Why You Shouldn’t Let Out Your Anger

Scream into a pillow. Punch a punching bag. Go ahead—let it out.

Catharsis is a Greek term for purification or cleansing—the relief of repressed emotions, especially fear or anger. Logically this makes sense: someone cuts you off, you get angry, so you speed up next to them to see what they look like. Maybe throw in a finger or two.

David McRaney, in You Are Not So Smart, shares a study done by psychologist Brad Bushman on why releasing anger with anger puts us on an emotional hamster wheel, and in turn, creates a habit that motivates us to seek that reward again and again [emphasis mine]:

“Bushman has been doing research for a while, and it keeps turning up the same results. If you think catharsis is good, you are more likely to seek it out when you get pissed. When you vent, you stay angry and are more likely to keep doing aggressive things so you can keep venting. It’s druglike, because there are brain chemicals and other behavioral reinforcements at work. If you get accustomed to blowing off steam, you become dependent on it. The more effective approach is to just stop. Take your anger off of the stove.

Bushman’s work also debunks the idea of redirecting your anger into exercise or something similar. He says it will only maintain your state or increase your arousal level, and afterward you may be even more aggressive than if you had cooled off. Still, cooling off is not the same thing as not dealing with your anger at all. Bushman suggests you delay your response, relax or distract yourself with an activity totally incompatible with aggression.

If you get into an argument, or someone cuts you off in traffic, or you get called an awful name, venting will not dissipate the negative energy. It will, however, feel great. That’s the thing. Catharsis will make you feel good, but it’s an emotional hamster wheel. The emotion that led you to catharsis will still be there afterward, and if the catharsis made you feel good, you’ll seek that emotion out again in the future.”

What this reflects is simply the irrationality of human behavior.

Behavioral economist Dan Ariely has done some unorthodox and fascinating studies on the multitude of ways that we are not only irrational, but predictably irrational—our irrationality happens the same way again and again.

He conducted a study with his students at MIT and was interested in how we make decisions when we’re sexually aroused. Students had to answer 19 questions on sexual preferences. They were considered to be in a “cold” state when answering these questions—rational, superego-driven. Questions like, Would you have sex without a condom? Would you be attracted to a 50-year-old woman? Could having sex with someone you hated be enjoyable? When we answer these in a “cold” state, we easily abide to our personal and cultural morals.

But what happens when we enter a “hot” state, when our moral compass starts spinning? Ariely says [emphasis mine]:

“In the set of sessions conducted when they were in a hot, aroused state, they also predicted their decisions—but this time, since they were actually in the grip of passion, they were presumably more aware of their preferences in that state.
[…]
In every case, our bright young participants answered the questions very differently when they were aroused from when they were in a “cold” state. Across the 19 questions about sexual preferences, when Roy and all the other participants were aroused they predicted that their desire to engage in a variety of somewhat odd sexual activities would be nearly twice as high as (72 percent higher than) they had predicted when they were cold.
[…]
Across the board, they revealed in their unaroused state that they themselves did not know what they were like once aroused. Prevention, protection, conservatism, and morality disappeared completely from the radar screen. They were simply unable to predict the degree to which passion would change them.”

Our pivot from hot to cold switches like a flip. When we make emotionally charged decisions, we’re usually focused on short-term rewards rather than a long-term focus—which is why walking away from an argument or taking your “anger off the stove” proves to be exceedingly difficult.

What’s even more surprising is that, in the context of sexual arousal, more experience doesn’t entail smarter choices. I think the same applies to when we’re angry.

Simply put, we don’t get better with experience. As Ariely concludes [emphasis mine]:

“Our experiment at Berkley revealed not just the old story that we are all like Jekyll and Hyde, but also something new—that everyone one of us, regardless of how ‘good’ we are, underpredicts the effect of passion on our behavior. In every case, the participants in our experiment got it wrong. Even the most brilliant and rational person, in the heat of passion, seems to be absolutely and completely divorced from the person he thought he was. Moreover, it is not just that people make wrong predictions about themselves—their predictions are wrong by a large margin.
[…]
Moreover, this study suggested that our inability to understand ourselves in a different emotional state does not seem to improve with experience; we get it wrong even if we spend as much time in this state as our Berkley students spend sexually aroused. Sexual arousal is familiar, personal, very human, and utterly commonplace. Even so, we all systematically underpredict the degree to which arousal completely negates our superego, and the way emotions can take control of our behavior.”

