This is my second attempt at writing this. The first was a long tedious exploration of my growing up and was getting out of hand. Suffice to say I’m someone who’s been angry for most of their life. Like a simmering background discontent that, very occasionally, gets out of hand completely.
In other words, you don’t need to know all the guff about my childhood – basically like many of those who count themselves as men I’ve experienced the rage inside my own head for a long time now.
I want to start with some truths about (my) anger.
- It’s always there. I’m always kind of angry.
- Part of me is always ready to take offence
- I hate it
- I love it
- I experience the world as one which thinks anger is evil by definition (the tone policing exemplified by Star Wars of all things (anger leads to hate etc.) just highlights how taboo anger is for our society)
- I experience the world as one which has no idea how to safely handle anger
- What I get angry it can be both profound and ridiculous at the same time
- People fear my anger (not in a good way)
- I hate the idea of people being scared of me
- For me, anger is often part of an emotional bundle that includes grief, feelings of powerlessness, despair, anxiety and disappointment.
I don’t know why I’m always angry. It’s not the knock someone’s teeth out kind of anger in the same way that being optimistic doesn’t mean I think I’m going to win the lottery. It simply means I’m kind of ready to express anger in the same way I’m ready to see the best in a situation.
I am a bundle of insecurities about belonging, competence, being safe and loved. As such I have a number of pressure points that when pressed result in a tendency for an automatic response involving anger regardless of whether that is ‘reasonable’. Anger is not necessarily an outburst. For some it’s likely to be a shutting down, for others fleeing. For me it’s expressed as resistance, justifying myself, trying to fix a situation and, possibly, looking at how someone else got it wrong.
So I’d say we need to think about anger as something other than shouting and ranting and violence. Public debate has distilled ‘fury’ into meaning just that. We need to reject that narrative if we want to have a useful conversation about anger. Anger is more than that – it’s an emotion that frequently is about protecting boundaries, defensive in its origination even if that drives an offensive response.
I hate my anger because too often defence is where i go first. I’d rather go to understanding, to wise old perspective, but instead I start with being defensive. I hate it because it can stifle a conversation and a relationship, because it can mean people aren’t honest because they fear the consequences. It can mean we literally can’t hear the other person. It can mean we assume the worst of someone who, if we stopped to think about what we knew of them, we’d know the situation was more complex and we needed to be just as nuanced ourselves.
Too often I respond in a binary fashion because I can’t handle the emotions I’m feeling NOT because the situation warrants it.
I also love my anger. Anger drives me to do things. It drives me to protect myself from abuse, from aggression and from bullies. When issues arise that demand a robust response, anger about injustice moves me more than eloquent reasoning.
Capitalism polices anger because it makes it easier to manage people if they’re docile. Anger moves people to reject what doesn’t work for them, makes protests more likely, makes the rich rightly fear (more than they already do). Capitalism works hard to suppress avenues for the expression of anger and dissent. Capitalism HATES dissent which can’t be co-opted into profit.
Politics should be our answer to that – except when it becomes the tool of the powerful. If you want to change a system then a constant low level of anger is better than any other motivator. Anger can be a hunger for justice.
Anger can be good and I love it for that. I’ve acted well numerous times because I was angry. Anger does not obviate reason and nor does it have to be blind. Anger can give us clarity and hope and power as much as it can make us stupid and cruel and dangerous.
The biggest problem I encounter is that there is no space to talk about anger (or other emotions). Angry men are seen as a problem. Angry women just as much to be honest but they’re dealt with by society very differently even if the outcome is the same – isolation, silencing and exclusion.
Partly this is because we’ve let anger become defined by extreme tropes – fury at this and fury at that. We’ve allowed representations of anger to become one dimensional tropes about men violently beating those who cross them. And let’s not even start on how society tries to suggest women can’t feel anger as if a good woman is always placid. Argh.
That is not a debate, that is what suppression looks like.
The biggest challenge for me is expressing anger safely – if such an idea isn’t an oxymoron. When I’m angry I have to find a way to process that emotion. I have to have a way of dealing with it that helps me address what caused it, what I can do about it and then allows me to move on. That moving on might look like dealing with the inciting incident (for example an act of injustice I’m on the end of or have observed).
Not to express my anger is potentially more damaging than expressing it. This is really important to me because the short term expression of anger via rants or attacks can feel devastating to those involved – but I truly believe anger can be expressed without it being damaging. The challenge is in finding space where that can be the case and in building relationships where that can be true.
I’ve absolutely been in relationships where any kind of criticism at all is responded to with anger, denial and an immediate breakdown in the relationship. You can’t legislate for that, only for your own forms of expression.
What does a safe expression of anger look like? Sometimes it’s taking a little time before you talk about it, others it’s about having friends with whom you can express your emotional self who will both listen without judgement and then call you out where you’re being a fool. Friends who can’t be honest with you are not friends and they’re not protecting you, they’re actively harming you. Good friends are mirrors to one another, for support and for challenge.
Safe expression means talking about it until you have the words that express how you feel and why. The first set of reasons and words we get are often not the ones where we settle. Time is crucial here. So is talking and talking and talking.
I think that safe expression about anger is being able to rant when necessary, probably with someone not involved who will let you get it out of your system before you then work with that anger to drive a constructive response.
Finally i think safe expression of anger is about being active. Addressing the situation and making a change.
I’m no psychologist. I’m barely au fait with my own motivations and triggers. But I know that anger left unexpressed is dangerous because it grows and festers and becomes something toxic. That toxicity can become a pattern of behaviour is it very hard to unlearn, especially if learned as a younger person.
I know that anger as talked about in wider society isn’t what i recognise in my own feelings.
I also recognise that anger as talked about in wider society is easy to be scared of and, honestly, it’s the kind of expression too many people have experienced and are, rightly, worried about.
I don’t want to under play the damage that toxic expressions of anger cause. Men do so much damage because they can and it’s not good enough. It’s never been good enough.
My plea here is that there has to be a way to talk about how we’re feeling, and that anger is a normal emotion and should be recognised as such, not suppressed. Men owe it those around them as much as they do themselves to talk about their emotions, to find ways of expressing their anger so that they can do so and still be seen as safe, as loving and as someone who does good.
Anger can be a force for good but in our society it’s been rendered a force of evil and men told they aren’t allowed to express it in any form. Part of that is social conditioning, part of that is, as I say above, our form of capitalism moving to suppress dissent of all kinds; where damage to property is more important to the courts and those in power than the oppression of people.
lastly, an apology – the above doesn’t really feel all that coherent. I could have just written that we need to talk about anger more. I hope it at least shows that it’s a complex subject that we, as people who call ourselves men, need to be more aware of because anger isn’t evil and we have to find a way to accept it’s part of who we are. Central to this exploration are friendships where we have space to talk about our anger, where we can explore it, reflect on it and find ways to make it constructive. The starting point for so many is that anger is absent until it’s entirely uncontrollable, damaging, hurting and destroying.
Men need friends because they’re angry.