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To Vent or Not To Vent: Modern and Ancient Views on Dealing with Anger

November 25, 2012

Most people believe that when they are irritated, they need to get the anger out of their system. There are plenty of pop psychology self-help manuals that suggest punching a pillow instead of the irritating person, so that we can have a cathartic release and let the pressure out of our own individual pressure cooker. It turns out that the theory of catharsis doesn’t hold water, not even a single empirical drop. Recent studies show that “venting one’s anger” actually makes a person feel angrier and more distressed. There is no “getting even” when it comes to angry thoughts.  If we “get back” at someone who has hurt us, we think about the incident more, not less, thus punishing ourselves, not the other person, with our own thoughts of anger. Research has also shown that when we punish someone who has hurt us, we think more about that person’s original negative action, thinking more about the person causes us to feel distressed, feeling distressed causes us to fixate more on our personal grievance, and so a vicious cycle turns around on itself, again and again. In other words, venting doesn’t really vent; it doesn’t provide catharsis, but instead binds us with our own negative thoughts. This is why an eye-for-an-eye-and-a-tooth-for-a-tooth approach to life can bring no lasting peace and why Christ, our eternal peace, taught, “But I say unto you, that ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.”

Christians should know better than trying to get even. Saint Augustine noted that the eye-for-an-eye-and-a-tooth-for-a-tooth precept was meant to dampen anger by not allowing the person to cause any injury worse than what was received, so that the flames of anger will not spread any further. It allowed for “controlled venting,” but was far from a perfect solution. Moreover, the learned bishop of Hippo asked, “Who on hearing one word from someone who insults him is satisfied with hurling back only a single word, which is an exact equivalent?” (Sermon on the Mount, 1.29.56, PL 34.1258).  The Saint writes, “There is no injustice in asking back a debt, although there is kindness in forgiving it. Consider speaking under oath. Someone who does so is in danger of perjury, while someone who never does is in no danger. And while someone speaking the truth under oath does not sin, the person who does not speak under oath at all is even further from sin. In the same way since someone who wishes for no revenge at all is further from the sin of an unjust revenge than someone who demands only his due. It is sin to demand more than is due, although it is no sin to demand a debt. So, the best security against the sin of making an unjust demand is to demand nothing at all” (Reply to Faustus, 19.25 PL 42.363-364). On the matter at hand, controlled venting is better than uncontrolled venting, but not venting at all is the best of possible responses.

Thus, what research psychologists are determining in the twenty-first century, ancient fathers had received from the words of Christ ages ago. Saint John Chrysostom, in particular, noted that responding in kind strengthens the power of the hurtful words, but they are weakened if we smile at them if they are foolish or if we meekly accept them like the publican in the presence of the Pharisee if they are true. But by responding in kind, “we bring disgrace upon ourselves; we look guilty of the things mentioned; our souls become agitated; we give our enemy pleasure; we provoke God; and we add to our former sins.” What should we do instead, “take refuge in the harbor of long-suffering patient endurance so that we might find rest for our souls” (Commentary on Romans, 12, PG 60.507-508). The Church Fathers realized long ago that venting does not really work and tried to encourage those prone to anger to cultivate self-control. The path towards peace is not catharsis through venting, but kenosis through humility, forgiveness, and love.

Reference on contemporary psychological theories on anger:

Carlsmith, K., Wilson, T., & Gilbert, D. (2008). Interpersonal relations and group processes: The paradoxical consequences of revenge. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(6), 1316-1324.

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