Are you a door slammer, palm thumper, table banger or wall puncher? Do you pace up and down, jab the air and point your finger while you’re yelling at someone in your family, or do you sit quietly and deliberately withdraw love and attention from family and friends as a way of punishing them.
One of my clients had not spoken to his wife for seven years. He said he knew it hurt her because there wasn’t a day that passed where she hadn’t attempted to converse with him. When she did, he ignored her. When I asked him if he had any anger towards her, he said….”No. I’m not an angry person. I just don’t want to talk to her”.
What is Anger?
Like the man above illustrates, anger can be an emotion that many people don’t want to own. Yet, anger is a natural human emotion experienced by all human beings. However, it can be expressed differently, accepted and tolerated to a greater or lesser degree across cultures. Sometimes these differences lead to tensions and confusion about what is and what is not acceptable, particularly when moving between different communities and countries. As a word, anger covers a multitude of different, but related experiences ranging from slight annoyance to rage and all that is in between. It is an emotion that signals us that all is not well; something is bothering us and needs our attention. Like all emotions, anger lets us know who we are and how we feel about ourselves and the world around us.
What makes us angry?
Research by Paul Ekman, 2003 found that there are two universal root causes for why people from all cultures and races become angry. The first is when our path is thwarted. In other words, when someone or something gets in the way of what we are doing. For example, I could be trying to watch television, or read a book when someone or something interrupts my focus. The intensity of my reaction will depend on how stressed I am at the time of the interruption.
The second universal, root cause for anger is personal attacks. It could be that someone questions our integrity, loyalty, honesty, character, self-concept or way of being that we perceive as insulting or hurtful. Again, the intensity of our reaction will very much depend on how we are feeling about ourselves at the time and on our stress levels.
Types of Anger
There are many different types of anger. For example, sulking is a passive anger. We might be hurt by what someone has done or said and punish them by withdrawing our love and attention. This is not to be confused with what John Gottman calls stonewalling. According to Gottman’s research of happy and unhappy marriages, about 85% of men stonewall. Stonewalling is a cold withdrawal from interaction in which the stonewaller won’t respond to his partner’s emotions. He or she is angry, and the only way they know how to deal with their elevated level of arousal is to retreat or shut-down. The stonewaller’s intent is not to punish, but to withdraw in order to lower their arousal level.
Another member of the anger family is indignation. Indignation is self-righteous anger toward someone who we perceive has insulted us in some way or treated us unfairly. If there is no attempt by the perpetrator to repair the damage done, then indignation may turn to resentment.
We can resent someone to the point where we barely give them the time of day and consciously chose to look sparingly at them when talking to them. Resentment can be short lived or long-standing. If it’s long-standing it means that we are holding a grudge and we might harbour that grudge for a life time and even seek revenge.
Different ways of expressing anger
Anger is often overt, expressed openly. The person who is the target of our anger knows that we are feeling angry towards them, however, it can also be covert (hidden) and plausibly deniable. For example, if I prefer to avoid conflict, rather than tell you face to face how I really feel toward you, I might not return your phone calls or emails. If we bump into each other in the future I can plausibly deny the reasons for not returning your calls……..”Look, I’m sorry for not getting back to you….I’ve just been so busy lately”.
Men & Anger
Our society raises men to become familiar with one emotion in particular, and that is anger. Anger masks all the pain and fear that manhood demands men never to reveal. Through anger, men attempt to get a multitude of needs met, but are often unsuccessful in doing so. If they express vulnerability, they risk appearing weak or incompetent, so they meet life’s emotional challenges like a warrior with a shield in one hand, and a spear in the other. The shield protects and hides their fear of rejection, abandonment or of appearing incompetent, and the spear, their anger, is used to attack those they perceive as the enemy.
Anger & Relationships
When anger is not expressed appropriately, angry words and angry actions can damage relationships momentarily and often permanently. Angry words can feel like barbed arrows fired into the one’s heart. It is not uncommon for victims of domestic violence to say that after they have left a violent relationship, it was the cruel words of the perpetrator’s that they had the most difficulty recovering from, more so than the physical assaults.
Anger & Parenting
Anyone who has parented children know that at times they can be exceedingly challenging to the point where we often lose control, to gain control, not realising that the only way we maintain control, is by not losing it in the first place. That’s where anger management comes in. The more mindful we are of our internal body states (our breathing, where we hold tension,) and how our thoughts effect our actions, the better chance we have of managing the stresses associated with caring for children.