When we’re angry, we use language like, “I don’t know what got into me. I just snapped.” It’s as if a dark entity entered our bodies and controlled our behavior. When we cool off, we reflect back on how we behaved and are often shocked by it. “Jeez, I’m an animal when I get like that.” Don’t worry, we all are.

Turning off the stove before we reach the boiling point takes a serious level of self-awareness and practical wisdom—both equally difficult to practice and foster. Look at how often anger can be a part of our lives, and look at how poorly we react when we face something that we faced multiple times, i.e., bad drivers, harsh feedback, or criticism. We are shocked as if it’s happening for the first time.

To simply get better at dealing with anger, we need to keep in mind that anger begets more anger. It’s quite possible that before reading this post, you thought venting and punching bags was a smart way of dealing with anger (*raises hand*).

If you’re angry and you think throwing weights or punching a bag is helpful, try to understand how the behavior—the very movements that are influenced by the emotions you’re trying to purge—feeds back into the source. It feels good to vent this way, but what if weights or a punching bag aren’t around? What will you punch or throw then? Like McRaney said, it puts us on an emotional hamster wheel. It’s drug-like. It’s science.

A better habit to build is to learn to identify what you’re telling yourself when someone insults you or cuts you off. By becoming aware of your perception, the story you tell yourself—”Hey, this guy just said my article sucks and I’m really offended by it and I have to respond because, you know, human nature and self-esteem and ego”—perhaps it’s a necessary first step to stop repeating fruitless behavior. While the more desirable solutions like punching a punching bag is out of the question, perhaps walking away and cooler down is all we’re left with. Perhaps we can try.

Philosopher Willard Van Orman Quine’s Advice to 20Somethings on Career, Dull Chores, and Friendships

As a hopeless hunter for wisdom on how to live a great and meaningful life, I was pleased to come across James L. Harmon’s curated book, Take My Advice: Letters to the Next Generation From People Who Know a Thing or Two. He shares in the introduction that his publisher sent list after list of “so-called notables to include.” He aimed to create something more meaningful, something that wouldn’t have the shelf life of a banana, even if it meant lower sales.

Asking through email and gathering letters from various authors, musicians, poets, actors, philosophers and more, Harmon’s focus for providing advice to the younger generation, especially from figures that most of us wouldn’t recognize, provides a refreshing take on the subjects that we ought to be ruminating about.

My favorite of them all comes from the philosopher Willard Van Orman Quine—American philosopher, logician, a man who went from Harvard student to professor to professor emeritus who published and revised many books as well as winning a few awards.

His advice is solid, touching upon many facets of a 20somethings’ life, and says it with beautiful precision:

“Cultivate the inquiring mind. Don’t suppress a question, however trivial, that sparks your curiosity. Track it down or look it up as soon as you can.

Enjoy what you are doing, what you are seeing, as fully as you can find anything in it to enjoy. Savor the moment, the scene, the sound, the world. Carpe diem, hiram, minutam.

Try for a career where you can take pleasure or satisfaction in your work rather than just in the leisure after work. Earning less but enjoying your work, you are getting good returns for the sacrificed difference in income.

You must face dull chores and discipline too, for a rewarding expertise takes a dull deal of training. What is wanted is shrewd cost-accounting and a prudent but not excessive investment in futures.

Above all, cultivate easy and sincere friendships with kindred spirits and enter into them with generous sympathy. Sharing is the sovereign lubricant against the harshness of life.”

May I please share one more?

As an avid advocate for the pursuit of self-awareness, I was thrilled to hear the perspective of John Shirley—prolific American author for sci-fi, short stories, novels, and fantasy—on self-awareness. If this book didn’t contain one piece of advice for self-awareness, believe me, I wouldn’t be sharing it.

