We should feel our emotions, but that doesn’t mean acting them out.
In a counter to anger, Seneca (a Stoic philosopher educated in Rome) said:
There is no more reliable proof of greatness than to be in a state where nothing can happen to make you disturbed.Seneca, On Anger, 6.
He argues that anger is a force to be grappled with, to be suppressed:
And so the best course is to treat the sickness as soon as it become apparent, at that time as well giving oneself the least freedom of speech and curbing emotion.Seneca, On Anger, 10.
He ultimately says:
Do battle with yourself: if you have the will to conquer anger, it cannot conquer you. Your conquest has begun if it is hidden away, if it is given no outlet.
Gabor Maté argues somewhat differently:
Emotions influence – and are influenced by – the functioning of our major organs, the integrity of our immune defenses and the workings of the many circulating biological substances that help govern the body’s physical states. When emotions are repressed, as Mary had to do in her childhood search for security, this inhibition disarms the body’s defenses against illness.Gabor Maté, “When the Body Says No”, pg. 7
If I were to sum up my understanding of the views of Gabor Maté and Alice Miller’s work, it would be that as small children we are taught to not trust what emotions are telling us. We are forced to “disconnect” from ourselves, ultimately leading to feeling of disconnection, misdirection, and even death from disease.
At the end of this book, Maté takes an understanding view of difficult emotions like anger:
Not only does the repression of anger predispose to disease but the experience of anger has been shown to promote healing or, at least, to prolong survival.Gabor Maté, “When the Body Says No”, Chapter “The seven A’s of Healing”, 3. Anger, pg 269.
He’s not so forgiving, though, of rage. He deals directly with the tension of feeling and expressing emotions, and with when that goes out of balance:
Heart attacks can follow upon outbursts of rage.
He picks apart both repression of anger and unregulated acting-out as “abnormal release of emotions”, saying that both represent a fear of the genuine experience of anger.
He argues that it’s accompanying anxiety is the “tightening” feeling; that acting out is a defense against feeling that anxiety. Since Maté sees many roots of coping mechanisms from early childhood, it’s not surprising that he offers some advice for parents:
Naturally, the more parents discourage or forbid the experience of anger, the more anxiety-producing that experience will be for the child.
In a view along the lines of Marcus Aurelius and cognitive behavioural therapy, he does say “Since anger does not exist in a vacuum, if I feel anger it must be in response to some perception on my part” (emphasis mine).
Maté’s conclusion is vital:
The key is that I have not suppressed the experience of it. I may choose to display my anger as necessary in words or in deeds, but I do not need to act it out in a driven fashion as uncontrolled rage. Healthy anger leaves the individual, not the unbridled emotion, in charge.
- Seneca: Dialogues and Essays. Translation by John Davie. Published by Oxford University Press.
- Gabor Maté, When the Body Says No. Published by Penguine Random House, 2019.