You may feel better after you’ve vented your anger but there’s little point –
- Venting does not diminish anger
- The feeling intensifies
- You create fresh damage to those you lash out at.
Why do we do it?
Anger is normal. But chronically angry people have a strong sense of entitlement about how the world should look and others should act. They are poor self-regulators who attribute discomfort they experience others. Poor self-regulation means they do not act in the long-term consistent with values.
Their bravado may appear as strength but it masks weak self-control. When things don’t go their way they lash out believing their anger is a justified reaction to an unfair world.
“If they hadn’t have done that, I wouldn’t be angry.” (They genuinely believe this.)
The surge of anger provides ‘a shot of adrenaline-driven energy’ that has amphetamine and analgesic effects, providing a sense of power that numbs pain. That sense of relief is called catharsis but it’s temporary.
Over forty years of research shows that the idea that venting helps is a myth, rather, expressing anger makes things worse whether you direct it at a person or a thing, punch walls, pillows or kick doors. Blaming makes people even angrier.
Normal anger is normal
Anger is normal. Most people get angry if they have to deal with legitimately unpleasant or unfair situations and it’s useful if you’re dealing with something you consider unjust.
The problem is when it becomes habitual, chronic anger.
Anger becomes a default response to even the most trivial event like someone taking too long to answer a question, a car driving slowly, a shopper they think has jumped the queue.
Angry people do not face unfair situations more often than other people; rather, they perceive more situations around them as unfair.
Weak control leads them to believe the response is justified. They do not believe it is up to them to change the way they see the world but rather other people should change what they do. Spoiler alert: this is unlikely.
Dealing with anger
Dealing with anger takes practice and self-discipline.
1. Take a breather
There’s research that anger subsides on its own if you give it time.
Self-control is not easy but it’s more difficult for people with poor impulse control who are impatient and typically don’t deal well with frustration or understand the cost of their actions.
Being aware that you have a temper is a first step but you must catch yourself before you lash out because the damage that results is cumulative.
Scientists don’t yet know if there’s a predisposition to anger caused either by stress hormones or an underactive cool-down response (or other factors).
However, people can train themselves to slow down and avoid (or at least diminish) reacting in a knee-jerk way.
You can –
- Bite your tongue
- Buy some time to cool down
- Go for a walk or a run (without slamming the door on the way out).
2. Use anger combined with constructive problem solving
Expressing anger can be helpful if it’s accompanied by constructive problem solving designed to address the source of the anger.
If a partner forgets to call then yelling at them later will not help.
Psychologists recommend you address the source of conflict in a non-confrontational way, for example, ‘I realise you didn’t forget to ring on purpose but I felt hurt.’
When both people are willing to work constructively on a solution it diffuses the charged emotion.
For example, you can acknowledge that being let down hurts and agree that in the future you will text to say you’re caught up, which is what most normal people do anyway.
Unfortunately, chronically angry people rarely have the skills to have difficult conversations. They lash out or cut off, rather than navigating the difficult grey space, which is what creates connection, safety and intimacy.
However, if only one person is doing the tough work of restraint, reframing and reaching out then it becomes exhausting and unfair.
It will also fail if someone is identified or invested in being angry. Bullies who operate from power and control have no intention of resolving problems, only winning. The more power they have, the more dangerous they become because they can’t set internal boundaries and depend on external authorities to keep them under control.
3. Dig deep and find compassion
This is much easier said than done. It’s easy to talk about empathy, hard to find when you most need it.
Angry people may be betraying their values but that has little impact on the people they take it out on.
- If you’re on the receiving end of the anger try to see the hurt underneath the rage and model the behaviour you want
- If you’re the angry one, remember that whatever you say your values are, ultimately, what you do defines you.
If you have to deal with an angry person the most compassionate thing you can do is to insist you are treated well.
Constantly letting bad behaviour go through to the keeper sends the message it’s okay.
This does not help an angry person grow. On the other hand it reinforces the habit and misconception that the world is the unjust place they think it is. Often the anger escalates and can result in violence.
Angry people must recognise that others confronted with the same circumstances do not react in the same way.
However a word of caution. While it’s important to be compassionate, compassion will not transform someone. An angry person has to tackle the underlying source of their emotion.
For someone on the receiving end, the challenge is to avoid becoming angry and resentful themselves. You can be supportive if you see genuine action in the right direction but if you don’t, time to go.
Chronic anger is a health risk
When it comes to the damaging effects of anger emotion and body are one. A study of nearly 13,000 participants found angry people had twice the risk of coronary artery disease and three times the risk of heart attack than those who were not.
Some scientists think that chronic anger may be more dangerous than smoking and obesity as a contributor to early death.
A series of long-term epidemiological studies suggests that hostility can be lethal. For example, teenagers who are hostile are likely to have higher bad and lower good cholesterol as adults.
- Chronic headaches
- Skin disorders
- Alcohol and substance abuse
- Digestive problems.
Why no one wins and how they can
Chronic anger harms the person experiencing it (emotionally and physically) and those around them.
The challenge is that many angry people do not believe they have a problem. They may be proud of the behaviour, labeling themselves as hard-nosed or tough-minded.
Chronic anger doesn’t emerge in a day and requires consistent practice to change.
The rest of the world is not full of dumb idiots.
Instead, you are angry because –
- It’s a habit
- It’s easier to point the finger
- You get away with it.
Remember that what’s learned can be unlearned and that anything we practice becomes easier over time.