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Anger: It’s all the rage

Text Box:  “You gotta vent, let it all out, go ahead, it’ll make you feel better.”  Such is the common wisdom about anger.  It seems, though, the common wisdom is frighteningly wrong.  In her landmark 1982 book, “Anger: The misunderstood emotion”, Carol Tavris turned over strongly held notions and dispels several myths about anger. 

If anger was a noun (i.e., a “thing”) then indeed you would simply need to “vent” to get “it” out, and the problem would be solved.  However, a strongly convincing body of research in the field of Anger Management finds that anger is verb (i.e., an interaction) that is expressed and influenced by a great many factors. 

As it turns out, the more you “vent” your anger, the more likely you are to continue to “vent” anger in other situations in the future.  Tavris recognizes healthy expressions of anger are those that lead you to a better place (e.g., better relationships, righting the wrongs of the world). 

Tavris also recognizes that this healthy expression of anger takes the form of “assertive” behavior (rather than aggression on one extreme, and passive behavior on the other extreme). She cites examples of cultures (e.g., Japan) where anger is frowned upon.   Tavris shows how in these cultures the use of “assertive” behavior (without undue suppression or dis-inhibited expressions of anger) leads to greater civility, greater contentment, and greater communication. 

Anger is influenced by interpersonal factors (e.g., social relationships, power relations, physical strength).  If you trip on a toy when you are home alone you may yell briefly and then continue going about your business, but if you trip when your family is home you probably will yell and carry on longer, and then “investigate” in an effort to figure out who left the toy in the middle of the floor so that you can assign blame and dole out a consequence.   Anger is influenced by power. 

For example, even if you are enraged about being pulled over for speeding, it is unlikely that you would spew venom on the police officer and the police chief, but if you are enraged about something at home, you may indeed choose to show your anger to your wife (and perhaps even to your mother-in-law).  Anger is also influenced by biological factors (e.g., testosterone, hormones).

Other psychologists, such as Albert Ellis and James Averill, have consistently demonstrated the relationship between anger and one word: should.  When incidents of anger are analyzed, the cycle goes like this: 

  1. an event occurs in the world,
  2. a thought/interpretation of the event occurs, and that thought involves an attribution of blame (the event “should” or “should not” have happened),
  3. there is an internal experience of anger (e.g., increased heart-rate and respiration),
  4. there is an external expression of anger (e.g., shouting, storming about, fighting),
  5. as a result of anger, the world either rewards the angry person (e.g., by giving him “his way”) or the world punishes the angry person (e.g., by ignoring him, by arresting him, etc.).  

Regarding step one, the world will always provide an on-going series of unpleasant events, but these events are often uncontrollable, so it is not fruitful to spend our Anger Management efforts trying to control the uncontrollable. In step 2, though, the word “should” is the common thread that runs through literally all incidents of anger at some level. 

Therefore, the word “should” in the thought/interpretation process is the most likely (and indeed the most productive) target in interrupting the cycle of anger.  If you ask yourself, “Why am I angry?” and then identify your “should” statement (e.g., “This person should/should not have behaved this way”), then challenge the irrational nature of that thought.  Where is it written that anything “should” or “should not” be in this world?  It would be nice if things were as you wish. You would like it if people (and animals, and machines, and the weather) were all well-behaved.  We wish they were all well-behaved. 

But this is life, and things go wrong, and people (and animals, and machines, and the weather) all act poorly, bad, even rotten—sometimes.  So, knowing that, one great Anger Management tool is to “be careful what you should for” and keep your expectations in line with reality.  Mind you, this is NOT to suggest that you should condone negative behavior.  But rather I am recommending acceptance of the fact that the world is not always as we wish, and it is your job to navigate and negotiate the world.  A “Maximum Strength Parent” is most effective when assertive, not angry.