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Robert Jaffe

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Is the exteriorisation of angry feelings a good thing or a bad thing?

Years ago there was a fashion that advocated getting angry when you felt angry. It was thought at the time that it was better for the angry person to show and demonstrate their anger than to repress it. Now psychologists have changed their minds and reversed their position. It's now believed by almost all professionals that getting angry when you feel angry makes things much, much worse, both for the person feeling angry and for those around him or her. This issue is related not only to violence, but also to current political polarization. What do you think? What do you feel is the proper way to deal with angry feelings?

Topics: violence
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        May 20 2011: Hmmmm. I would tend to think that only a small percentage of angry people would be able to eliminate their anger in the way you describe, Mr. Schulte. Many people, particularly angry people, for many different reasons, don't find themselves in a mental or emotional position from within which they can access essentially oriental wisdom. This may well be different for individuals who have actually been raised within Buddhist societies. For most westerners, though, I believe that more basic methods have to be employed. After all, however bright and cultured and sophisticated we may be, much of our being is animal, for we are animals, with an all-too-frequent animal existence on several levels. And however unhappy we may be to do so, we have to be realistic about dealing with the animal parts of our nature.
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      May 20 2011: I think you have real insight into the anger problem, Ms. K. And that your ideas about how to deal with that problem have to be taken quite seriously. As for anger's contribution to mental and physical disease, I'm not as sure. Yes, we've been told (in my case for fifty years) that depression "is anger turned inward." And I haven't heard anything that would make me think the psychological professions have changed their minds about that. I have, though, heard from both psychologists and physicians that they are presently rather dubious about unexpressed anger causing cancer. See, e.g., www.psychosomaticmedicine.org/content/69/7/667.full.pdf
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          May 24 2011: Hi Kathy, Psychological studies do not support the much promoted idea of pounding on other things to get our anger out. In fact, studies indicate that it augments the level of overall anger and violence. There are studies underway right now on the correlation between anger and disease as well.
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          May 25 2011: HI Kathy,
          I haven't been looking at that area of research in a couple years but I'll see if I can find a reference or two. (I have no current research on the make up sex either! ; )

          There is certainly good evidence to support the idea of running or a good work out - that works great! That is a form of distraction and evoking endorphins to change mood. There is no evidence of what was advocated a few years back that punching pillows, yelliing to get it out or even boxing lessens anger though.Kathy, if you know one thing by now it is that you go with what works for you! I have seldom interacted with anyone who was as sponaneous and intuitive as you are! Trust your gut.
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          May 25 2011: Kathy, That is another important issue. I wonder why we have kids spend so much time in school and never deal with the really important things or give them the tool for life. Anger management skills should not be taught only to violent offenders and wife beaters. All people should have the skills to deal with rage.
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    May 25 2011: I think if people just stoped and in long form talked to themselves and answered the question "why am i angry?" would help defuse about half that group.
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    May 23 2011: Robert,

    Engaged action is, in my mind, a powerful antidote to angry rhetoric.

    Many believe the Dalai Lama's wisdom is entirely derived from his meditative detachment from anger. I believe it is also derived from his redirection of energy to his cause for peace. Rather than raging against injustice, His Holiness converts his passions by engaging them in constructive actions, such as speaking and writing.

    Bill Ury's observations of large peaceful mediations and transformations achieved by physical movement of, and sometimes between, angry or alienated parties are exceedingly powerful. They transcend emotional or expressive benefits of talk-, rage or pound the punching bag (or gavel) methods with the simple (but elegant) outlet of shared action, something akin to co-physical anger assuagement via energy redirection.

    My personal favorite stories about how this works are from my local basketball court, where a cross-section of citizens that nearly mirrors the United Nations is often fighting for space -- if not working off the angers and injustices of life.

    I must admit, my understandings emerged initially due to my frustrations tripping over all ages of mostly boys and men, while other females opted out of the chaos.

    But I began observing magic in action. I witnessed Somalians playing with Christian pastors, the able-bodied seeing how good the disabled play, college-class super-jocks showing clumsy kids how to improve, Bosnian, Ethiopian, Asian and other immigrants teaming up with blacks and whites who aren't. With only occasional fleeting altercations when excitements peak.

    And yes, now more girls and women play, too. Relational changes are abetted by court-side conversations, during which casual talk opens eyes and minds to the "Other."

    My frustrated passions were delightfully transformed months ago: A Muslim girl in hajib, dress and tattered patent-leather dress shoes challenged me to a half-court shooting contest. (Yes, she won.)

