads to high blood pressure and depression, and that seeking outlets, even physical release, for one’s anger is the healthy path. Here is how my new understanding unfolded:

A husband and wife entered mediation hoping to maintain a friendly relationship as parents, and their conversation in my presence was moderate, if guarded. In private, both described unhappy years as they drifted apart, and each blamed the other for the failure of the marriage. But, our work was proceeding well.

Then I received a copy of an email sent by the husband to his lawyer instructing him, in clipped abrupt language, to inform wife’s counsel that he had cancelled the insurance on her car. I called him to discuss his decision. Sounding tense, he reminded me of his wife’s reluctance to seek employment and said: I have to carry more than my share of the load. I’ve had it!

He told me that during a phone call the night before, something his wife said sparked his resentment, and he gave full force and voice to his anger. The end result: the next morning he decided to cancel her insurance.

I said: I get it. Venting provided some release, but reconsider the cancellation. You two are well on the way to completing your entire agreement. Will your move provoke a counter move and derail the process? Think it over. You play golf. Get out there and whack a bucket of balls.

He agreed, and I felt wise. But apparently I was not.

Coincident with these events, I happened to start a fascinating book by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, “Mistakes Were Made (but not by me)”. Both writers are prominent social psychologists and their text cites significant research data. They conclude that the commonly held belief that the expression of anger results in a healthy catharsis, and reduced blood pressure, is dead wrong. Quite the opposite is true.

Yet the theory that acting out when angry (i.e. shouting at a family member when provoked, or hitting a punching bag while imagining the source of your anger) is an effective way to purge aggressive feelings, is still widely held. Instead, the findings of the experiments the authors cite establish that those who give full sway to their temper get angrier, not less angry. The conclusion: “aggression begets self-justification, which begets more aggression.”

Studies show that following angry outbursts, the mechanism of self-justification takes over, so that we can continue to see ourselves as the good person on which our self-esteem is based. In mitigating or excusing our own behavior, the predictable next step is to place blame on the “other”, which in the moment of increased aggressive feelings often leads to revenge (i.e. canceling the insurance).

Mental health professionals distinguish between suppressed and repressed anger, suppression being perfectly fine if done for good reason (i.e. to avoid losing a job), while repressing awareness of anger, and its source, can lead to trouble.

So, I called my client back, described my newly gained insight and said: I think it’s a good thing to recognize and even taste your anger, and do your best to understand the source. But scratch the golf ball plan. Try a hot fudge sundae instead.

He decided not to cancel the insurance.