Am I making it worse by writing out all the gory details that piss me off?
December 29, 2011 11:28 AM   Subscribe

Writing out your anger: does it help or hurt?

I keep a journal, mostly as supplemental memory, as I tend to forget a number of things that I consider important enough to want to remember - writing it all out helps. But I'm concerned that when I write out situations and events with friends and loved ones that make me angry, it's actually perpetuating more anger, making mountains out of molehills, rather than serving to work through it and get past it. Sometimes when in a better frame of mind I read things I wrote in anger and feel guilty, shocked, uncomfortable.

Is forgetting better? Should I just be writing out the good stuff I want to remember and glossing over the shitty stuff? That seems like a bad idea....

I read recently - perhaps even here at MeFi, I can't recall - that a study had shown that if subjects acted out rather than keeping their cool when they got angry, it actually made them more violent. Does anyone know where this or similar studies can be found? Is writing considered "acting out?"

How do you work through your feelings of anger, all the minutiae of detail of the things that happened that made you angry, without letting it get out of control?
posted by thrasher to Human Relations (24 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
I keep a locked blog just for ranting. It's separate from my happy memories journal. Writing out your anger can be very therapeutic. It's not acting out. It's a very good, nonviolent way of channeling negative feelings. I always feel immensely better when I just get out all my frustrations and writing is the best way to do so, because I don't want to burden others with my feelings.

You don't have to read through past entries. Just dump your new rants in there and leave.

And I think writing is a great way to keep yourself from being violent. You can scream, rage and curse all you want on paper and it hurts no one.
posted by joyeuxamelie at 11:37 AM on December 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

I don't know if this is the article you're referring to, but this one argues that catharsis hurts more than it helps: You Are Not So Smart: Catharsis
posted by Axle at 11:43 AM on December 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

This question has been on my mind too. I'll throw out some random related ideas:

- In her really inspiring creativity book "What It Is," the cartoonist Lynda Barry suggests we make a mistake when we rant about feelings instead of recreating and preserving images that are tied to those feelings. If I were setting out to record memories, I'd go with the latter.

- Isn't there some Zen thing that says you become what you spend your time doing?

- You might be thinking of this recent Kent State study that concluded venting was less helpful than resorting to humor or adjusting perspective.
posted by steinsaltz at 11:43 AM on December 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

I agree with joyeauxamelie: It can help you "dump" your anger. Also, if you give it a while, you can start looking back over old entries. You can think about how you felt and why when you're not actually in it. I found that after a few years of journalling, I could really see the patterns about what set me off. It didn't always help me fix the problem, but it was some pretty good hard data available to me when I was finally ready to start looking for answers.

The thing about keeping it separate is good advice too. Think about the phrase "close the book on it." As much as I acknowledge that life is a mix of good and bad, I don't want my daily tools peppered with anger & bile. I find it much more helpful to have a special place to take my anger to, so that when I'm done venting I can "close the book" on it, rather than stumbling across it when I wouldn't otherwise have been thinking about it.

Picking just the right journal for this kind of writing was part of the process for me too, but ymmv.
posted by Ys at 11:44 AM on December 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

Write it out, but set a timer. When I was really depressed ( which included anger among other things), my therapist suggested journaling. I found myself writing for 4-6 hours at a clip. It got me wayyy to deep into the feelings. I brought it up with my therapist, saying the journaling wasn't helping.

He said, "I didn't tell you to write a novel. 15 minutes."

So...set a timer.
posted by sweetkid at 11:45 AM on December 29, 2011 [3 favorites]

* wayyy too deep into the feelings.
posted by sweetkid at 11:46 AM on December 29, 2011

I have in the past journaled about shitty events in great detail and at great length, sometimes going over the event & my feelings about it multiple times over days or weeks.

At some point I did start to feel uncomfortable and embarrassed, like I was making too much of things... but I think that is probably what gave me the perspective to help me get over it. I realized I was not only tired of writing about it, I was also tired of being mad, and that was when I began looking for ways to get past it.

So I think it can be helpful. I think that realizing that past lengthy, angry rants have been largely a waste of time and energy has helped me skip over the angry part quicker and skip ahead to the getting past it part.

The good thing about journaling is that at least I'm embarrassing myself privately. I've had much the same experience ranting to someone in person and feeling ashamed of myself later. I'd far rather keep my ugliness to myself while I'm working through it.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 11:46 AM on December 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

p.s. re: venting. When you vent to friends, often they affirm your anger. A journal will never encourage you by telling you you're right, or aggravate you by telling you you're wrong. In other words: It doesn't feed the cycle like venting can. It just "listens" and lets you express what you're feeling.
posted by Ys at 11:47 AM on December 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

It helps me when I'm too angry to use humor or distract myself to write it down. The problem is that I feel like an idiot when I look at my past rants. So, generally I write and forget it. Periodically I destroy the old journals/notebooks where I wrote this stuff.