    Andrea
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      May 24 2011: Hello, Andrea. Wish I had access to your magical basketball court. What a great idea. I read your post carefully and thought about what you say. I would think that the Dalai Lama has long since entirely mastered his own capacity to become angered, and may well have done so in the manner you describe - by redirecting energies that might otherwise have fostered anger into much more constructive endeavors. But by now that must be a habit for him. And of course, for you and I and others here, that's something we'd all like to do, a personal goal. And many of us will make progress in that way and ultimately attain some degree of success. But what about all the angry people around us, whom we have to work with, when we don't have a magical basketball court available? How do we get them to comprehend even a portion of the advantages that accrue from changing into a non-angry person? To feel their way into the betterness of a non-angry life? I would tend to think that in order to accomplish something like that we do have to be able to pull a rabbit out of a hat, so to speak, to demonstrate to them in short order - through a small, on-the-spot, highly limited transformation of a tiny aspect of their anger into a (to them) obviously useful and pleasant "different state" related directly to a solution of the conflict in which they find themselves at the moment we meet them. Which we could then use to get them thinking seriously about long-term change. I have no magic solutions, but better minds than mine, such as Bill Ury and others, have been mulling this over for quite some time. Sooner or later I do believe we'll get somewhere.
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        May 24 2011: Hi Robert,

        To build on your thoughts re: Dalai Lama mastering the art of redirecting energies, I think we can, too with practice. Perhaps similar to the suggestion Bill Ury made in his closing comments in his “From No to Yes” talk: that the audience start by reaching out to someone different. A first step to experience the magic he observes in his global work and I observe on my local BB court.

        While redirecting our energies, we can also model the practice of it to others who might be observing.

        I think of young men at my Y who were once pretty brutal. At one point they targeted me, throwing footballs at me. (More on that: http://bit.ly/mMdfTx) They've mellowed.

        Still, I noticed a new player harass a young woman who works at the Y, demanding a quarter. His comments sexually aggressive.

        My impulse was to call him out. Which I did, pulling my “woman” than my “mom” card out in my on-the-spot attempt to pull a rabbit out of the hat. The full magical effect didn't take in the moment. But it did distract him and a friend with him.

        His friend, stunned (or scared) by this mom-figure going toe-to-toe with his bully buddy, told the bully to back down.

        As I reflected about how I could have been more effective, I tried to construe a "positive agitation,” similar to what I've used in work. I try to quickly engage people, but NOT via offending, humiliating or gas-lighting.

        The next time I went to the Y I brought two quarters. I was in the middle of a busy court when I saw him and called him over. He looked befuddled, but came. I pitched the quarters to him, telling him in a friendly but firm voice to use them to stop harassing. I haven’t seen him bother anyone since.

        I don’t know how long his attitude will hold, but it’s something. And, if nothing else, gave me a chance to practice transforming my own anger by engaging in an effort to elicit pro-social change while accessing something of a "double-dose" of exercise-induced endorphins.

        Andrea
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    May 20 2011: Hi Robert!

    Often, a whole set of feelings and emotions like rejection, fear and confusion default to anger. Anger is a state where your brain is on tilt (like a pinball machine). We can be highly focused but not necessarily effective and it is not even guarenteed that we are focused on the right object for our anger. It works best as a survival mechanism but it does not serve us very well on a day to day basis. Learning to recognize the signs before a person gets to the point of uncontrolled anger could really help many people live more productive and successful lives.

    I am attaching a link to a very impressive TED talk because I read in a post below that you are a mediator. William Ury, the speaker is one as well and what absolutely captivated me in the talk- beyond the wonderful content was the shining good humour in his eyes. This is a man who I do not think resorts to anger very often and perhaps that is because he has seen the ultimate outcome of it. I hope you will take a look and perhaps comment if appropriate.

    http://www.ted.com/talks/william_ury.html
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      May 20 2011: Thank you very much, Debra, for bringing Bill Ury's talk to my attention. He's a great hero of mine, as he is to all mediators. I was a spear carrier in the army in which Bill Ury was and is a general. His books are excellent, and I recommend them all without reservation. Please don't get me started on the general subject of mediation though, because I'll talk (or write) your head off. As I mentioned in another post here, I've spent most of my adult life as a full-time, professional mediator, like Bill, and it's a fascinating way to make a living.

