The other day, a friend in China who has been waging a personal battle against anger asked me whether “release”, i.e., venting, those feelings is better or worse than “repression” (or suppressing) them.
My take on her question was that it represented and was framed as a false, limited choice, because there are alternatives—better alternatives—to popping or sealing the anger cork.
For example, there are “REFRAMING”, “REDIRECTION”, and, in special circumstances, “REINFORCEMENT”, all of which I discuss below.
Given that there are more than my friend’s menu of two ways, viz., RELEASE and REPRESSION, of managing anger (or any other negative emotion), why would anybody think there aren’t more?
The main reason is probably the seductiveness of two very popular models of emotion management.
Small vs. Big Anger Pies
The first is the quantitative,”small pie” model, which the founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud seemed to subscribe too, even in connection with positive emotions, such as love. His idea was that you can’t love everybody, because we have a finite—indeed, rather limited amount of time, energy or capacity to juggle emotional investments in or form a “cathexis” (bond) with others.
(In Civilization and Its Discontents—Freud’s dark analytical panorama of the human psyche and condition—he makes this explicit:”“Since man has not an unlimited amount of mental energy, he must accomplish his tasks by distributing his libido to the best advantage.”)
We simply do not possess a pie big enough to give more than a few people or things a slice (unless we shrink the individual slice size to meager or less). (That’s one reason the idea of an omni-loving god is so appealing to so many. It’s nice to imagine that there’s always enough of that infinite divine love available for all of us, especially oneself.)
Hence, if we have an “anger pie”, by tossing off one slice at a time, we will, on this pie model, eventually be left with no anger, having purged the last of it. Subscribing to this kind of thinking or succumbing to its dynamics more or less results in impulsive or calculated venting, irrespective of whether, in any given instance, it really is a good idea, e.g., is “therapeutic”, like the so-called “primal scream” in primal scream therapy.
The second model is what can be called the “reinforcement” or “bigger pie” paradigm: This is illustrated by the phenomena of addiction, of incremental habituation (which makes doing something once easier the next time and even easier the time after that) and of the general motivating effects of reward (which, by definition, is anything that makes the behavior accompanied by reward more probable in the future).
Anyone who believes in or is in fact (even unawares) governed by this reinforcement feedback dynamic is very likely to either try to inhibit or repress his or her anger, lest it spawn more anger or to succumb to precisely those forces, and then experience an escalation or at least a repeat of the anger. On this model, the regenerating, expanding pie of available anger grows with each slice created and savored (even to the point of all-consuming anger).
Such persistence or intensification or increase of the frequency, duration or strength of angry outbursts or nastily angry private moods and feelings is arguably almost guaranteed by the following logical and psychological consideration: If the reinforcement model is applicable or adopted, when the expressed or felt anger does not result in the desired rewarding outcomes (including relief or successful revenge), increased anger is likely, because of increased resentment or frustration—which increases the likelihood of a subsequent venting of anger as the pressure on the anger cork builds. This means self-perpetuating, additional or self-intensifying anger.
On the other hand, if the vented anger is rewarded, e.g., with compliance, the probability of future venting also increases to the extent that anger is perceived as a useful tool—especially if a real source of the anger is not the immediate issue that has seemingly been resolved, but instead, for example, a deeply-rooted unacknowledged and unaddressed general bitterness, hatred, fear, jealousy, etc.
The standard Hollywood depiction of dysfunctional battling couples illustrates this phenomenon perfectly, e.g., self-intensifying battles and anger about use of the TV remote in the context of a loveless, embittering marriage.
Thinking about Anger Outside the Pie Box
But there are alternatives to the small-pie release and bigger-pie reinforcement models of anger dynamics and implied management—especially important in the workplace, because of the heightened risk of immediate, irreversible and catastrophic consequences there and lower likelihood of the kind of forgiveness that is so often forthcoming in non-work relationships. In more personal, more intimate relationships there are usually intense and positive emotional track-records as a backdrop, safeguard and reserve of goodwill and affection.
All of this is not to claim that the small-pie discharge and rbigger-pie reinforcement dynamics models cannot be successfully applied. For example, calmer release of pent-up anger counts as discharge and elimination if it achieves resolution of the problem that provoked it, without creating a new problem or masking other anger, bitterness, etc. and their causes.
Likewise, reinforcement of venting and even creating additional anger, as a goal or simply a consequence of venting, can be positive—e.g., when trying to strengthen the resolve of a terrified bullied employee to confront or otherwise deal with a tyrannical boss. This approach can rally and mobilize whole groups of the sad or timid as well, as a “get mad, not sad” last-resort, when no other, “get smart” approach has worked or seems feasible.
