Myth 1: It’s Healthy to Vent Anger.

Many people believe that venting anger—expressing it either verbally or physically—is healthy, if not necessary. This myth is often used to justify poor anger management. While the venting of anger can have value in a limited number of situations during therapy, it is usually not productive in everyday life. First, taking action while you are angry tends to increase your anger and lead to inappropriate and self-defeating behaviors. Second, acting out anger (in thought, word, or action) inhibits your ability to develop an effective plan for overcoming the threat that first triggered your anger. Anger is an emotion that needs to be acted upon, not acted out.

As I have described previously, emotions are triggered when our needs and wants are either met or threatened, or when we experience a loss. Venting your emotions takes your focus off of the needs and desires that triggered them and causes you to focus on the emotion. While this may temporarily lessen the tension, it does nothing to address the problem of how you are going to meet your needs and deal with threat or loss effectively.

Myth 2: Responding to Anger with Aggression Is Instinctual and Can’t Be Helped.

Several popular books have argued that violent behavior is genetically programmed into human nature and is a natural part of anger. But the consensus of researchers is that this is not true. While emotions are indeed part of our genetic make up, the specific emotion that is triggered in a given situation is determined by our interpretation of the event: Whether a need is being met or threatened or a loss has occurred. More important, the behaviors we exhibit in response to our emotions are, for the most part, learned.

Different behaviors can clearly be seen in the ways that Sharon, David, Carmen, and Alex each respond to a threat: While Sharon and David tend to become angry and aggressive, Alex and Carmen tend to become passive and experience anxiety or depression.

Myth 3: It’s Normal to Become Angry when Frustrated, Helpless, or Confused.

Frustration results from a situation where a need or desire is not being met. Putting money into a vending machine and receiving nothing, for example, is a situation where a desire for a candy bar is being frustrated. Helplessness is the inability to do something necessary to meet a need or desire. If someone you love is suffering and you do not have the ability to help, you are helpless in regard to their situation. Confusion results from not understanding something. If you are trying to complete a tax form but cannot understand it, you are confused.

Each of these situations could trigger anger, fear, sadness—or no response. The particular emotion we experience is determined by our interpretation of the event. It will not always be anger. For example, you might respond to a confusing tax form with anger or anxiety. Either of these responses would be normal since a failure to pay taxes can result in a real and well-defined threat. In contrast, you might respond to a joke that causes confusion with laughter. This response is also normal since this type of confusion is a form of play. At the same time the confusing plot of a mystery novel might provoke only a heightened interest. Since the confusion of a mystery novel is expected and a form of recreation, little emotion other than interest is expected. Thus confusion can trigger a variety of responses depending upon whether our needs are being met (as with the joke or mystery novel) or threatened (as with the tax form).

Even in the of a traffic jam, with its accompanying frustration and helplessness, anger is not necessarily the normal response. While many people do become angry in this situation, many others do not. Again, it is your interpretation of the event that determines what emotion is triggered. If you think, “I can’t stand this. Why does this always happen to me?” you’ll probably become angry. If instead you think, “Here’s another one of our famous traffic jams. I guess I might as well relax and enjoy some music on the radio,” you’ll probably remain calm.

Three Common Myths about Anger