Do You Keep Taking Out Your Anger on Others? Suppress, Don’t Repress

when experiencing anger, what should you do?

By Peter M. Vishton, PhDWilliam & Mary
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, The Great Courses Daily

Whether it’s a relationship with your significant other, a friend, or a colleague, anger can often exacerbate conflicts. Is anger ever necessary, though? Professor Vishton examines the evidence.

Angry businessman addressing colleague
During a discussion when anger is building, a simple way to bring the discussion back to a calm level is to have participants express genuine, positive statements. Photo By imtmphoto / Shutterstock

Power of a Compliment

Family counselors have found that if a couple having relationship issues periodically suppresses their anger and expresses something positive to one another, it can help to break the vicious cycle. Researchers like Myrna Friedlander and her colleagues have found that the technique is often helpful. 

The one potential problem she has identified with this approach is that the compliment might be perceived as sarcastic. If you choose to try this technique, then, you should start by finding a compliment that you can be genuine about. Then be sure to follow through to make clear that you actually meant what you said or did.

Professor Vishton encourages you to experiment with being nice to someone who has been mean or aggressive with you—not for that person, but for yourself. If you can find a way to momentarily force yourself to be kind to someone, even if they don’t deserve that kindness, you can shift how their brain processes additional incoming information. 

You can avoid, for yourself, the unpleasant experience of an angry confrontation. Ultimately, you can have a greater influence on that other person’s behavior.

Suppress Anger, Don’t Repress

“I’ve been bad mouthing anger here,” Professor Vishton said. “That’s not completely misplaced. Anger, particularly the extreme anger we associate with rage, can be very destructive. But anger also has the capacity to promote actions that result in a lot of good in the world.”

When you hear of one group of people mistreating another group, perhaps due to racial or some other prejudice, you might be justifiably angry. If someone is harming you or someone you love, it is quite reasonable to get angry. 

The problem with anger, however, is that it tends to get misdirected at something other than the cause of the anger. For example, maybe you have a bad interaction with someone early in the day. 

Some anger is felt, but maybe it wasn’t appropriate to express it or deal with the problem at the time. That anger gets repressed, sitting there in your brain. 

Maybe it feels like it’s sitting there as a knot in your stomach. The day continues. You get home later in the day and find that your dog has chewed up one of your socks.

Now, there’s reason to be a little upset with the dog for this sock-chewing behavior, but your reaction at this point might be much larger than is proportionately appropriate, yelling at a much greater volume and frequency than the dog deserves.

When humans get angry, we feel like we get angry at something, but the anger doesn’t seem to remember that thing very well. If something else taps into an established reservoir of anger, it can all come rushing out at the same time.

Primal Scream Therapy

When you feel anger, much research suggests that you should suppress it, but you should not repress it. Let’s unpack what this means.

In the 1970s, primal scream therapy became very popular. This therapy involves periodically taking a few minutes and screaming your loudest. 

Patients would be asked to think of something in their past that had made them angry—their recent past, their distant past, or childhood. Once that experience was called clearly to mind, the patient would engage in unrestrained, full-throated, angry screaming for several minutes.

The theory behind this work is that anger is like a poison that your brain creates. If you express that anger, then you let that poison out. 

If you don’t, then that poison can turn on you, causing anxiety, depression, stress, or even heart disease. The primal screaming method was supposed to help release that poison.

Many other therapies have been developed with similar goals. Indeed, this objective has become a part of how we talk about anger. 

If someone dealing with anger goes for a hard run or punches a heavy bag for a while, we might say that the person is letting off steam. In this case, the steam is the accumulated anger that needs to find a good outlet to prevent it from inadvertently being vented on an unsuspecting victim—perhaps a sock-chewing dog.

Screaming, letting off some steam, venting grievances, not bottling up your anger—these are all expressions that focus on the concept of catharsis. By engaging in certain actions, it may be possible to reduce or eliminate anger.

We’ll explore this theory more in tomorrow’s article.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for The Great Courses Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for The Great Courses Daily.
Image of Professor Peter Vishton

Peter M. Vishton is Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his PhD in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.

About Kate Findley 371 Articles
Kate is a writer, novelist, and blogger living in Los Angeles. She has been writing for The Great Courses since 2017. It incorporates her two favorite things: writing and learning.