The problem, which I haven't solved for myself, is, what if I suddenly die? I really don't want to leave my angry words behind. I don't even agree with them myself a few weeks later.
posted by bearwife at 11:48 AM on December 29, 2011

Write them all down on paper and then with great ceremony burn (rip, shred or other wise destroy )the paper. It's a great way to get the emotions out and then let them go. It works for me.
posted by wwax at 11:49 AM on December 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

Oh, and like other have mentioned above, I do keep my ranting journal separate from my regular journal, and I keep it locked.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 11:49 AM on December 29, 2011

I always felt it was good to vent on paper.

Then my brother spent months writing and rewriting a seven page tirade, posted it, and committed suicide.

Not sure what to think now, but would suggest that one should commit things to paper within the span of an hour or so, tear it up or burn it ceremonially with the intent of absolving yourself of the anger, then move on.

Don't use it to obsess; not good.
posted by BlueHorse at 11:49 AM on December 29, 2011

My own experience has seemed to show that, as with so many other things in life, everyone is different.

Writing it out helps me to an extent, but does also make it more serious. Too serious, sometimes. I think this is because writing is what I've always taken seriously in life (as in, I badgered my mother to teach me how to read from age two, and once she started, I grabbed every book in sight and taught myself as much as I could, with the help of teachers mostly).

Paradoxically, I've had better long-term resutls from venting verbally – in private, of course. For whatever reason, saying the worst of the worst in private gets it out of my system physically in a way that writing doesn't. I've never taken to actual, physical acting out, though, not even on pillows, and was reassured by studies showing it's not helpful anyway – it always seemed like practice more than venting, whereas for some reason, venting verbally, when done in private, is kind of like burning a piece of paper. It's not real, you know it's not real, and yet in that moment when you're doing it, it is real enough that you experience a physical release. YMMV.

I've never been able to do the "write and then burn" thing, though; again, probably because I take writing so seriously. It all depends on your personality, I guess.
posted by fraula at 11:52 AM on December 29, 2011

How do you work through your feelings of anger, all the minutiae of detail of the things that happened that made you angry, without letting it get out of control?

I let it get out of control. That's kinda the point.

I consider (private!) journaling to be 1/3 of the key to mental health. (The other 2/3rds are working out and honesty.)
posted by coolguymichael at 11:53 AM on December 29, 2011

I write it down (type in a password-protected OneNote notebook), then read it over. Usually that's enough to make me think, "gee, you sure are being a dumbass about this." And then I delete it. If I sound reasonable to myself, I read it a week later. Then I either delete or save. If I still sound reasonable I come back in maybe a month. I find it helpful. It gives me perspective. Because when I feel angry I think, "this is an awful lot like the situation you got angry about two weeks ago - remember what a fool you realized you had been the next day?"

Therapists often recommend people dealing with, eg, irrational anxieties write down a log of their feeling and what trigger their feelings, for reasons similar to what I noted above. Having documentary evidence of your thought process in the heat of the moment is helpful when you've cooled off, because then you get a brutally honest look at your inner workings. Not for the faint of heart.
posted by resiny at 11:53 AM on December 29, 2011

I started a journal 2 years ago, and it's been much more healthy for me to write out my anger. I can let it go, and not think about it again.

Before the journal, I would day dream these elaborate scenarios about what happened and work myself up into righteous rage, then feel awful for hours or even days afterwards.

When I find myself falling into day dream mode, I go to the journal and write out exactly what happened and how I intend to respond. Then I can go on with my day, and not worry about it.
posted by lootie777 at 11:55 AM on December 29, 2011

Instead of writing solely about your anger, ranting, and what so-and-so did to perpetuate your anger, maybe you could state the facts and try to explore why you are feeling so fearful, frustrated, hurt, or disappointed.