His metaphor is fascinating and puts into perspective a difficult practice that needs to be more widely embraced, especially by 20somethings:

“If you have to walk along a dark mountain path, don’t you prefer to have a flashlight to shine on the path ahead? I would suggest that it is possible to have that flashlight in life all the time. What does a flashlight give us? Light.

That is, a flashlight sheds light. It is like the faculty of attention—if we turn our full attention to something, we learn more about that thing. We are seeing it with more light. Our attention is our ‘flashlight.’ So it’s all about how much and how fun an attention we consciously bring to life. This quality of attention doesn’t make us hesitant, or slow to decide, particularly—just as the flashlight doesn’t make us hang back on the trail. So, how do we get to the better quality of attention? With attention! That is, we turn our attention on our attention; we start by trying to see how we don’t pay attention. We sort of keep that light on ourselves. ‘Know thyself’ has been an honored ancient teaching, and it’s still a cornerstone of the world’s greatest philosophies. If you watch yourself honestly, in a detached way—not guilt-tripping yourself when you screw up—you gradually learn where it was that you were just blundering along, reacting sort of mechanically, and being asleep even as you were in your waking day. Another way to make this happen is by returning your whole attention to the present—to what’s happening now, in this moment, and this moment, and on—within yourself and around you.”

Take My Advice is an overall fascinating, enjoyable read. Some of the advice is tongue-in-cheek, others are from bitter experiences, and some, like the two above, illuminate and empower a fertile mind. Keep in mind, however, that just because Warren Buffet or Richard Branson isn’t providing this kind of advice doesn’t devalue the work. In fact, it’s helpful to hear different perspectives from a variety of individuals, to mix it all up, to find new heroes, and ultimately to help you think for yourself.

Why We Lie

When asked for honest feedback, like, “How do I look?” or “What do you think of this?”, why is it so easy to lie? We soften the blow by not being honest, and instead give a thoughtless, typical answer to avoid a potential awkward situation. We often do this because we personally feel that we know what’s best for the other person by judging past experiences, but how foolish we humans can be. And there’s the catch: What masquerades as helpful is actually hurtful.

Sam Harris, author of Lying, provides a thoughtful definition of lying and what it accomplishes [emphasis mine]:

To lie is to intentionally mislead others when they expect honest communication. This leaves stage magicians, poker players, and other harmless dissemblers off the hook, while illuminating a psychological and social landscape whose general shape is very easy to recognize. People lie so that others will form beliefs that are not true. The more consequential the beliefs—that is, the more a person’s well-being depends upon a correct understanding of the world—the more consequential the lie.

[...]

“To lie is to erect a boundary between the truth we are living and the perception others have of us. The temptation to do this is often born of an understanding that others will disapprove of our behavior.

[...]

“Lying is, almost by definition, a refusal to cooperate with others. It condenses a lack of trust and trustworthiness into a single act. It is both a failure of understanding and an unwillingness to be understood. To lie is to recoil from relationship. By lying, we deny others a view of the world as it is. Our dishonesty not only influences the choices they make, it often determines the choices they can make—and in ways we cannot always predict. Every lie is a direct assault upon the autonomy of those we lie to. And by lying to one person, we potentially spread falsehoods to many others—even to whole societies. We also force ourselves subsequent choices—to maintain the deception or not—that can complicate our lives. In this way, every lie haunts our future. There is no telling when or how it might collide with reality, requiring further maintenance. The truth never needs to be tended in this way. It can simply be reiterated. The lies of the powerful lead us to distrust governments and corporations. The lies of the weak make us callous toward the suffering of others. The lies of conspiracy theorists raise doubts about the honesty of whistleblowers, even when they are telling the truth. Lies are the social equivalent of toxic waste—everyone is potentially harmed by their spread.” ”

When it comes to our relationships with friends, a multitude of factors come into play: your level of friendship, your personality, past experiences, memories, and more. But let’s not delude ourselves—we all lie. It takes a serious level of self-awareness to know your motives to obscure the truth from someone you care about. It also takes an understanding, like the definition above, to grasp the consequences of lying and how that molds your character and potentially others.

