Once upon a time therapists believed that it was good for their patients to expel their toxic emotions. Anger was high on the list. By getting in touch with their anger, therapists believed, and expressing it openly patients would be freed from it and would become more loving and empathic.
As for how people should express their anger, therapists had different points of view.
Some awaited a moment of insight where their patients would discover how badly their parents had brought them up. Then they would become angry about it.
Others acted rudely toward their patients, ignoring them and dismissing them, the better to provoke anger. Once their patients got angry at them, these therapists would explain that the anger was displaced: they were expressing the anger they could not reveal to their fathers.
Still other therapists gave their patients whiffle ball bats and instructed them to express their anger and aggression by pounding away at pillows. No kidding.
As often happens, therapists were channeling Freud. His ideas made sense as a narrative; unfortunately, they were bad advice.
Elizabeth Bernstein explains:
Sigmund Freud talked about the hydraulic model, saying that if someone holds anger inside without letting it out, it will build to dangerous levels, much the way steam in a pressure cooker will build if it is not vented. Dr. [Brad] Bushman [of Ohio State University] says most people still believe this to be true, even though there is no scientific research to support it.
Obviously, there are times when it is right and useful to express anger, so long as one does it with the right person at the right time in the right place in the right way under the right circumstances. So said Aristotle, and he was right.
If it is wrong never to express anger it is also wrong to express it promiscuously, whenever and wherever you feel like it.
Freud having been largely superseded, therapists now know that impulsive and spontaneous expressions of anger—aka venting—are unhealthy. And yet, Bernstein points out, we keep doing it. And the internet facilitates the process by making it easier to vent anonymously.
Many people know that in the instant that they vent, they feel better. It feels like they have released some inner tension. But then, after a time of reflection, they regret what they have done and risk becoming angrier and more aggressive.
In studies, people report that they feel better after venting. But researchers find they actually become angrier and more aggressive. People who vent anonymously may become the angriest and most aggressive.
For those who are familiar with the practice of deconstruction, if you are expressing your feelings by speaking to someone who is present to you, it will cause you to moderate your emotions. For most of us, for those of us who want to have constructive relationships, this is a good thing.
If, however, you have access to a medium that involves writing and not speaking, where the interlocutor is absent, not present, you are more likely to lose control. This is why the proponents of deconstruction believed that spoken conversation was a way to repress your inner violent and vulgar Self and that only writing could allow it to express itself. Not for nothing was this method invented by a Nazi.
Note Bernstein’s description:
We all vented before the Internet, of course. But it wasn’t so immediate. We had to pick up the phone and call someone, or wait for our spouse to come home from work. This gave us time to cool down and maybe even have a relaxing cocktail. And venting in person, or even over the phone, allowed us to get immediate feedback and gauge when we were going overboard.
E-venting is particularly risky, experts say. We think it’s private because we can do it in a secluded place, like our bed while we’re in our pajamas. We have our phones with us all the time so we often e-vent before we’ve had a chance to calm down. A rant put out via the Internet is a click away from being shared. And shared. And shared
With e-venting you don’t get immediate feedback from your listener, so you might not know when to stop. “You can’t see the eye rolling,” Dr. Bushman says.