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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Anger: a) Get It All Out? b) Let It Cool Down? or c) Use It As A Form Of Emotional Energy?

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Of course there is the anger 
where the love is strong. 
It spills like gasoline.
It’s crude, but 
it’s a power we can draw upon
if it fuels the right machine.

    —singer-songwriter David Wilcox, “Covert War”

I once read about a woman in Panama City, Florida, who got so mad at her husband for ignoring her that she grabbed a cigarette lighter and set one of his shirts on fire. Problem was, the blaze got out of control and burned down their house. This did get her husband’s attention, but it also resulted in the couple losing most of their worldly possessions.

To make matters worse, their insurance company refused to cover the loss, since the blaze was set intentionally by one of the owners. And as if this weren’t bad enough, the wife (described by the investigator as “a nice lady with a temper”) was charged with second-degree arson.

As is often the case, the couple’s original argument was over a minor issue, the passive-aggressive husband’s main crime being that of merely lying in bed and totally tuning out his wife’s complaints. This got her so upset she decided to apply the lighter.

The moral of the story? Whatever immediate satisfaction we may get from impulsively venting our rage can be spoiled by unforeseen negative consequences.

Unfortunately, a lot of popular psychology has promoted the idea that repressing our emotions, especially angry ones, is A Very Bad Thing. We are admonished to let it all out, to swear, break dishes, or just let other people “have it” if necessary, in order to relieve ourselves of some terrible anger poison that can allegedly cause high blood pressure, depression, anxiety, and all kinds of other problems.

But does “getting it all out” really help our marriage, family, or other relationships?

The notion that keeping any anger bottled up inside is bad for you is based loosely on Sigmund Freud’s theory that our subconscious mind is a reservoir for repressed sexual instincts. Many therapists in the 1960s and 1970s simply took that a step further and urged us to avoid repressing all kinds of feelings, particularly angry ones.

More recent researchers, such as psychologist Carol Travis, author of Anger, the Misunderstood Emotion, disagree. Travis insists that even Freud never argued that the suppression of instincts was always bad but was actually necessary for society’s survival. “Without it,” she asks, “who would mind the store, build the bridges, create the Mona Lisa?” Nor does she recommend things like punching pillows, throwing plates, or screaming at people as ways of “getting anger out.” She believes that such actions result in little more than “Sure, it didn’t solve anything, but it did make me feel better.”

My question is whether just feeling better should be our primary goal as grownups. What if it makes our spouse or other loved ones feel worse? What if it damages our relationship with our children while at the same time fails to address the real problems that are bothering us?

We are told in Scripture, “In your anger do not sin: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry” (Ephesians 4:26) In other words, angry feelings can be okay but are never an excuse for harbored resentments, hurtful behaviors or just plain bad judgment.

In an emergency like a fire or an accident, the release of large doses of adrenaline can be useful. In most other situations, however, our God-given anger energy is better harnessed as emotional fuel to drive a well-tuned, carefully controlled “engine,” one that transforms anger-power into a useful purpose, like giving us the courage and motivation to find some real solutions to our problems.

If no constructive action is possible, the next best thing is just to take some deep breaths and calm down. It won't damage your mental health and none of your relationships will be harmed in doing so.
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