But what if a newfound acquaintance or your friend’s friend asks for an honest opinion? Do we hold a little back just to be safe? Do we show the virtue of honesty right away?

What, exactly, is the difference between truth and truthfulness? Harris says [emphasis mine]:

“As the philosopher Sissela Bok observed, however, we cannot get far on this topic without first distinguishing between truth and truthfulness—for a person may be impeccably truthful while being mistaken. To speak truthfully is to accurately represent one’s beliefs. But candor offers no assurance that one’s beliefs about the world are true. Nor does truthfulness require that one speak the whole truth, because communicating every fact on a given topic is almost never useful or even possible. Leaving these ambiguities aside, communicating what one believes to be both true and useful is surely different from concealing or distorting those beliefs. The intent to communicate honestly is the measure of truthfulness. And most people do not require a degree in philosophy to distinguish this attitude from its counterfeits.

People tell lies for many reasons. They lie to avoid embarrassment, to exaggerate their accomplishments, and to disguise wrongdoing. They make promises they do not intend to keep. They conceal defects in their products or services. They mislead competitors to gain advantage. Many of us lie to our friends and family members to spare their feelings. Whatever our purpose in telling them, lies can be gross or subtle. Some entail elaborate ruses or forged documents. Others consist merely of euphemisms or tactical silences. But it is in believing one thing while intending to communicate another that every lie is born.”

This transitions beautifully into what Harris calls false encouragement [emphasis mine]:

False encouragement is a kind of theft: it steals time, energy, and motivation a person could put toward some other purpose. This is not to say that we are always correct in our judgments of other people. And honesty demands that we communicate any uncertainty we may feel about the relevance of our own opinions. But if we are convinced that a friend has taken a wrong turn in life, it is no sign of friendship to simply smile and wave him onward. If the truth itself is painful to tell, there are often background truths that are not—and these can be communicated as well, deepening the friendship. In the two examples above, the more basic truth is that you love your friends and want them to be happy, and both of them could make changes in their lives that might lead to greater fulfillment. In lying to them, you are not only declining to help them—you are denying them useful information and setting them up for future disappointment. Yet the temptation to lie in these circumstances can be overwhelming. When we presume to lie for the benefit of others, we have decided that we are the best judges of how much they should understand about their own lives—about how they appear, their reputations, or their prospects in the world. This is an extraordinary stance to adopt toward other human beings, and it requires justification. Unless someone is suicidal or otherwise on the brink, deciding how much he can know about himself seems the quintessence of arrogance. What attitude could be more disrespectful of those we care about?”

First, a deep appreciation and understanding on lying helps us reflect and recognize the times where we did more harm than good. Once our values and mindset are focused on realizing that friendships are strengthened with vulnerability, honesty, and a focus on helping one another lead greater lives, the desire to lie may be reduced. It’s a bond that gets strengthened with time, ups-and-downs, and an understanding of one another.

However, our honesty may not be rewarded because of the other person. Without a shared understanding on why one person or the other is giving truly honest feedback—not to criticize or shame, but to help or figure out an alternative—it can often backfire and lead to problem ultimately fueled by ego. Which is why it’s important to understand how to give good feedback. A good place to start is not to judge the person, but rather the event. “You are not a failure, but this event or project was. You’re still a smart person, but this failure shows that there’s much to be learned.”

But when we do lie to a friend, when we puff ourselves up and alter the story to seem a bit more heroic and dramatic, we’re probably doing it to improve our self-esteem. Lying about the tiniest things is how it starts, and then if it continues, it becomes a habit because it’s the perfect scapegoat and seems harmless. The reality of the situation may seem boring, so adding some drama and emphasis makes it more stimulating, and in turn, alters how people see you. But over time this can become a fruitless habit, and if you get caught, that’s the light people begin to see you in—a charlatan.

The pursuit of honesty is a practice, one that requires a growing understanding of how to give feedback, how to express yourself properly, how to empathize, and ultimately to realize that the advice you give isn’t a prescription to life—just a perspective. But the willingness to explore a truth, to figure out a solution for that friend, is a willingness that is rare but should be honored and cherished.

