Why is anger so easy for so many men? What is anger anyway?
Anger Management is a thriving industry. It seems to be a given that anger needs to be taken care of—as if anger itself was to blame. Whether it’s in court or whether it’s in Buddhism, people are often really scared of anger. Sometimes it’s other people’s anger and very often it’s their own. They are understandably concerned about what that anger, fully expressed, will do.
Well, anger can lead to destruction whether physical or emotional. But I think we’re forgetting how informative and helpful the emotion can be.
Growing Up Watching Anger
Many of the men I work with have seen the effects of anger long before they were ever able to express it. Whether it was their father, their mother, or someone else, many guys have grown up seeing someone more powerful than they are become explosive. When you grow up intimidated by someone else’s anger you often develop the defense to make sure that as soon as possible no one will intimidate you ever again.
Logic has it that when you grow up in a home where you witnessed abuse between your parents that you will come to worry about the person who was being abused and be on their side. Logic doesn’t always prevail when your survival is at stake, though. What often happens is what some have called “identification with the aggressor”.
- If I’m small and vulnerable and I’m watching this scene of one person having power and control over another I’m thinking about survival. I want to be the powerful person, not the person who is a “victim.” I need to protect myself and if that means it’s at someone else’s expense, well, that’s the prototype I was shown and that’s what will be safer for me.
That’s one way that trauma can affect us and that way of thinking may be what helped a person survive at that time. Unfortunately, like the effects of a trauma, they are very unhelpful when we’re not in that trauma zone. We are left with feeling so ready for that danger that during times when that level of survival mode is not called for a situation can still lead to fights, broken objects, lost jobs, and arrests.
I’ve seen a lot of families where this “identification with the aggressor” dynamic plays out and then gets repeated as the children grow up. It gets repeated, not because of it happening once (usually), but because life repeats it everywhere, especially for boys. It can be seen at school, extracurricular activities and during sporting events. We’re often on the look out for who has the most power.
A (Sometimes) Secondary Emotion
Anger is considered a secondary emotion by a lot of people. While I believe that anger can be the primary feeling being had by a particular person, the predominance of it in our society, especially among men, brings up a lot of questions as to why this one emotion wins out almost all of the time.
So to figure out what is anger (or what’s in anger) we need to be a bit of a detective. When I see it cropping up in session (sometimes towards me which often is the best use of it in counseling), or when I hear about it in a client’s life when they are talking about their week, I’m always wondering what is contained in that anger and whether it’s the gateway emotion for something—I hesitate to say—a little more vulnerable.
See, that’s what we’re talking about: a huge fear of vulnerability. Because if I let you see that I’m vulnerable I open myself up to being that scared little boy again who’s at your mercy. Whether it’s the shaming by a teacher, past abuse, or a school yard bully, many men have made a vow, even if not fully articulated to themselves, that that will NOT happen again.
And they believe the most effective shield against that is their anger.
The Price of Having Other Feelings
We actually go further and say if this hardening of all other feelings into anger doesn’t happen to boys they will get “soft” and a host of other names that are synonymous with female genitalia. Parents and other adults can get nervous if their son is called too sensitive. There is a belief that the taunting helps them “man up.” You have to somehow survive on the streets—or in the board room. Any place, really, where there are other men.
But something gets lost in all of this. In fact, when we meet someone who we do care about we run the risk of giving them access to the part of us that can still be vulnerable because we don’t fully lose it. We know that it’s lurking, probably closer to the surface than we’d like. One false move and there could be a tear, there could be shame, there could be the possibility that you could hurt me.
And we’re not talking physical hurt anymore.
Sometimes even knowing that someone has seen this is too much for many men. A re-assertion of masculinity is needed as soon as possible in order to fulfill that long ago vow of never showing that vulnerability. Even heavy metal bands are prone to this.
Well, many men are discovering that while the anger was helpful at some point it gets in the way now. They hear it at work and at home—their anger is too much.
What is anger? Well, it may be a number of other feelings that you’re not ready to feel just yet. That’s ok, but there’s a price to hiding all that under the guise of anger and it may be time for some men to do a cost-benefit analysis of whether it’s still worth it.
If you think that your anger may be getting in they way of your advancing at work or connecting with your partner, don’t hesitate to send an email or, if you prefer, take this short test to see if talking to someone might be helpful for you. Just click HERE
Justin Lioi, LCSW is a men’s mental health and relationship expert based in Brooklyn, NY (and 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. He works with all men but has a particular focus on providing counseling for fathers (and guys hoping to become dads!)