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Cleaning out my father's old desk recently, I found a long letter of complaint he wrote to the president of a country club in 1959. In it he lamented the aloof and rude treatment we had received from employees at the club. My father concluded with the admonition, "I hope you knock some heads together in your kindly and gentle way."
His urge to "vent" was clearly very strong, which makes sense to a lot of people. Many mental health professionals believe holding back anger is harmful. According to the "ventilationist" theories of the past century, we store anger, and, unless unleashed, it grows and intensifies until we explode like Mount Vesuvius.
Carol Tavris debunked this notion nearly two decades ago in her Anger: The Misunderstood Emotion (Touchstone Books, 1984). We don't store anger, Tavris points out, any more than we store positive emotions. Who would claim that we'll explode if we don't express joy or gratitude?
Moreover, expressing anger—far from relieving it—often nurtures it. By focusing on our angry feelings we intensify them, according to Tavris. Expressing anger frequently sets up a chain of events that worsens the situation.
Relieving anger, Tavris insists, comes not from expressing it, but from resolving the problem that provoked it.
Imagine, for instance, that a coworker informs you she overheard your boss say you're going to be fired. You've served the company diligently for years, and you've had a cordial relationship with your boss, who recently commended you highly. You're outraged, not only that he'd think of asking you to leave, but also that he's been so duplicitous in indicating he's pleased with your work.
For two weeks your resentment grows, and you barely sleep. Then comes the dreaded ...1