Oh, how some men do anger—with flair, full throttle, and theatrically. There are men who even do it in cars. Some especially do it in cars. An automobile can punctuate anger: A sharp right turn says I mean business, engine revving at a red light means this is only over when I say so, and yanking the car to the side of the road while yelling “Get the fu*k out of the car!” means tonight, I am god.
The automobile is to anger what the stage is to Shakespearian Theater! Consider the acoustics—how easily anger is amplified inside a 4-door Accord with the windows up. It’s not polite to leave during a theatrical performance and it’s not safe to jump from a moving vehicle.
You’ve got the audience right where you want them, in their seats. Still, when people, objects, or life fail to behave as you want them to, is anger the show you’re still putting on? You know this:
- People won’t do what you want,
- Objects will fail you,
- Life will throw curve balls.
Those are givens. Why put on the anger show, again?
It’s time to try a new script. Toss your tired Angry Guy lines aside, and practice the lines of the man who experiences a feeling called anger.
Say, ’I feel angry.’
When were you last angry? What was it about? Bring that anger back: recall the source of your anger, the thoughts you had, and how it resolved (or didn’t), and try to pinpoint the very moment the angry feeling bloomed in you. And with the whole scene fully in your mind, ask yourself why you were angry. Ask yourself how you knew that you were—how did it feel physiologically?
Now, test out some new language. Try saying I feel angry.
Notice that you’re not saying I’m angry, which suggests you’re indistinguishable from your anger. Word choice matters, it’s powerful. With ‘I feel angry’ you’re creating a gap. The word “feel” is a helpful winch—the lever that creates space for you to be a human animal who experiences emotions but isn’t defined or defeated by them. That space, or gap, is something you can widen with practice. It can become a space for exploring, processing, and information-gathering—all before taking action on your feelings.
That gap will transition you from a state of reaction to a state of thoughtful action.
Games people play
Because we uphold the stoic man ideal in our culture, men find themselves enacting anger rather than the hurt felt beneath. You yell, “You should have called!” And communication swiftly gets off on the wrong foot. We don’t say the truth—“I missed hearing your voice yesterday” or “I felt vulnerable about my importance to you”—because we deeply fear states of vulnerability and we buy into the code of staying in control.
Put the phrase ‘I feel angry’ into practice in your relationships. Use it by yourself as well—think it and say it aloud. When you use it in your relationships, though you are communicating in a healthy way, results will vary. If you or your partner are on the codependency spectrum and tend to personalize each other’s feelings, your partner may still react to your use of “I feel angry” as if you’re accusing him or her of making you angry. Don’t fall for that. Re-state what you said, adding, “I didn’t say ‘you made me angry,’ I said, ‘I feel angry.’”
Telling someone how you feel is an invitation for empathy, for the other person to listen, for feeling with you, and (if codependent) to resist the urge to make your feelings about them. Repeating yourself gives you a chance to reinforce the expression of your feelings and it also gives the other person room to improve their behavior. It’s a dance. Your use of “I feel…” is a slight but monumental change in language, and has the power to inspire or devastate your partner.
How did dad do anger?
Anger gets a bad rap in our culture, but it’s not anger itself that’s bad. The negative reputation of anger comes from its being badly expressed and our association of anger with frenzy—we tend not to see many “good” examples of anger. Yet it’s like any other feeling that rises, washes over us like an ocean wave on a beach, then dissipates and transforms.
My child self knew nothing scarier than the fights my father and stepmother had. Dad’s anger would slam and throw things and my stepmother’s anger spewed insults through tears. Then—poof. Their fights would end just as suddenly as they began. Somehow I could sense that the feelings and issues were never resolved, although I didn’t know what the missing piece was—how the process of resolution sounded.
If you grew up in a dysfunctional home, your parents wouldn’t have modeled the important difference between disappointing actions and a disappointing person, so you’re likely to have mixed feelings about anger, expressing it yourself and handling others’ expression of it. You might have learned the ‘bad actions equal bad people’ rule. It’s the realm of all or nothing—no gray areas, no spectrum, just right and wrong. That results in a mixed message—be perfect and don’t express anger (where perfect is equated with suppressing one’s truth).
