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.
Fear, sadness, and shame are “withdraw” emotions: They encourage us to pull back or shut down. Fear is a signal that all is not safe and we might need to avoid some potential danger. Sadness is our reaction to losing someone or something of value and thus a signal that we should pull back from our current plans because things have shifted significantly. Shame is a complex emotion, blending several bad feelings with thoughts of self-loathing and pain from the past. It’s what we feel when we’re told (by ourselves and others) that we’ve screwed up and don’t belong; it’s a strong 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 revisit the details of what scares us or makes us feel sad. And shame nudges us to do the opposite of facing what we’re feeling; it pushes us to hide the blight on our souls, to cover the bad spot we assume all can see.
Experiencing and openly admitting withdraw emotions 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 experiences and feel less pressure to hide them from others. Instead of trying to feel good, we move closer to the goal of feeling well. A life filled with emotional experiences—good or bad—is far healthier than a life ruled by emotional experiences.
Anger is an “approach” emotion, in some ways 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’re likely to 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 anger. This idea still has popular appeal. Long after Freud, many believe that “venting” anger is a healthy way to cope. But does yelling loudly or hitting a pillow actually really work?
Science has shown rather convincingly that venting is not helpful. In fact, it can be counter-productive. Venting can increase feelings of anger and make it more likely that we’ll act aggressively. Venting is really a way to practice showing anger and preparing mentally for being aggressive.
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. The school counselor tried to help by having him tear apart a phone book. Consider the lessons he learned that day: “If I’m really angry, I don’t have to manage it; I can release my anger by destroying 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 discover the other feelings that are often hidden beneath the anger. Hurt? Sadness? Shame? Fear? These feelings often tag along with anger but we won’t see them if we act quickly on anger alone. With practice, we can learn that anger is just one part of our emotional story. With practice, we can learn to experience the underlying emotions and get a whole different set of nudges. And when we are open to feeling hurt or sad or scared (versus rage or anger), we’re less inclined to act hurt those we love.
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 things. This isn’t simply a mental trick: Muscles in the face send feedback to our brain to produce various emotional states. A useful twist is to practice a kind smile directed at the self. There’s wisdom in that smile and it’s a nice antidote 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. But anger management is not so much a strategy about stopping anger as it is about preventing badly managed anger-driven episodes.
Managing anger means managing well the many stressors in our life. The less effectively we do that, the greater our risk for anger-driven aggressive episodes. When we’re struggling and feeling overwhelmed, we’re like dry kindling in a forest; it takes only a small spark to set off an angry rant or personal attack. But if we practice healthy coping—anticipating and attending to our emotional, relational, and biological (e.g., food, rest) needs—then we’re less likely to ignite into uncontrolled anger.
None of these strategies for coping with anger is a guarantee that we won’t have an embarrassing, angry moment. But over time, with practice, we can learn to be kinder to ourselves and less hurtful toward others.