A new approach to anger management for men.
I knew what had happened even before I rounded the corner.
“Jett, did you hit your brother?”
“Well…he was getting me mad,” Jett pleaded.
“I don’t care what he was doing. I told you that you can’t hit your brother,” I yelled.
“I can’t control my anger,” Jett burst into tears. “That’s why I hate my life.”
Part of me wanted to say, “If you hate your life now, wait until you see what happens next time you hit your brother,” but another part of me felt 7 year old Jett’s frustration in my guts.
I thought about all the men who come see me for counseling who make similar statements. “I can’t control my anger, and it is making my life miserable.” “My wife/girlfriend says that if I don’t learn to manage my anger, they are going to leave me.”
I didn’t want my son to have these anger management problems his whole life, so I came up with 5 ways to embrace male anger. I use the word “embrace” because I believe that you can’t “cure” or “extinguish” emotions. We certainly don’t want to resist or repress them either. I’ve found that the best way to deal with our shadows is to love and embrace them.
1. Introduce Yourself
The first step in embracing anger is to be aware of its existence. I had a few friends in college who were really nice guys, but they got really mean when they drank. They could barely believe the stories we told about them the following morning. If we have anger issues, we need to be aware of them in order to take full responsibility.
I admire my son’s honesty and courage to declare that he can’t control his anger. Unfortunately, as boys become men, they tend to become more isolated and independent. I invite men to admit to their loved ones, families, and friends that they have a problem with anger. Maybe not on a first date, but it might be helpful to say, “Hi, my name is…. And I have anger issues.”
Once others know about your anger, they can help you in so many different ways. Sometimes it feels good just to have someone who understands what you are dealing with. Other times, these allies can buffer you and innocent victims during times of crisis.
2. See the Smoke
I once dated a hippie girl who referred to my anger as my fire. “If you ever burn me again, I’m outta here, ” she once threatened.
The problem was that I only recognized “my fire” when it was raging out of control. She taught me how to set smoke detectors that could prevent a fire before it ignited. When we would be engaged in a “harmless” discussion, she would look in my eyes and say, “I see your fire starting. Don’t burn me, or else.”
I learned to recognize subtle signs of anger arising. My breathing would shorten. I would feel a bit of heat under the collar or on my forehead. The muscles around my jaw and forearms would tighten. I would lean forward at a table or put more weight on my toes while standing. I often made odd sounds like “psssh” or “fuuuuh” or “are you kidding me?”
Once I recognized these smoke signals, I learned to slow down or steer away from dry kindling topics.
3. Douse the Body
The Hawaiians believe that all emotions originate in the “na`au” or guts. Westerners often try to rationalize with emotions after they are let loose in the body. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is “based on the idea that our thoughts cause our feelings and behaviors.” I’m not a big fan of CBT.
I’ve found that the best way to control anger is somatically (in the body). I’ve tried to talk to angry people. I’ve tried to talk to calm people about when they get angry. Neither approach seemed to do much good.
When my son gets angry, I often put my hands on his chest and stomach to help him regulate his breathing. If he is out of control, I’ll hug him, pressing his heart to mine and his belly to mine. Fortunately, he’s only seven years old. I’m not sure I’ll be able to do this when he is 16.
I ask angry grown men to tense all their muscles as hard as they can for 30 seconds. Then completely relax and let go. From there we can focus on breathing. Tears often follow.
If you can catch the fire of anger while it is still smoke, it is a great time to douse the body with deep breathing, tense-and-relax exercises, or, even, warm water. If you take a shower before you go on a rage, there is much less to clean up.
4. Apologize if You Burn Others
None of us are perfect. Some of our anger patterns have been embedded in our body for decades. We can’t expect to learn a few techniques and suddenly become anger free. There will be times when you miss the smoke signals and you find yourself in the middle of a firestorm of anger that rages out of control.
When the dust settles, find out what exactly what happened and immediately apologize to anyone who was hurt by your anger–including yourself. I often sing or chant the Hawaiian Ho`oponopono prayer: “I’m so sorry; I love you; please forgive me; and thank you.” This prayer is not only extended to others, but also to one’s self. Like Pema Chödrön says, “the root of compassion is compassion for oneself.”
Be aware, however, that by apologizing to others, you might not get their forgiveness. You are not apologizing to mend relationships with others; you are asking for forgiveness to heal your relationship with yourself. When you can forgive and love yourself again, you begin the process of deep healing. Like St. Francis says, “It is in giving that we receive. It is in pardoning that we are pardoned.”
5. Go Back to the Source
At some point, we have to do more than damage control. We need to go back to the source of the anger. Where did the matches come from that continually spark these outbreaks?
None of us were born angry. Very few toddlers have uncontrollable anger issues. At some point in our lives we learned to protect ourselves with the shield of anger. I like to picture the movie Firestarter or Carrie, where an innocent child is forced to use anger and aggression to protect herself (interesting how both these films depict girls in the lead role). Like these films portray, this strategy is often developed when we are children trying to survive in a world of giant, powerful adults. Now that we are the giants, anger is often an unnecessary and destructive defense mechanism.
I’ve found that the best way to reprogram the anger defense reaction is to soothe the inner child. By loving this child-version of ourselves, we allow ourselves to feel safe again. When we feel safe, we don’t need anger anymore to shield us.
One of my teachers once told me that “we are parenting ourselves.” Oftentimes we treat ourselves like delinquent step-children–we punish, shame, insult, or belittle ourselves. Healing the inner child involves re-parenting ourselves with unconditional love, tenderness, and compassion. Men often have a tough time treating themselves with tenderness, love, and compassion, so it is no surprise that many men have anger issues that plague them for their whole lives. Once again the man box imprisons us in a world where anger is our only accessible or condoned emotion.
Luckily, my son is still that child in a land of giants, so I’m going to shower him with tenderness, love, and compassion now, so he doesn’t find himself stuck in the angry man box when he is 40.
Go back to the source—Fire Starter