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The catharsis model of anger is a myth. 'Letting off steam' makes you feel more angry, more frequently.

McKinley Valentine — 4 min read
The catharsis model of anger is a myth. 'Letting off steam' makes you feel more angry, more frequently.
Photo by laura adai / Unsplash

Pop culture in the West tells us that if we don't let our anger out, it will build up and explode. And that releasing it by yelling, punching a pillow, breaking crockery, 'getting it out of your system' will help stop you taking it out on some poor unsuspecting pedestrian or loved one.

The basic problem with this idea is that it's been disproven in a tonne of studies. I'll link them, but you can also pretty intuitively get why: screaming and punching stuff when you're angry feels good (not for everyone, but for people who have the urge to in the first place). It's a reward. It's like eating a piece of chocolate every time you get really furious - it trains you to become really furious more often. And it trains you to respond to feeling angry with yelling and punching. It becomes a habitual response to anger. And it is not necessarily that easy to suddenly switch responses when you're angry at someone you care about.

Important note 1: When I talk about yelling and punching pillows and stuff, I am talking about doing this alone, or in a sanctioned venue (like a punching bag at a gym). If you're yelling at a loved one or punching walls or breaking stuff near them - even if you're not breaking their stuff or throwing stuff at them - this is a really scary thing to do and you need to get help so you can stop doing this immediately - treat this is an emergency. Similarly, if a loved one is yelling at you or breaking stuff in anger when you're present, this isn't a normal or acceptable way to vent - please tell someone close to you and get support.

I know, because I've talked about this in real life, that some people will feel really defensive on hearing this, and say that it helps them. But that 'it helps me' feeling is it feeling good, and reinforcing the anger-reward cycle. I'm not particularly skilled at talking in a way that makes people who are feeling defensive be more open to hearing stuff, unfortunately. But feeling defensive doesn't make me (and psychologists) wrong about this - it just means that you don't like the idea that something that feels good might not be good in the long-term. No one likes hearing that, did you see the international uproar when the World Health Organisation said bacon is carcinogenic? Everyone who is addicted to anything will tell you that it feels like it's helping them. Your brain uses pretty much the same set of chemicals for "feels good" and "feels like it's helping" so you can't trust your brain to know the difference.

Important note 2: Anger is a completely appropriate emotion in many circumstances and I'm not suggesting anyone should be attempting to not feel anger anymore. It's just about what you do when you're angry. And I mean, we all know that while sadness can't be avoided, you can absolutely extend it by wallowing in it and imagining extra sad scenarios that didn't even happen.

We're not bottles, the metaphor has been taken a bit far.
This whole idea of 'bottling it up' is built on an image of ourselves as vessels that get filled up with more and more anger until we explode, which is a really specific physical idea of our emotions. But it's just a metaphor. Humans are complicated systems processing all kinds of cues from our past, our internal states and external environment, which we synthesise into emotions. For sure, if your boundaries are continually violated, you will feel increasingly angry, but that's not a simplistic filling of a vessel until there's no more room in it. I mean, this is like how old-timey doctors would bleed people because they had an imbalance of humours, this is such an outdated model of how people work. Also, this is not how we talk about positive emotions - like, "never hug your wife, because expressing love will 'get it out of your system' and you won't feel loving anymore".

Also, I mean... you know the type of person who seems to get into fights a lot? Do they seem like the fights are getting their anger out of their system such that they will get into fewer fights in the future? Or more like the possibility of getting into a fight starts to be one of the reasons they go out on the weekend?

Important note 3: There's a lot of middle ground between 'pretending you're not angry' and 'throwing a plate at the wall'. This whole bit is about aggressive/violent expression of anger. Please absolutely continue to express your anger via the medium of telling people how you're feeling and why and what needs to change.

"Venting to reduce anger is like using gasoline to put out a fire"
"In this study, angered participants hit a punching bag and thought about the person who had angered them (rumination group) or thought about becoming physically fit (distraction group). After hitting the punching bag, they reported how angry they felt. Next, they were given the chance to administer loud blasts of noise to the person who had angered them. There also was a no punching bag control group. People in the rumination group felt angrier than did people in the distraction or control groups. People in the rumination group were also most aggressive, followed respectively by people in the distraction and control groups. Rumination increased rather than decreased anger and aggression. Doing nothing at all was more effective than venting anger." (Source is a PDF with a good overview of the history of this.)

Breaking stuff can be fun, and I wouldn't dream of taking that away from you, but do it for fun - not to express anger. Do it when you're in a good mood already.

This piece was originally published in The Whippet #89 – subscribe to get the next one in your inbox!

Unsolicited AdviceEQ & Interpersonal


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