The Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty - 154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel - Tiffany Watt Smith 2016


The eyes blaze and glitter. The cheeks flush and the lips quiver. The muscles swell and are filled with a monstrous urge to destroy something. Even the hair stands on end. This could be a description of the transformation of Dr. Banner into the Incredible Hulk. It actually is how the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca describes anger in one of the most influential and oldest anger-management texts in existence: De IraOn Anger—written during the first century CE. Seneca considered anger “the most hideous and frenzied of all the emotions,” a “brief insanity” during which we are closer to a wild animal than a civilized person. He thought, as had Aristotle before him, that it was caused by feeling demeaned or insulted—particularly by someone not fit to insult you (see: TECHNOSTRESS). And though he did recognize that anger could be useful for warriors on the battlefield, he thought it had no place in the market squares and palace corridors of Rome. Here, rages could only bring disruption: bitter quarrels and outbursts later to be regretted. So he advised exercising restraint at anger’s first jolt, and rationally reflecting on the situation instead (see: APATHY).

Anger is an unruly class of emotion. It includes simmering RESENTMENT and fits of PIQUE; tantrums caused by EXASPERATION, and sudden flares of RAGE. It can be frighteningly contained, or else frenzied and physically violent. It can become abusive, ruining marriages and costing us jobs, yet it also stokes political action (see: INDIGNATION), and goads us into working harder (see: liget). Perhaps its one fixed point, the question to which those who have written about anger over the centuries return again and again, is whether it ought to be expressed. “I wish you’d get angry, so that we could have it out, so that we could get it out in the open,” says Diane Keaton in Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979). To which Allen responds, I don’t get angry, okay. I mean, I have a tendency to internalize.… I grow a tumor instead.”

You might think the idea that expressing anger is good for our health (better out than in!) is a modern one. Not so. Some medieval and early modern doctors were also enthusiastic about unleashing fury. Though anger could deplete the body’s vital spirits, there were times when it was thought beneficial. The eleventh-century Islamic scholar Ibn Butlan explained that since anger directed the body’s heat to the extremities, it could revive those who had become flaccid and bed-bound through illness. He even thought it could cure paralysis. Four centuries later, in a plague tract written in 1490, the physician Lluís Alcanyís reported a story about a doctor who treated a patient for extreme weakness by sitting at the patient’s bedside continually reminding him of slights from the past: the patient recovered. But the beneficial warming effects of anger did not end there. In his Cure of Old Age, and Preservation of Youth, the thirteenth-century physician and alchemist Roger Bacon argued that getting frequently infuriated could slow the aging process thought to be caused by the body becoming cooler and drier as it neared death. Anger, then, rather than the latest diet fads and expensive creams, was thought to give that zest for life and youthful glow coveted as much then as it is today.

In the early twentieth century the idea of healthily venting anger gained momentum. Sigmund Freud had argued that repressed emotions could cause physical symptoms ranging from headaches to gastric disturbances. Armed with this insight, a battalion of psychologists and psychiatrists in mid-twentieth-century Britain and America turned their attention to unleashing their patients’ pent-up rage. One example of this approach was the “ventilation therapy” practiced at Synanon addiction rehabilitation centers in California in the late 1950s. During group therapy sessions, patients were encouraged to goad one another to dig deeper into their emotional pain. It usually didn’t take long before someone snapped—and the healing was thought to begin. Primal Scream Therapy and even R. D. Laing’s therapeutic community at Kingsley Hall in the late 1960s in Britain, similarly saw the expression of anger as a breakthrough in the therapeutic process. An outburst of rage was held to express an individual’s authentic identity, breaking down the false selves that patients had erected to help them cope with living in a dishonest world. These therapists believed rage could reconnect patients to their true selves, releasing them from the addictions or madness that had become their refuge. For some, it worked.

Today’s psychotherapists are less interested in provoking cathartic or “authentic” displays of rage than in trying to understand where anger comes from—and why we sometimes need it to help us cope with our lives. Anger flares up in strange and unexpected ways. A common response to the pain of being criticized or discovering we have been treated unfairly, anger can motivate us to try harder. But a burst of rage can benefit us in other ways too. It can create a release of muscular tension, temporarily subduing other, often more uncomfortable emotions, such as fear, or feelings of unworthiness. Perhaps an angry outburst might help us manage guilty feelings: by erupting at someone else, we shift the blame and temporarily give ourselves some RELIEF. In these cases, anger might seem “authentic,” but psychoanalysts suggest it can be a decoy, a flash-in-the-pan outburst that we might unconsciously prefer to the more painful feeling it masks.

So as we think about expressing anger in the twenty-first century, the terms of the debate have shifted once again. The question is now not about whether we should express anger to keep healthy, but what other emotions our anger—whether a snarling fury or quietly seething rage—is keeping in check.

And for what happens when we keep it to ourselves, see: RESENTMENT.