Updated: Apr 14, 2022
I think this is how it works. We like it when other people are angry at things we’re angry at. We want to be free to be angry ourselves. And we don’t like it when people are angry at us.
That’s about it, right? Anger: we can give it out, but we can’t take it.
Beyond this, though, there’s an ideology around anger that’s pretty universal these days. It goes something like this. There’s a thing called righteous anger, which is when you get mad because of something that would make me mad too. (If you get mad because of something that wouldn’t make me mad, you’re a Karen, and that’s bad.) And if you have righteous anger, you should express it. Let it all out. It’s right that you do so.
It's also healthy that you do so. Contemporary anger ideology says that anger held in makes us sick in mind and body. Curdles our insides in every way. But if you always let out the toxic cloud of your anger, you’ll be clean as a whistle inside.
Righteous and clean.
That’s what everyone says, so it must be true, right?
Maybe not. Actually, definitely not.
You know that colonics doesn’t work, right? Oh, you didn’t know that either! Yeah, colonics is a load of shit. (Pause for laughter.) Well proven to be of no benefit. Here’s what the Mayo Clinic has to say on this.
It’s the same with anger. The idea that anger stored just builds up and builds up until something toxic and explosive happens started, like lots of fairy tales, with Freud, who got most of his mental models from the technology of the day, which mostly involved steam and hydraulics. It just felt so right it had to be true! Like QAnon stuff for a lot of people today.
Anyway, the research on what actually happens to anger is wildly disappointing to those of us who’ve swallowed the contemporary ideology. Something makes you steaming mad. But you are somehow cruelly prevented from expressing your anger, however righteous. And so what happens to that anger in real life? It just evaporates like the dew on the lilies in a summer morn. It just goes away. Yup.
As far back as 1988, so much research had debunked what’s now called the catharsis hypothesis—if you don’t get mad you’ll blow up—that researcher Carol Tavris concluded at that time that, “It is time to put a bullet, once and for all, through the heart of the catharsis hypothesis.” Bang, you’re dead.
But it’s actually worse than that. Not only is venting anger ineffective at discharging the nothingness that didn’t need discharging in the first place. It revs you up, increasing your anger. As if after a colonics session you had more shit!!
As one researcher put it, venting anger is like using gasoline to put out a fire. When you yourself are on fire, I’d add.
Why is this so? A recent Slate article is helpful here:
Neuroscience—specifically, neural plasticity—explains why venting reinforces negative emotions. You can think of our brain circuitry like hiking trails. The ones that get a lot of traffic get smoother and wider, with brush stomped down and pushed back. The neural pathways that sit fallow grow over, becoming less likely to be used. Kindergarten teachers are thus spot on when they say, “The thoughts you water are the ones that grow.” This is also true for emotions, like resentment, and the ways we respond to them, like venting. The more we vent, the more likely we are to vent in the future.
Some attribute this feedback loop to self-justification. Venting our feelings at someone for, say, leaving a sink full of dirty dishes creates a need to justify having done so, and one way to do that is to rationalize that the person deserved it, which naturally gets you fired up all over again.
The anger you vent isn’t discharged. It functions as a speech that talks you into its angry self. “I’m so mad, and I’m saying all these angry things, and now that I’m saying them in this really angry way, they sound so convincing, which just makes me even more angry, dammit!!!” Which is, literally, insane.
So what do you do if you’re angry? It’s not easy, but it is straightforward:
Cool down before you do or say anything.
Once you’ve cooled down, think about what you need. Not what made you angry. But given what made you angry, what do you need so that issue doesn’t come up again?
Then figure out the best way to get what you need.
Then and only then is it time for you to talk and to do something.
Here we are, almost a week after receiving the slap heard round the world, and in his first public statement about the incident, all Chris Rock had to say was that he’s still processing it. There you go. Never pour gasoline on the fire.
But there’s a whole huge part of all this we’ve left out. Saying, “Don’t get angry,” sounds like disempowerment. Like telling people, particularly women and oppressed people, to shut up and take it.
No. Not at all. Far from it.
Yes, there is no reason to vent anger over a one-time-only incident. For all the reasons we’ve just talked about. But what if you are repeatedly being angered by an injustice to you or to your community?
Now in that case, stresses and toxins are building up. Not from unexpressed anger but from whatever crap you’re having to live with. The stress of a noisy neighbor. The fear of being arrested by a cop who’ll end up shooting you. Worry about laws targeting people like you, whatever “like you” means in this case.
But here too, anger is not the solution. Venting won’t accomplish anything. What you and the people around you need is smart, effective action. The anger that keeps getting stirred up inside you is the information you need to keep alive your motivation to act. But the one thing the world needs less than chickens running around with their heads cut off, is angry chickens running around with their heads cut off.
You want to change things? Then you need to think and plan. And for that you need a head unclouded by the fog of anger. My husband was a boxer in college. He told me the fastest way to lose a fight was to get mad at your opponent. It made you stupid.
The more often some situation makes you angry, the smarter you need to be. Rage less. Think more. Plan more. Change the world.
What do you think? I want to hear you!
Note: the righteous anger depicted in Delacroix's painting of Liberty leading the people in the vanguard of the French Revolution led, in fact, to death, devastation, and Napoleon.