There’s a long-standing and ongoing controversy in psychological circles that goes something like this: Is it better to express or not to express feelings of anger? Will venting my anger provide much needed relief and restore my sense of balance and well-being? If I have a serious problem with anger, is this a constructive approach that will allow me to manage it?
The matter came to my attention via a newspaper article about Dr. Theodore Isaac Rubin, a well-known psychiatrist and author who advises his patients to vent their anger—within reasonable limits of course. His most popular work, The Angry Book, was originally published in 1969 and is now in its 20th printing; it has been translated into many languages. His approach seems to endorse what Wikipedia calls “the ‘catharsis theory’ of aggression, which suggests that ‘unleashing’ pent-up anger reduces aggression.”
Dr. Rubin maintains that it’s fine to get angry, provided we do so “appropriately”; this means directing it to the person who caused it and as soon as possible. Anger expressed in this way can be constructive, in his view, because it avoids violence and the unhealthy practice of repressing emotions. Such repression, he claims, can mask itself as “high blood pressure, undue anxiety, headaches, skin disorders, phobic responses, insomnia, depression and antisocial behaviour.” And many people convert it to “self-hate, suicide, accident proneness, destructive use of drugs and smoking, gambling of a destructive nature and even murder.”
The American Psychological Association seems to endorse Rubin’s approach: “Unexpressed anger can create other problems. It can lead to pathological expressions of anger, such as passive-aggressive behaviour (getting back at people indirectly without telling them why, rather than confronting them head-on) or a personality that seems perpetually cynical and hostile. People who are constantly putting others down, criticizing everything, and making cynical comments haven’t learned how to constructively express their anger.”
I must admit my surprise at seeing repressed anger cited for so many social and personal ills. However, I cannot but wonder whether Dr. Rubin’s analysis is sufficiently deep and thorough, for he seems to suggest that anger is a cause of psychological imbalance rather than one among many symptoms of a more fundamental disorder, something I would call “mistaken identity.” If a person is identified and involved with his or her emotions, the repression of any one of them may indeed be a severe blow to the personality. But if personal identity transcends the emotional level, permitting the experience of control, we may take or leave our emotions at any given moment, with no resulting damage to the personality.
Quoting Dr. Rubin once again: “When we repress a powerful emotion, we tend to repress other emotions. Then it becomes difficult to know who we are and what we really feel.” Ah, just as I thought: emotional identification, the idea that we know who we are by expressing what we feel. This has everything backwards, doesn’t it? Or am I missing something here? The philosopher, Rene Descartes, is famous for the expression, “I think, therefore I am.” Dr. Rubin seems to be saying, “I feel, therefore I am.” This is backwards. The truth is, “I am, therefore I feel.” Also Descartes had it backwards; the truth is, “I am, therefore I think.”
There remains much doubt, at least in my mind, that the deliberate and frequent expression of anger is a habit worth cultivating. Underlying this approach is the idea that we rid ourselves of anger by expressing it. This has certainly not been the case in my experience. Expressing a feeling (hate, envy, resentment, fear, anger, love) strengthens or empowers the feeling, enlarging its influence and entrenching it in the personal subconscious mind.
Not that we need to repress or fight negative emotions such as anger. Repression, I agree, is unhealthy. But there’s an alternative, and that is to express love, acceptance, peace, etc. instead. Those who develop the habit of blessing every person in their vicinity find that anger gradually makes a quiet exit from the emotional reservoir. It’s starved out for lack of attention. No need to repress it; rather transmute it by giving expression to integrity, nobility, serenity and all of the other qualities of true character. Simple, effective and really the only way it can be done!
No need to worry that failure to vent anger will turn your emotional realm into a vacuum. You will still have feelings—rich and wonderful feelings—but they will be expressed in a positive rather than a negative way. For there is a sense in which an emotion in and of itself is neutral. It’s just feeling-energy. Why not release that energy as love instead of anger? That can be easily done when one is in right identity, i.e. identity with the truth of oneself rather than with the feeling. In any case, the objective is not to eliminate the emotion but to bring it under proper control, the control of truth we might say, and then release it as creative, healing love-energy.
I also have to respectfully disagree with Dr. Rubin’s assertion that “fighting is inevitable.” Fighting requires at least two people, and if one of them insists on love instead of anger, how can there be a fight? And his claim that anger doesn’t hurt or kill runs contrary to my experience. Anger does hurt; it does kill. To direct anger at people is tantamount to shooting them vibrationally; it does psychological damage to them and to the person expressing the anger. And, incidentally, in something as irrational and emotionally involving as a fight, it’s almost impossible to limit the attack to the “position” and to avoid viewing the fight as a personal triumph.
Finally, all of the physical and social maladies that Dr. Rubin associates with repressed anger—anxiety, insomnia, drug abuse, murder, etc.—are actually caused by venting anger and, more importantly, by repressing and consistently denying expression to the qualities of true character. Other causes include jealousy, possessiveness, resentment, accusation, complaint and a host of other dehumanizing ego-driven expressions. In every case radiant life, the truth of love, is replaced by behaviour that’s a distortion of love. Human beings have habitually indulged in such distortions for thousands of years.
But here we are, ready, I hope to make a clean break with this ruinous and ultimately fatal habit by resolving to bring our capacities of feeling, thinking and acting fully under the control of who we really are—the truth of love. Fire, passion, deep feelings…yes, give them full release, not as angry, divisive reaction to what is lower but as loving, unifying response to what is higher—the noble, creator-being that I am and you are. In this way we fuse with the intensified creative fire of cosmic love that is even now transmuting human consciousness and making all things wondrously and gloriously new.
Gain another perspective on anger in THE SIXTH MINDFULNESS TRAINING: Dealing with Anger>>
image: David Niblack