The 6 R Anger-Management Model
So blanket exclusion of “RELEASE” and “REINFORCEMENT” from any list of effective anger management techniques is unwarranted, even though there are associated risks, depending on the specifics of the situation in question. To these two and “REPRESSION”, I would add, as my contribution to conceptualizing anger management, the following:
—REFRAMING: When external situations cannot be changed through action, such as fight or flight, it may nonetheless possible to change them by “reframing” them, i.e., perceiving them differently. The familiar reframing of a “crisis” as an “opportunity” is a very familiar example, as is the proverbial worryingly “half-empty” cup optimistically reframed as “half-full”.
Reframing can take the form of re-conceptualizing or re-interpreting not only the situations that provoke anger, but also take the form of (if not primarily) re-interpretation of the causes, consequences and the emotions provoked.
As an example, one of my favorite anger-management techniques comes to mind: reframing anger as frustration. Although both can be overwhelmingly intense, frustration is more manageable than anger, because it does not feed off any presupposition and resentment of evil intent on the part of whoever or whatever triggered it.
Imagine a co-worker who speaks limited English and who, because of a communication breakdown, has inadvertently botched something you needed done. It would be much smarter to reframe any anger as frustration, eliminate anger’s inherent hostility, and work together—collaboratively—to find a workaround or backup plan for next time.
The same approach is recommended in handling anyone who would otherwise provoke your ire, including your partner, children and mother-in-law: Reserve anger only for those you truly believe have evil intent or willfully shirk their recognized duty; for you must understand that once you attribute evil will or willful disregard of what is right and important, you will have passed irrevocable judgment on that individual’s character (as being, without reframing, on some level and regardless of any subsequent reconciliation or negotiated partial redemption, unacceptably and immutably flawed).
—REDIRECTION: Going to the gym after work and punching a bag instead of your hateful boss, client or co-worker is an obvious form of redirecting anger that can easily be interpreted as release, since the anger is ultimately vented. However, because the target is shifted, “redirection” is the more appropriate and relevant category of anger management. Of course, the biggest risk with redirection is scapegoating—choosing an innocent (albeit more vulnerable) target upon which to inflict displaced anger.
Less transparent, more productive redirection can be achieved by pairing the anger with some core value, in order to accomplish something good, e.g., for the community or the workplace. Some angrier radical feminists or environmentalists, in championing causes for women and the planet, would not only admit doing precisely that, namely, redirecting and channeling their anger away from specific personal victimizers, e.g., that “funny uncle” or Monsanto, on to issues, but also take pride in and justify their anger as well as their causes.
Psychoanalytically and in specific instances, redirection can include or be the same as what psychoanalysts call “sublimation”, i.e., channeling dangerous, consciously unacceptable or otherwise repressed urges (such as to punch somebody) into socially acceptable outlets, such as an organized rally and march.
To wind this entire discussion up, the phenomenon of passive aggression warrants a special note: Whether shifting to a “passive aggressive” stance, e.g., by ceasing to cooperate with or by obstructing whoever is making you angry, is a form of reframing or whether it warrants a category of its own, viz., “RESISTANCE”, can be debated.
On the one hand, passive aggression appears to be a reframing of the behavioral aspects of anger, as resistance instead of attack; on the other hand, the resistance can reasonably be interpreted as a direct consequence of the reframing, rather than as an alternative to it.
As for straightforward “REPRESSION” of anger (or any other “negative” emotion), that approach can be critiqued or validated from the standpoint of the small-pie release and bigger-pie reinforcement models: If, for a given individual or anyone, the repression pie can be stuffed and packed without limit or harm, or with plenty of room for more (the reverse of Freud’s small emotion pizza), it may be a constructive adaptive response—unless it triggers more negative emotions to be repressed that also have adverse, e.g., stress-related health consequences.
On the other hand, if, like legendary Japanese samurai stoicism (usually ambiguously—i.e., is it repression, or is it reframing?— depicted as “self-control”), repression of anger is perceived as heroic rather than wimpy, it can be self-reinforcing and self-perpetuating with substantial payoffs to the repressor, e.g., through admiration of colleagues, respect from antagonists or pride of self-discipline.
So, there’s my expanded, “6 R” anger-management menu:
- RESISTANCE (to the anger source, if the resistance is not merely derived from and occurring as the direct result of reframing).
If, for any reason, you do not like this list, I do not recommend somehow repressing, resisting or reframing it.
That’s because I prefer to see it framed.