I have experienced a lot of anger over the years and I find that too much anger can numb emotions. I find that repeating a "I hate you" story does make anger and contempt much worse. Refusing to repeat the story, and instead trying to understand and empathize, is in my opinion, more therapeutic. Be gentle on yourself. The more you love and accept yourself, the less angry you will be. The more you accept yourself, the more you will accept others.
posted by Fairchild at 11:58 AM on December 29, 2011 [4 favorites]

Seconding the "write about why". I've found that writing about why I might be feeling what I'm feeling has helped me a great deal in all areas of life. I go through phases where I write semi-regularly about what I'm feeling; I keep a google doc for this purpose so that it's always handy, although if I were writing any truly Major Secrets I'd keep them somewhat more secure. I work on naming the feeling (is it more frustration? or more fear? or more a sense of unfairness? etc etc) and then I try to ask myself what in my day, in my upbringing and in my relationships with others makes this so intense an experience.

My foundational belief is that if I can't let go of something, that is because there's more going on than first appears. Ordinarily, I get angry and I cool off quite fast, usually within moments, so if something stays with me and I find myself ranting in my head about it, I assume that there's some sub-/semi-conscious things going on.

For instance, a few years ago I found myself feeling really deep anger at my parents - after years of sometimes stressful but essentially happy and loving relations, I began having fits of angry feelings. After a lot of thought and some writing, I was able to name this as fear of my mother's health problems and fear of my parents' aging in general, plus fear that I was doing certain unhappy-making things that my parents had done. I've worked through that anger and now can't really remember what it was like to feel that way - I know I did, but I just don't feel the memory.
posted by Frowner at 12:17 PM on December 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

Sometimes I write about things that I'm angry about. The deal that I make with myself is that I'm going to try to write the story of whatever it is in a way that brings my mental state back to equilibrium, no matter how angry I am in the process of writing. A lot of my emotions about an event or person are related to how I frame them in my mind, so writing about it helps me to explore and change that frame in useful ways.
posted by _cave at 12:19 PM on December 29, 2011

Lots of fantastic answers here, thank you all. I think the logistics of keeping separate journals wouldbe too much, especially given how intertwined the good and bad tend to be for me. I find Fairchild's post resonates deeply.

Again, thank you all for the food for thought.
posted by thrasher at 12:20 PM on December 29, 2011

Yeah, I've found venting verbally or in writing to be helpful, but only if it's time-limited. I tend to obsess and ruminate about things endlessly, so my anger can go on and on if I let it. I try to vent a little, then consciously try to put those thoughts away.

I've heard of a couple of techniques for managing persistent thoughts. First, if you are a worrier (and this is sort of what I do with my anger), you can set aside a certain time each day for that worrying and set a timer. If you find yourself worrying at other times, just say to yourself, "I'll think about that during my worry time, not now." Second, I read a technique in a book about child sexual abuse that the author uses after leading seminars on healing from abuse; she wrote that she takes a shower and thinks about the people in the seminar and all her hopes and fears regarding them. Then she rinses off and lets go of them and their struggles. It's the same sort of ritual that you're doing when you write something down, then burn it. Putting an end to something in a physical way helps you put it away psychologically.

And echoing Frowner's comment, when you find that something makes you much more angry than you should be, or you find the anger goes on and on, that's something you need to look at more closely. That's where the journaling can really help you.
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 12:23 PM on December 29, 2011

In my experience of journaling, writing about anger is not for the purpose of venting so much as to determine what it is in myself that is being threatened. It's not about expressing the anger in all its imaginative detail so much as capturing and listing the clues to understanding why something or someone causes anger. For this purpose, a list of brief descriptions is much better than a volume of lengthy rants.

For example, erhaps I feel entitled in ways I am not. Perhaps I feel disrespected when I am actually disregarding someone else's rights. Perhaps I stay in range of a bully when I could leave. Perhaps I am afraid of losing something I want even if it is not good for me or is not even mine. The more things I fear, the more I can feel threatened. Sometimes I am just reacting with anger because I feel threatened and am not thinking. Seeing patterns in my anger can help me change what needs changing or avoid what can't be changed.
posted by Anitanola at 3:52 PM on December 29, 2011 [4 favorites]

It depends on many factors, from what I've observed in myself and others who have talked about their experiences with me. The following things can make it worse:

- You believe, either erronously or correctly, that the issue cannot or will not be solved, and this is not acceptable to you. Journaling about it then can easily just be a way to wallow and blow the situation up in your head.

On the other hand, if you have accepted (erroneously or correctly) that the issue cannot be resolved, journaling to get it out of your system and really cement in your mind that you have exhausted your options and must simply move on can be VERY helpful. I have speculated that the reason for this is that bad feelings arise because our brain wants us to be motivated to fix them, but failure to convince your brain you've addressed the problem and it has passed -- even if there is no actual solution -- means you keep freaking out about it. You also need to convince your brain that something similar will not happen again, or if it does, it is not panic-worthy. Analyzing the situation achieves all these goals, but ONLY when you are truly okay with the fact that things might be pretty fucked and there's not anything left to try.

