Anger gets a bad reputation in our society. On one hand, it’s the cornerstone of every movie that involves Men Behaving Badly, but you’d have some major consequences if you became so aggressive and violent which is how we often think about getting angry. On the other hand, holding in that anger leaves you with family and partners saying they want you to be more expressive.
There’s another way.
Many of the guys I work with have begun therapy because they’ve been getting the message for a long time that they need to have more feelings. They need to talk about their feelings, they need to express those feelings—but when they show up in my office they are often not even aware they are having many feelings.
This awareness is important because what’s common for a lot of these guys is just how resentful they are. Just how angry they are. Often without even knowing it.
You may appear quiet to everyone. You might be the one who just ‘rolls with it’—‘it’ being whatever everyone else wants to do without your having any input.
I’ve had men tell me about a boss walking all over them or about an in-law that said something inappropriate without any intervention by their wife—and then I ask them how they felt. I’ll get a long story about the ins and outs of the situation.
- “If you knew my boss you’d understand…”
- “My mother-in-law is struggling with x, y, z…”
What I wouldn’t get, and what was not even heard, was that I asked how you felt. Not what you thought about the situation. Not how you analyzed it. Not how you should have felt.
I ask how you feel not to be a stereotypical, annoying counselor, but to support you in becoming aware of how you are feeling before your logical brain takes over and tells you what you have the right to feel.
We’re not searching for a good justification for how you feel or why you are or aren’t getting angry, but just to begin to know that
- You are feeling something
- You can let go of self-judgment for having that feeling
Your Good Reasons for NOT Getting Angry
For the times that you are aware of how pissed off you are, you may actively work hard to suppress it. Not only is this about self-judgment (“Do I have a right to be angry?”), but it’s also about the fear of what happens when you do let it out.
Maybe you have a story of getting angry in the past and you’re still uncomfortable with what happened. This could lead you to be wary of how your anger comes out and it just seems better, safer even, to hold it in.
Often the mild-mannered guy you show yourself to be is really teeming with rage and if you came even a little close to letting some of it out, well, then all bets are off. You don’t know what will come out and you may have decided it’s better to just not go there.
But not being direct in your feelings, not acknowledging or expressing them has its consequences too. It’s not as if that feeling just disappears. I work with men with stomach issues, insomnia, and headaches who can connect these physical symptoms with a time that they were upset at something or someone and just held it in. Literally. Maybe you travel the route of sarcasm and passive aggressiveness. Maybe you’re at your snarkiest while on Facebook.
When you come to my office you’re usually looking for another way because you’re afraid of the direct expression and the indirect way has made you miserable.
In counseling sessions, you have a chance to experiment with different methods for getting angry and how to express that anger so that it doesn’t have to eat you alive.
Anger as a Learned Behavior
Feeling are feelings. We all have them whether we like it or not—whether we are aware of them or not. You didn’t have to be taught to have anger.
We are taught how to express these feelings.
And not in a let-me-write-on-the-chalk-board-the-proper-way-to-express-happiness-in-a-5-step-outline sort of way.
- We are taught how to get angry by seeing how our parents got angry.
- We’re taught how to be sad by seeing how our grown-ups get sad.
- We’re taught how to express feelings by our parents’ reactions to our feelings.
I highlight this because we often think of “teaching” our children as something cognitive, something that’s all about logic.
Feelings say “F**k logic!”
There are origins for why you suppress your anger or are just not aware of it. You saw anger modeled for you regularly—even if you never witnessed your parents getting angry. They modeled that: Anger is unacceptable.
I bring this up because as much as I focus on the here-and-now in sessions, it’s important to know where you’re coming from. This can free you up to have new experiences and to know what’s getting in your way.
Guys begin counseling with a lot of shame and judgment for why they haven’t figured all of this out for themselves, but there are usually lines to be drawn for how we are. And while it’s how you are it may not be truly who you are. One of the things we work on is figuring that out. We do that by connecting you to whatever feelings you are having and finding healthy ways to express them so they don’t wreak havoc on your insides or cause havoc on the outside.
Anger is not to be feared or avoided. It’s part of us. Learning to let go of your anger isn’t about not getting angry. It’s about learning how to express it.
As always, if you’d like to talk more about how you can connect to your anger in a healthier way, please don’t hesitate to contact me to set up a free 15 minute phone consultation.
Justin Lioi, LCSW is a men’s mental health and relationship expert. He is a Brooklyn therapist (as well as also seeing clients online throughout New York State and internationally.) He received his degree from New York University and has been working with men and their families for over 10 years. Justin is on the Board of the National Association of Social Workers and writes a weekly column for the Good Men Project called Unmasking Masculinity. He can be found on local and national podcasts talking about assertiveness, anger, self-compassion, all with the goal of becoming the man you want to be.