After all, honesty is a gift worth sharing, a mindset worth embracing, a behavior worth strengthening. As Harris says:

“Honesty is a gift we can give to others. It is also a source of power and an engine of simplicity. Knowing that we will attempt to tell the truth, whatever the circumstances, leaves us with little to prepare for. We can simply be ourselves. In committing to be honest with everyone, we commit to avoiding a wide range of long-term problems, but at the cost of occasional, short-term discomfort. However, the discomfort should not be exaggerated: You can be honest and kind, because your purpose in telling the truth is not to offend people: You simply want them to have the information you have, and would want to have if you were in their position.”

Easy to believe that people should be this way. Alas, we are not born with these gifts and attitudes—we learn them and they mold who we become.

Lying will always be part of human nature and societies. Sam Harris’s book is an enlightening, philosophical deep read on this subject, further providing greater examples and stories. To endeavor in becoming an honest person, we must first understand ourselves and the times we feel compelled to be dishonest. Second, we must understand the consequences of lying and what that does to ourselves and others—that indeed every decision matters. We can puff ourselves up when speaking to a stranger at a bar, but must realize that we have to maintain that facade if that conversation turns into a future relationship.

Honesty is a muscle, meaning it takes practice to develop and grow that trait. Some people naturally do it better than others because of the way they were raised, the values instilled in them early on. Others are quick to lie for the same reasons. Whether a lie is small or large, white or not, a lie is a lie—an obfuscation of the truth, an obstruction to helpful knowledge, an opportunity gone sour. Reading about this subject in depth can help change our mind, to become aware of ourselves, and to empower more fruitful behavior.

So much of our happiness rests in the relationships built with one another. Let’s not spoil that opportunity with lies that are essentially nothing but self-serving and harmful.

You Grow or You Don’t: How Your Mindset Affects The Way You Live

The power of belief is a topic that will be written about all throughout human history. One, it’s phenomenal how beliefs govern the way we lead our lives, how they influence behavior and attitude, and two, it’s even more phenomenal that beliefs are malleable and can be changed. Once we change our beliefs we change as individuals.

Beginning at an early age we hear the word mindset whether in sports, the workplace, or in the classroom. A strong mindset focused on winning is essentially about believing that the team will win. A mindset focused on learning views challenges as opportunities to stretch our abilities.

Psychologist Carol Dweck is famous for her research on the two kinds of mindsets that we can possess: a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. In Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, she shares a childhood memory about how her teacher organized all the students based on IQ, and explains how this primed students into embracing a fixed mindset [emphasis by me]:

“For twenty years, my research has shown that the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life. It can determine whether you become the person you want to be and whether you accomplish the things you value. How does this happen? How can a simple belief have the power to transform your psychology and, as a result, your life? Believing that your qualities are carved in stone—the fixed mindset—creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over. If you have only a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality , and a certain moral character—well, then you’d better prove that you have a healthy dose of them. It simply wouldn’t do to look or feel deficient in these most basic characteristics. Some of us are trained in this mindset from an early age. Even as a child, I was focused on being smart, but the fixed mindset was really stamped in by Mrs. Wilson, my sixth-grade teacher. Unlike Alfred Binet, she believed that people’s IQ scores told the whole story of who they were. We were seated around the room in IQ order, and only the highest-IQ students could be trusted to carry the flag, clap the erasers, or take a note to the principal. Aside from the daily stomachaches she provoked with her judgmental stance, she was creating a mindset in which everyone in the class had one consuming goal—look smart, don’t look dumb. Who cared about or enjoyed learning when our whole being was at stake every time she gave us a test or called on us in class?”

Just reading that last few sentences is horrifying, especially once you begin to deeply understand the implications and science behind the two mindsets and how they mold someone’s character and overall life.