Of course, if you feel there is a solution, journaling helps you with that.

- You have to WANT to feel better and allow it. It is very easy to slip into persecuted mode when you're angry, and if you indulge that it can make it much harder for you to get over it; your brain just thinks the problem is even bigger and will require more convincing to feel it has passed -- and often you can work yourself into a state where no outcome would be enough to feel satisfactory. For example, someone takes a parking space you were signalling for. Even if you were to humiliate the person and somehow get the space from them, this would just make most people feel worse; they still feel annoyed the space was stolen and then they've got all worked up about it, and they feel worse that what was supposed to make them feel better didn't help much. People who are easy-going have habitualized the "not worth sweating things I can't do much about" attitude through practice, so their brain feels the problem has passed in seconds or minutes. The confrontational type relieves the whole thing in their head long after it's over and draws overwrought conclusions; their brain continues to feel there is a great problem in progress. Journaling about something like that can be damaging so long as one stays stuck in a persecuted mindset that demands justice.

Which is not to say that sometimes people are just completely wronged when they did nothing wrong themselves; this happens. But accepting it happens and learning to move on is the difference between persecuted and healthy.

What sucks about this, and also what is lucky, is it can be difficult to know what mindset you're truly in when you start writing. Sometimes you make things worse when you didn't expect to, other times you sit down in self-righteous fury, then realize you actually did something wrong or make peace with being wronged afterall, all because you wrote something that helped you get perspective. And sometimes simply venting IS all you need to feel better and accept things; I find this is often the case when I've been wronged with little fault of my own, because first I need to review whether I could have done anything better, and if not, I need to grieve that my best efforts did not pay off because sometimes that's how life is, and then I need to understand why someone (or a system) wronged me and why it is not a reflection on me or my worth. This lets my brain feel the problem has been assessed adequately, that I understand what happened and why and perhaps how to avoid it, and that I am okay. Consequently, if I do this process and do not feel better (add a couple days processing for anything really egregious) then it's usually because I actually was at fault in some way and the unconscious impression of things not fitting together correctly left my brain unconvinced. But venting can be an important first step regardless; with practice and conscious effort to evaluate yourself honestly, you can begin to feel more assured that writing will be productive venting, and not unproductive wallowing.

What I advise is this: set some guidelines for yourself. This works, with practice, but emphasis on practice -- which means sometimes you will fail! Simply tell yourself, when you sit down, "I am going to figure out what happened here, and why, and if there is anything I can do to feel better. If I start feeling worse, I will stop writing, remind myself this is only helpful if I can either fix or accept the situation, and try again later." After a point, I was able to abruptly stop myself and say, "Okay, so you were wronged. Yeah that sucks, but it happens. You can either deal with it like a big girl or shut up; you don't get to go breathless self-righteous mode because you don't like yourself when you do that and it makes you feel like shit for a long time."

If you are looking back in embarrassment on some things, that is PROGRESS in all caps, even though it doesn't feel like it at first glance. Why? Because the big problem that keeps people unproductively venting and blowing things up in their head is not being self-aware enough to realize it doesn't have to be that way and that it can make things worse. Since you do realize that, you are far ahead of a lot of people. You will write at least several more unproductive rants that make you feel worse before you get to a point where you've had enough proof to fully internalize that there is no point to doing it anymore, and then you stop doing it until you find it difficult to do it at all. And then you may get to a point where you find it difficult to even get angry to begin with, and rarely need to write about it like you once did; I journaled all my childhood years, then more consciously and productively after college, and about the time I turned 27 I was barely ever angry enough to write. Your brain just sorta clicks through the situation by rote -- did I do anything I shouldn't have? is this a reflection on me? does this matter really? do I accept this? etc -- until your brain no longer has a great reason to trigger insta-anger reactions in situations it used to; it's seen it happen enough that everything was fine and it wouldn't make sense to waste the energy. But you have to *consciously tell yourself* it's not worth the energy for a long while before it's convinced on a reflexive level, and you have to consciously convince yourself that's true through analyzing the situation clearly for a long, long time, which is where journaling is handy.
posted by Nattie at 3:57 PM on December 29, 2011

I write in the third person and turn it into a story. I change the outcome to something that satisfies me. It helps me to solve and resolve my problems. And sometimes the stories get pretty interesting. And I can always have a happy ending if I want to.
posted by a humble nudibranch at 10:22 PM on December 29, 2011 [4 favorites]

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