      What you say about negative feelings and anger is absolutely correct, from my point of view. Rejection, fear and confusion do all too often default to anger. I very much like your image of anger as a state where your brain is on tilt like a pinball machine. It's so terribly true. And, yes, realizing what you're doing before you explode in anger, and then taking action to stop it, would be well worth while for all of us. As to your last comment, I'd be amazed if you found any professional mediator who "resorts to anger very often." From a mediator's point of view, anger, particularly anger in mediators themselves, is about as self-destructive as pulling the pin on a grenade and stuffing it in your pocket. Take care!
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        May 20 2011: That was a really interesting and satisfying reply. I thank you.
        However, now you have really sparked my interest in what you can teach us on a basic level about mediation. Can I suggest - even implore you to teach us or share with us something ot that which you know so well? Even if you would consider starting future threads with questions we could consider and work through together.
        I hope to see more of you and of your wisdom.
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          May 20 2011: Mmmmm. I don't know that I have much wisdom to impart. I live in as much of a daily fog as everyone else. But of course I'd be happy to write about my experiences of and conclusions about mediation. Let me try to work them into some general questions I can pose in the future. I'd prefer, if we can, to keep to the central idea of the problem of anger in this particular line of comments. It's a very, very central matter in all mediation of whatever kind, family mediation, litigation mediation and international mediation, among others.

          Solving the problem of anger (and, yes, I do believe it's solvable, and I'm not a romantic idealist) is important on every single conceivable level: couples, families, workmates, labor/management, in schools, colleges, universities and internationally. It will take time, but it's feasible. We've already seen that kind of huge social and personal development. I've actually witnessed similar changes happen in my own lifetime. And so would anybody have done who's more than fifty years old today. They may not have noticed it. They may not have focussed on it. But such things do really happen in the real world among real people. Take care!
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        May 21 2011: Hey Robert! I'm glad you will consider it and I agree that anger is certainly an important enough topic to have this entire thread devoted solely to the topic.
        You take care too!
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      May 20 2011: As to who the professionals are, they include but are not limited to psychologists, social workers, therapists, counselors, psychiatrists and psychoanalysts with whom I have dealt in connection with my professional work for the past 35 years. From my point of view as a long-time family mediator working with couples who are having difficulties with each other, anger is entirely counterproductive. You'll never be able to truly listen to your spouse if you're enraged at them, and real listening is essential, in my view, if a couple wants to stay together.

      As for their suggestions, for starters you might want to read Kathy K's post above. She has a good grip on the most frequent advice to angry people: first, realize that you're angry (many people manage to hide from this realization.) Second, consciously locate each particular "trigger" that sets off your anger. Third, think about how to avoid such triggers as best you can in the future. Fourth, figure out (with or without professional advice) how to channel your anger into healthier pursuits, such as (Kathy K. writes) exercise. Other people suggest any form of energetic (but not necessarily aerobic) activity, including playing a musical instrument, doing garden work, washing your car, walking to and from the store instead of using your car (if that's realistic), or (obviously) doing any kind of sport. I myself have found it valuable in eliminating anger to consciously work on positive relations with other people, in a much more attentive and caring way than I have before.

      I'm not familiar with Eckhart Tolle but I do know of and highly respect the Dalai Lama, a wonderful man several of whose works I've read or listened to. I can't agree, though, that "venting" anger is ever any better than getting rid of anger in another, less socially toxic, way.
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    May 20 2011: for politics , I think a third party (a professional mediator )might be helpful.
    personally , the bottom line is not to act that anger out on someone else and leave the scene if possible.but ye , its not that simple ...
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      May 20 2011: Well, Ms. Shaw, I think you're right about professional mediators. I WAS a professional mediator for 35 years (retired now) and I do think they might help the political situation. Some others have suggested that the different sides in politics trust different kinds of people, and that those particularly trustworthy folks be used to tamp things down.

      For example, take AGW. Neither side is actually listening to the other. There's a complete lack of trust on each side. Most people who think AGW is real trust scientists and specialized government officials. The anti-AGW group have been said to place more faith in businessmen and clergy. They simply do not trust scientists or government officials on this (or probably any) issue. If we could find some successful businessmen and evangelical clergy who do believe in AGW, perhaps they might have an easier time getting across the idea that AGW is real and has to be acted on now.

      As for the bottom line, I do agree with you about not acting out the anger on someone else and getting away from the scene. I think Kathy K above has some good ideas on that point.
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        May 23 2011: Mr Robert thanks for the AGW example. and yes wether or not a conflict can be resolved is not only determined by the third party but both sides who are willing to work together.do you think would it be helpful to get people from both sides to work towards a common goal or a spesific task ?

        i agree with what Kathy said and anger is always secondary feeling and what associates with it is of importance.