Selective Attention Theory describes that what you focus on expands. This theory has obvious applications in relation to emotions. If there is a focus on negative emotions, such as anger, than the anger will increase. If you focus on sadness, you will feel more sad. An example of this is the psychoanalytical catharsis method, whereby there is the assumption that negative emotion must be aired in order to activate a purifying process. Therefore, whacking a punching bag or attacking a pillow was advised to express clients’ anger. Catharsis theory predicts that venting anger should get rid of it and should therefore reduce subsequent aggression.
However, there is no scientific evidence to support this theory. Research shows that expressing anger, even against inanimate objects, does not make people less angry at all. It actually seems to increase anger, not tame it. The present findings directly contradict catharsis theory (Bushman et al., 1999). For reducing anger and aggression, the worst possible advice to give people is to tell them to imagine their provocateur’s face on a pillow or punching bag as they wallop it.
Yet venting negative emotions is precisely what many therapists, coaches and mediators advise people to do. If followed, such advice will only make people angrier and more aggressive. A possible explanation is that people are training their brains to associate anger with controlled aggression rather than compassion and reconciliation. In other words, people create bad habits. So if your clients are feeling angry, instead of expressing negative emotion in a dramatic way, invite them to act the way they wish they felt by finding a calm way to express their feelings, or take steps to distract themselves.
Lieberman et al. (2007) found that labeling – finding a calm way to put feelings into words by simply putting the name to the emotion – the response in the amygdala portion of the brain that handles fear, panic and other strong emotions such as anger decreases and become less intense. What lights up instead is the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that controls impulses. That is why talking to a therapist, or even a sympathetic bartender, often makes people feel better. The same strategy of putting feelings into words is seen in mindfulness meditation practice. This involves a regular practice in stepping back and observing the flow of experience.
Thereforelabeling is a great tool that can help our clients in this process.
Bannink, F.P. (2010). Handbook of solution-focused conflict management. Cambridge, MA: Hogrefe Publishers.
Bannink, F.P. (2014). Posttraumatic Success. New York: Norton.
Bushman, B.J., Baumeister, R.F., & Stack, A.D. (1999). Catharsis, aggression, and persuasive influence: self-fulfilling or self-defeating prophecies? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 76, 367-376.
Lieberman, M.D., Eisenberger, N.I., Crockett, M.J., Tom, S.M., Pfeifer, J.H. & Way, B.M. (2007). Putting feelings into words. Psychological Science, 18, 5, 421-428.
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