Today’s post is the ninth in a series that I call “The 10 Most Useful Facts about Emotions”. I wrote this for a forthcoming book about parenting. I was trying to find a way to help parents appreciate what I call the emotional hazards of parenting. So, the 10 most useful emotion facts are applied to parenting but they can be used to better understand the emotional hazards of any relationship.
Fact #9: Admitting Fear, Sadness, and Shame Is Helpful; Venting, Fretting, and Rewinding Are Not Helpful
Emotions have a purpose. Some emotions are said to be “withdraw” emotions: They encourage us to pull back or shut down. Most withdraw emotions are negative. Fear, sadness, and shame are examples. Fear is a signal that all is not safe and that it might be necessary to avoid a potential danger. Sadness is a reaction to losing someone close or something of value and thus a signal that all is not well. Shame is a complex emotion, blending several bad feelings with thoughts of self-loathing and pain from some past event. It’s what we feel when we’re constantly told (by others and ourselves) that we’ve screwed up and don’t belong; it’s a strongly felt prompt to stay down, stay quiet, and stay away.
It’s not easy to speak about or give voice to withdraw emotions. It’s uncomfortable and tiring to give details about what scares us or what makes us feel sad. And shame nudges us to do the opposite of making public what we’re feeling; it pushes us to hide the blight on our souls, to cover the bad spot we assume all others see.
Openly experiencing and then admitting these feelings to someone we trust means leaning into what we fear, letting go of what we lost, and conceding the facts of the past. When we can do that, we are made healthier by it. We are no longer hiding from these negative internal experiences or hiding them from others. We move closer to practicing feeling well instead of only trying to feel good. We learn that a life filled with emotional experiences—good or bad—is not a life ruled by emotional experiences.
Anger is also a negative emotion, but it’s an “approach” emotion, similar to joy and affection. Approach emotions nudge us forward. Anger is a signal that something or someone is in our way, blocking our goals. When angry, we feel an urge to move toward the obstacle so we can remove it. Sometimes anger is mixed with underlying hurt, which can make for a tough emotional mix. We want to attack the obstacle, but we often feel badly afterwards and not really gratified.
Sigmund Freud believed that a cathartic release of strong emotions—letting off steam, so to speak—is a useful way to deal with blocked emotions like anger. This idea still has popular appeal as a solution to anger-related problems. Long after Freud, many believe that “venting” anger is a healthy way to cope. But does yelling loudly or hitting a pillow actually lessen anger and reduce the odds of acting aggressively?
It turns out that commonly held beliefs about venting are false. Science has shown rather convincingly that it’s not helpful. In fact, it can be counter-productive. Venting anger makes it likely that we’ll feel even angrier and more likely that we’ll act aggressively. Venting is really a way to practice showing anger and preparing mentally for attacking or destroying someone or something.
I once worked with a boy who was highly aggressive at home and at school. One day he got mad and threatened other students and hit his teacher. He was sent to the counselor who noted his anger and tried to help by having him tear apart a phone book in her office. Consider the lessons he learned that day: “If I’m really angry, I don’t have to tolerate it; I can use my urge to act aggressively to destroy something.” Scientists are still searching for ways to help individuals who struggle with anger, but there’s little doubt that venting anger is not one of those ways.
A useful alternative is to lean into the experience of anger and linger long enough to see what other feelings are lurking around. Hurt? Sadness? Shame? Fear? These feelings often tag along with anger but they’re only recognizable if we first allow ourselves to feel angry without acting on it. It takes a leap of faith to believe that anger is just the tip of an emotional iceberg, but that’s often the case. If we can experience the underlying emotions, we get a whole different set of nudges. And when we feel hurt or sad or scared (versus rage or anger), we’re less inclined to hurt or destroy.
Another potentially useful strategy for managing anger is to fix our face into a smile and laugh. Physiologically, it’s harder to feel anger when our body is doing these two things. Muscles in the face feedback to the brain and prompt different emotional states, so it’s not simply a mental trick; it’s a biologically based strategy for pulling back from intense anger. A useful twist is to practice adopting a knowing but kind smile at oneself. There’s wisdom in that smile and it’s a nice counter to acting regrettably out of anger.
One last option worth mentioning is about “anger management”. This term has been badly misconstrued. It is commonly thought to be the ability to calm down in the heat of the moment rather than going off on someone out of anger or frustration. But the strategy of anger management is less about stopping anger in the moment; it’s more about preventing anger-driven episodes ahead of time.
Essentially, managing anger means managing stress in all facets of our lives. The less effectively we manage stress, the greater our risk for an anger-driven aggressive episode. When we’re struggling to cope and feeling overwhelmed, we’re like dry kindling in a forest; it only takes a small spark to ignite us into an angry rant or attack. But if we actively engage in adaptive stress management, attending to our emotional, relational, and biological (e.g., food, rest) needs, then we greatly reduce that risk.
Please keep in mind that none of these strategies for coping with anger (i.e., looking for other underlying feelings, smiling/laughing, and preventative anger management) is a guarantee that we won’t have an embarrassing angry moment. But each offers a fairly good antidote over time if practiced regularly and, in the case of anger management, used proactively and not just when things get really dicey.
Another faulty strategy for dealing with bad feelings is fretting or worrying. Worrying is a relatively private affair but fretting is usually noticed by others. It’s important to be clear about what we’re doing or not doing when we worry or fret. There’s a time and place for being aware, for planning, and for concern, but endless fretting doesn’t seem to be either productive or healthy. We can get stuck in a web of fretting because it provides temporary escape from anxious feelings and a false sense of control. When we fret, we’re like a hamster on a running wheel: We’re running to escape bad feelings and imagined catastrophic events. Folks who worry and fret believe that stop fretting is to invite bad feelings and bad events into our lives.
A final flawed strategy for coping with negative emotions is a type of mental rewinding. A more technical name is rumination. That’s the same term used to describe what cows do when they chew and re-chew their food. The mental version of rumination involves replaying in our mind past mistakes, old regrets, or previous losses. Our mind tries desperately to find a version of the past that goes differently from what happened or to figure out why things went so badly in the first place. When we ruminate, we’re hoping to escape from pain, loss, shame or regret. Mental rewinding is a powerful elixir and some folks, sadly, spend much their lives hooked on its addictive properties.
Ironically, individuals who rely heavily on fretting or rewinding tend to believe that life is already filled with too many emotions. To suggest greater openness to emotions sounds ridiculous to them: “I’m already freaking out” or “I feel like crap now, why would I want to feel more of that”. But just as venting keeps us from feeling other important underlying emotions such as hurt and loss, fretting and rewinding keep us from feeling and using adaptive nudges that are delivered by fear, shame, or sadness.
Bottom line: Be cautious about venting anger but admit to feeling down or scared.