Venting Your Feelings Isn't Enough
Effective psychotherapy isn't a pressure reduction valve.
Posted Jun 30, 2015
Venting anger doesn’t reduce it. It may feel good in the moment, but there’s little evidence that it makes you a less angry person going forward. In fact, several studies have found that venting actually increases the likelihood that a person will act on that anger, either through verbal expression or actual violence (Lohr, Olatunji, Baumesiter, & Bushman, 2007).
This is important for therapists and their clients to acknowledge from the outset. Psychotherapy isn’t a pressure reduction valve, a mechanism through which we’re able to let it all out and in the process benefit from a massive reduction in aggression. That’s a myth and a fantasy. (Bushman, Baumeister, & Stack, 1999).
Several scholars have used the evidence against venting, however, to improperly discredit a much more fundamental element of many forms of psychotherapy—what’s called catharsis. (Bresin, Conrad, & Gordon, 2013). This is the idea, which traces its roots back to Aristotle, that there’s value to experiencing or re-experiecing negative emotions from just the right distance.
For Aristotle, the opportunity for catharsis explains why people like to see tragic theater. Watching the characters on stage suffer allows audience members, from the safety of their seats, to process some of their own feelings of fear and anger and pain. If you’ve ever wondered why teenagers like to see slasher films so much, this idea isn’t a bad place to start.
A similar kind of useful catharsis can occur, argues sociologist Thomas Scheff, when a client is working through anger in therapy. This “aggression catharsis” is much more than just getting a whole bunch of pent up frustration off your chest.
What tends to fail in venting is that the experience of your anger is “underdistanced,” meaning you’re too close to the primary feeling (Scheff, 2015). All you’re doing in venting is delving into the anger that you already feel. So rather than progressing through it, you’re taking a bath in it. And if you sit in it too long, it could even start to seep in and fill you up more.
The polar opposite, analyzing your anger from an objective distance, also tends to fail. This practice miscarries because it’s “overdistanced,” stripping the experience from primary emotional content. If you can narrarate painful experiences from the past with clinical dispassion, you might be overdistancing.
Scheff describes the effective therapeutic path to aggression catharsis as a process called “pendulation.” In pendulation, you swing between experiencing or reliving your anger and observing yourself reliving your anger (Scheff, 2015). In this way, like an audience member watching a tragic play, you can dip your toe in without getting soaked. Pendulation provides a sense of safety, because of ability to pull back into the observing self if the pain gets too great.
This process relies on what ego psychologists call the “observing ego,” a part of our psyche that monitors our thoughts and actions in real time. Sometimes we can be in our emotion and in our observing ego at the same time. And it’s something we can get better at with practice.
As many psychotherapists throughout history have recognized, engaged self-awareness, replete with a sense of at once feeling what you feel and seeing yourself feel it, can be central to moving forward. Getting both the right amount of distance and proximity to our feelings can open possibilities that turning them off or indulging them could never afford us. This, more than anything, might be why good psychotherapy is so good.
Bresin, Konrad, and Gordon, K. H. (2013). Aggression as affect regulation: Extending catharsis theory to evaluate aggression and experiential anger in the laboratory and daily life. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 32 (4), 400-23.
Bushman, B.J., Baumeister, R. F., & Stack, A. D. (1999). Catharsis, aggression, and persuasive influence: Self-fulfilling or self-defeating prophecies? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 76(3), Mar, 367-376. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0022-35126.96.36.1997
Lohr, J. M., Olatunji, B. P, Baumesiter, R. F., & Bushamn, B. J. (2007). The psychology of anger venting and empirically supported alternatives that do no harm. Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice, Vol 5 (1), Spring/Summer, 53-64.
Scheff, T. (2015), Three scandals in psychology: The need for a new approach. Review of General Psychology, Vol 19 (2), June, 203-205.