Dangerous Myths

  • Derek Roger

The New Zealand Herald recently carried an article claiming that “showing your anger rather than repressing emotions is the key to a successful life at home and at work”. The article reports research by George Vaillant at Harvard, who opines that people “think of anger as a dangerous emotion and are encouraged to practise ‘positive thinking’, but we find that approach is ultimately a damaging denial of dreadful reality”.

What exactly is the message here? Other research has indicated that the expression of emotion does indeed contribute to well-being – women, for example, live on average 5 years longer than men for a variety of reasons, including hormonal differences, but a significant contributory factor is that women express emotion much more readily than men. We can be fairly confident that inhibiting emotion is not useful, but we need to be much more cautious about leaping to the conclusion that showing anger is healthy. The emotions that women express seldom have much to do with anger, and the point about expressing emotion is that it averts the potentially very dangerous expression of anger.

However, let’s take this a step further. Vaillant draws a simplistic distinction between expressing anger on the one hand, and what he dismissively refers to as ‘positive thinking’ on the other. Offering a choice between either anger or ‘positive thinking’ suggests that these are the only alternatives. Endorsing the expression of anger legitimises anger itself, and avoids the much more important question: why are you angry in the first place? What’s your problem?

It may sound like an urban myth, but there was a time when some companies did actually have a room in the building with a big cushion in it, and frustrated staff were encouraged to go in and beat the cushion about – presumably imagining it was their line manager or whatever they believed was causing their frustration. Afterwards the person feels better, and that’s precisely the problem: the effect is to reinforce anger as a way of dealing with frustration. In other words, encouraging the kind of behaviour we spend the first decade of a child’s life trying to convince them is wrong.

Again, there is the question: why are you so frustrated that you have to revert to beating up a cushion? Most likely because something didn’t go your way. What do we try to teach children? Not everything goes your way; getting frustrated and angry about it is childish. And so we create an immature environment in which aggressive people are rewarded. Consider your experience at work, and the number of managers from hell you’ve encountered: they got there by behaving like children.

If you doubt any of this, notice the language used in the business world. CEOs tasked with helping struggling companies are not appointed, they are ‘parachuted in’. Risky investments are ‘kamikaze deals’. You don’t challenge other people in meetings, you ‘throw in a grenade’. The notion that expressing anger is not just useful but good for you serves to reinforce the mentality that you’re in a war, and that everyone except ‘us’ is an enemy. That’s a useful way to live your life?

The idea that anger is an inevitable consequence for everyone and needs to be expressed is based on the pressure-cooker model: that we need to ‘let off steam’. How many people have you heard proudly announcing that they fly into rages but that once that’s done they’re wonderful again? What about the consequences? The fear it provokes in others? Again, the issue is not about thinking you’re a pressure-cooker, but why you’re so angry in the first place.

Another favourite is that ‘a bit of stress is good for you’. Ask anyone how they feel when they’re stressed, and the answer will be miserable and upset. How can that be in any way good for you? The misunderstandings about stress have been discussed at length in these blogs, and the evidence is incontrovertible: all that stress offers is a short, miserable life, but the misconception that it is good for licenses those same managers from hell to think that if you’re stressed you’ll do the job better. Just a moment’s mature reflection will show that the opposite is true.

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