Consider what you remember of your parents’ fights. How were they resolved, were the feelings stuffed or discussed, and did a resolution also take place? Perhaps, like me, you internalized anger as a scary, uncontrolled force that leads to emotionally brutal exchanges—and the great mystery of what occurs between the ignition of the fuse and the return to “normal” remained unsolved.
Anger is a teacher
You can learn a lot from the feeling of anger. It’s not a random, senseless bomb that burns in your chest without meaning. Everyone experiences anger. Whether your way of reacting to feeling anger has been to confront and argue or whether it has been to cork it and simmer in silence, you can benefit from the phrase, “I feel angry” or even “This is anger.” Say it alone and say it with others. No one is exempt form anger, so make friends with your teacher. The more comfortable you become with observing and allowing the feeling of anger, the more you’ll trust yourself in its presence.
Perhaps there is but one universal source of anger: the unmet expectation. Yet being misunderstood, being misrepresented, disregarded, and left out, or experiencing physical pain and injury can be sources, too. We might start to feel angry because we didn’t speak up for our needs, because we ran out of time, we’re hungry, feeling lonely, tired, or because obstacles dominated our day.
Ask your anger what it’s about.
Shifting your focus from a person you’re angry “at” or object or entity you’re angry “with,” and guide your focus instead to the question: “What was my innermost expectation in this situation?” Recognize the answer without judgment—just identify the expectation, and that only. You’ll know the truth once it hits you. It might be something along the lines of, I wanted to be asked for my opinion, I wanted uninterrupted time with my son, I wanted to be trusted, I wanted to be given the benefit of the doubt, I wanted him to stick to our agreement, I wanted to know a change was coming, I wanted to feel her enthusiasm for our lovemaking—in essence, I wanted to feel wanted.
Dig for what’s beneath the anger
Finding the underlying expectation or unmet need buried in angry feelings is the real treasure you’re after. Anger gets the spotlight, yes. Yet the real star of the anger story is in its shadows: hurt feelings, unmet needs. That’s where to dig and focus your self-inquiry: on that which your anger attempts to bury.
When you next engage with anger, make it an opportunity for discovery:
- What’s one assumption I’m making in this situation?
- How can I do this differently next time?
- What kindness I can show myself right now?
- To what degree is this old anger resurfacing?
- Over what parts of this do I actually have control?
Control and anger are longtime lovers. You’re stuck behind the only other automobile on the road and its driving just below the speed limit, you’re walking behind a family that crowds the width of the sidewalk, you’re in a long line for coffee, etc. Some people attempt to focus their anger on the source of the slowness, magically thinking that through sheer will they’ll make everything move faster. You’re better off accepting that you can’t control others. We are in control of two things: our actions and our reactions. Just those two, but with them a man can alter history. He can reset his expectations or listen to the radio, he can cross the street or say, ‘Hey guys let me slip past you,’ or strike up a conversation with another human being in the coffee line (or leave the cafe).
When you identify alternate actions, you break free of the deadlock with control.
3 essential actions to take the instant you feel anger
Whether the magnitude of the anger you next encounter feels manageable or stentorian, take these three steps immediately to ride the wave:
- Take three very deep and very, very slow breaths
- Name the feelings you feel (I feel duped, I feel angry, I feel left out, etc.)
- Identify the physical correlations (tight arms, burning chest, pressure behind your eyes, etc.)
Sit with that for a while, and repeat as necessary. The trick to getting the most information out of your anger is to widen in the space between the moment you realize you’re feeling angry and the moment you decide how to act on the anger. Practice at it. You can do a lot with a split-second.
Be kind to yourself.
Amy Eden Jollymore is author of the book, The Kind Self-Healing Book: Raise Yourself Up with Curiosity and Compassion, founder of the self-help blog guesswhatnormalis.com, and video project manager for O’Reilly Media, Inc. She lives in Petaluma, California.
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