So a fixed mindset is the equivalent of believing that you were born an artist, a football player, a cook, a designer, etc. A fixed mindset is about believing your IQ is reflective of your overall intelligence and life, and no matter how many books you read, you simply can’t get smarter. This kind of self-sabotaging delusion makes me sweat because it’s untrue on every conceivable level. To me, it’s no different than brainwash, feeding information that simply isn’t true and in turn influencing someone to be something they’re not. And to make it worse, it starts at an early age…

The growth mindset, however, focuses on learning, believes that nothing is carved in stone, that intelligence and skills are malleable with practice, effort, persistence, and good coaching. What’s true about this mindset is that science has debunked the mystery around talent and skill development. Dweck says it better [emphasis by me]:

“But doesn’t our society value intelligence, personality, and character? Isn’t it normal to want these traits? Yes, but … There’s another mindset in which these traits are not simply a hand you’re dealt and have to live with, always trying to convince yourself and others that you have a royal flush when you’re secretly worried it’s a pair of tens. In this mindset, the hand you’re dealt is just the starting point for development. This growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts. Although people may differ in every which way—in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments—everyone can change and grow through application and experience.
[…]
The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset. This is the mindset that allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives.”

Right now is a good time to ask yourself, Do I believe that I can become smarter through effort and practice, or is my intelligence just the way it is? Do I believe I can become an artist or is one simply born an artist? A good parent? Teacher? Athlete?

Another important factor to realize is that we can indeed possess both mindsets. Dweck sets up the question and then answers it:

Question: Are mindsets a permanent part of your makeup or can you change them?

Mindsets are an important part of your personality, but you can change them. Just by knowing about the two mindsets, you can start thinking and reacting in new ways. People tell me they start to catch themselves when they are in the throes of the fixed mindset— passing up a chance for learning, feeling labeled by a failure, or getting discouraged when something requires a lot of effort. And then they switch themselves into the growth mindset— making sure they take the challenge, learn from the failure, or continue their effort. When my graduate students and I first discovered the mindsets, they would catch me in the fixed mindset and scold me.”

What she said is key: “…you can start thinking and reacting in new ways.” What she means is that when we experience failure, we don’t automatically blame our abilities or intelligence, but instead we acknowledge that there’s room for growth, that this failure taught us an important lesson and therefore we can do better next time. The moment we blame our personality or lack of talent, we believe we’re flawed and incapable of learning and improving, which of course, is infinitely unhelpful. What determines the mindset that you embrace comes down to how you talk to yourself.

Last question that I found interesting and useful to understand this subject better [emphasis by me]:

“Question: Can I be half-and-half? I recognize both mindsets in myself.

Many people have elements of both. I’m talking about it as a simple either–or for the sake of simplicity. People can also have different mindsets in different areas. I might think that my artistic skills are fixed but that my intelligence can be developed. Or that my personality is fixed, but my creativity can be developed. We’ve found that whatever mindset people have in a particular area will guide them in that area.”

What makes this transition from fixed to growth so difficult is because private beliefs don’t change overnight. If your whole life has been about proving yourself and believing that you’ve been endowed a specific set of talents and level of intelligence, it’s incredibly difficult to view a failure as an opportunity to learn rather than a reflection of your character. People with a fixed mindset can be successful, sure, but the journey then contains a kind of unnecessary stress that isn’t helpful for anyone.

So which is it?

I believe that I can become smarter. I believe my talents can grow through practice, effort, persistence, and coaching. I believe that this failure doesn’t reflect my character but rather my aptitude, which is something that can improve.

OR

I was born this way. This is just the way I am. Math isn’t for me! I would rather take the easier test to confirm my natural abilities and to feel better rather than take the hard test and learn something new, but also risk failing and looking dumb.

Essentially this is the difference between becoming and being. As Dweck says:

“There was a saying in the 1960s that went: “Becoming is better than being.” The fixed mindset does not allow people the luxury of becoming. They have to already be.”

Focus on becoming someone, learning from mistakes, being able to grow in all areas of your life, and you’ll surprise yourself in how capable you really are in living the life you desire. But believe that your level of intelligence is concrete, that your talents are stuck, that you’re born this way, then please don’t be surprised by the lack of growth or change.