Blowing Off Steam

  In the movie Analyze This, a psychiatrist suggests to his patient, an angry mobster, that hitting a pillow will make him feel better. But instead of punching the pillow, the mobster pulls out a gun and shoots it. "So, do you feel better?" the psychiatrist asks. "Yeah," the mobster smiles, "I do." The scene is funny, but it perpetuates a widespread—and erroneous—notion that venting anger helps us get rid of it. Contrary to what we've all heard, psychologists are now finding that venting anger actually increases aggression. Pop psychology has perpetuated the notion that “getting your anger out" is good for you—that it helps defuse rage. This is the theory of "catharsis"—that expressing an emotion or an urge helps to release it. But new studies conducted at the Iowa State University and at Case Western Reserve University found that venting anger actually makes people more aggressive. As reported in the New York Times, the studies found that human subjects who pummeled a punching bag became more aggressive than subjects who did not. As one researcher put it, "They keep trying to get this emotional release [through walloping a punching bag], but it never happens." Instead, the opposite happens: Hitting things seems to give people "permission to relax their self-control," as the New York Times put it—and thus leads to escalating aggressiveness. The theory of catharsis became popular through the psychological theories of Sigmund Freud. According to Freud, when anger is repressed, pressure builds up like steam in a kettle—and the best way to relieve the pressure is to release it by hitting a punching bag or smashing a piece of china. Unfortunately, our culture has been slow to grasp the folly of this idea. In fact, "self-expression" of all kinds is usually seen as a good thing. The sixties gave us the phrase "Let it all hang out.” The seventies gave us Primal Scream therapy, and the eighties gave us Madonna telling us to "express ourselves." But the most recent findings of social science are now supporting the notion of self-restraint over self-expression. They confirm the biblical insight that giving in to our impulses is a bad idea. Self-control, in fact, is part of the fruit of the Spirit, says the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Galatians. And the Apostle James warns Christians of the great damage that can be caused by not controlling our tongues. Not that that self-restraint is always easy. Any virtue—whether it's patience, joy, or chastity—must be practiced until it becomes a habit. Then it becomes part of our character, our instinctive way of responding. So when you run into the idea that releasing your worst impulses is good catharsis, recognize it for what it is, a flawed worldview. Once again science is discovering that the biblical view of self-restraint is correct. Acting out anger only makes it worse—for whatever you act out, you are practicing. And whatever you practice, you grow better at doing. What we ought to be practicing are the biblical virtues—practicing them until they become second nature. And then, when we act naturally, what people will see in us is the fruit of the Spirit.


Chuck Colson


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