I’ve always been taught that it’s a good thing not to repress my anger. However, I read in a recent book (Horward Cutler interviewing the Dalai Lama) that regular expression of anger can fuel the anger and make it worse. The two views appear to be totally contradictory. So who’s right?
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I cannot pretend to know the mind of the Dalai Lama, but I can share with you my thoughts on the issue which have been shaped by contemporary psychological thought. While anger is a natural and instinctual emotion that people are born capable of feeling and expressing, the way that people come to express their anger is not instinctual but rather learned. Families end up having different anger cultures. In some families, it is okay to be angry with one another, and volatile outbursts are commonplace. In other families, children are taught that angry expression is not tolerated, and such people grow up repressing and displacing their anger. There are thus degrees of angry expression that different people become comfortable with.
People learn how to express anger by a variety of means. Most prominant amoung these means is what is called social learning. Social learning is learning by observation. People learn to express their anger violently when they witness others around them acting violently. They learn to restrain their anger when others around them show restraint. People also learn how to express anger by looking at the consequences they suffer when they become angry. If they get angry and other people cower around them in fear, that can be reinforcing, and people will tend to become angry more often. If people are rewarded for restraining their anger, they learn to restrain their anger.
Anger is not a bad thing in of itself. It is one of the only emotions that helps you stand up for yourself when you have been wronged, for example. It is an emotion that can be abused, however, and an emotion that can lead people towards rash and impulsive and violent decisions that end up hurting people. Anger can fuel hostility, which research has shown, I believe, to be very bad for your physical health. Anger can be used to justify aggression (at least to one’s self). For these reasons, anger is something that people are best off learning how to ‘manage'; to have control over, so that it does not have control over you.
It is not a good thing to repress anger fully. When you do that, you lose the ability to act on what you are feeling, and that has bad ramifications for your comfort, self-esteem, and probably health too. However, just becuase it is not a good idea to repress anger doesn’t mean that it is a good idea to allow yourself to blow up into fits of rage on a regular basis either. Doing so is an abuse of anger and leads to the problems I have mentioned above. I believe that this latter extreme is what the Dalai Lama would have been talking about; that it is not good to allow yourself to get into regular uncontrolled fits of rage, becuase each fit of range feeds upon itself to become more permission to rage. There is a middle ground that needs to be found between these extremes.
The middle ground between unrestrained angry expression and over-restrained anger is often called “assertiveness” in the psychological literature. You can read more about assertiveness here. Assertive people allow themselves to feel anger and to be angry, but at the same time, they keep their behavior controled. They do not allow themselves to become aggressive in a pre-emptive manner; they do not lash out at people who have angered them. Instead, they remain civil to the best of their abilities. It is only when other people try to harm them aggressively that they will defend themselves in kind.
In the light of the above information, I don’t believe that the two messages you’ve received about anger are really contradictory. Those who taught you to express your anger were probably cautioning you against excessive passivity and losing your voice out of fear of bullies and other aggressors. The Dalai Lama’s message is probably cautioning against unrestrained bursts of regular anger that become more aggressive over time. Both messages are pointing to the middle position of assertiveness as the appropriate way for reasonable people to handle anger.