What Lies Behind the Anger of Men?

By Israel Helfand, M.S., Ph.D.
From The Northwest Recovery Networker
March 1992

Anger is the emotion most familiar to men. “Anger is the one strong emotion men typically express,” say Richard Meth and Robert S. Pasick in their book, Men In Therapy. It is right at the surface of the skin, not very threatening, and it validates the masculine image. Anger is readily modeled for boys in their homes, on television, in the movies, and in society. Almost all boys have childhood heroes whose images are built around anger and violence.

Despite the fact that boys are bombarded with models of male anger, they are taught that anger is unacceptable especially in the presence of a woman. He has seen his father respond with anger again and again. Because the subliminal message is at odds with the taught message, anger — the easiest emotion for many men to access — often brings with it feelings of shame or guilt.

In families with healthy interpersonal relationships that foster a good sense of self-esteem, there is more of an opportunity for a boy to find a balance. Due to the influences of television, the schoolyard, friends, competitive sports, and the media, however, a boy’s first response may still be anger. Frequently when a man gets angry, his reaction far exceeds the stimulus, such as a violent response to getting cut off on the road. This is because men today are often not reacting with anger, they are reacting with rage. Anger that is stored up over long periods of time becomes toxic and when expressed appears as rage.

Watch a child get angry, perhaps because he wants a toy that he cannot have at the grocery checkout. The child wails, screams, as if it’s the end of the world — for about 20 seconds and then he begins to smile or giggle. The anger is gone. A baby lets it flow, and then lets it go. Because of conflicting messages, men today do not know how to let it flow and let it go.

“While anger can sometimes feel enormously relieving, and while it can act as a powerful tool for influence or control, anger has a price,” say Matthew McKay, Ph.D., Peter D. Roberts, Ph.D., and Judith McKay, R.N. in When Anger Hurts. “Anger has a place. There are times when it is healthy, even necessary. In general, the more frequent and intense your anger, the more likely you are to sustain irremediable damage in your relationships.”

Behind the Anger

When a man tells me that he wants to work on his anger, I do not always believe that anger is his deepest issue. “Behind the mask of anger are other emotions that men deny,” said Barry Gordon and Richard Meth in Men in Therapy. It has become apparent in the work I do with men that the emotion a man is most comfortable in expressing is usually the one he needs to work on the least. Conversely, the emotion he’s least comfortable with is likewise the one he needs to work on the most. So for a man who comes to me because his anger is affecting all of his relationships, my job is to get him to access his loneliness, fear, sadness, grief, or even his joy or compassion. He already knows how to show anger, and it’s not getting him what he wants.

Through psychodrama, which I use in my men’s groups, I help men orchestrate the scenes in their lives in which they get most angry. As he reenacts those scenes with the help of the other men in the group, I am able to freeze the times when I can see the anger building, and to ask him to pay attention to other emotions he may be feeling. If he cannot get in touch with other emotions, I ask him to keep getting angrier. Then I ask him if he feels better, and if his anger is taken care of now. Nine times out of ten, he still feels very unfinished. I tell him to get even angrier, and then I repeat the question. The point is that there is no level of anger that’s going to solve this man’s problem. It is, however, the gateway to his repressed feelings.

When he has screamed, beaten up everything in the room, is exhausted, when there is nothing else left, chances are very good that he’s beginning to feel another emotion. It may be fear. He may be frightened that he just beat up everything in the world important to him and he’s all alone. Or it may be fear mixed with loneliness, or it may be tremendous sadness, or it may be shame. At that point, we can choreograph a scene depicting when he’s felt this sadness or shame or fear before in his life. When we can access a new emotion, the healing begins to take place. Chances are this man who can get really angry, doesn’t cry easily. During groups, he may be able to cry, or feel sorrow, shame or grief. Then when I ask him the question, “Are we finished now?” he says “yes.”

For the man who comes to me with an inability to access anger, the treatment is similar. I would have him act out the grief psychodramatically. As with anger, the healing doesn’t come from feeling more of the same feeling, in this case grief or depression. The healing comes from spontaneously accessing a new feeling. According to J. L. Moreno, the father of psychodrama, one of the measurements of mental health is spontaneity, which is defined as responding to a similar situation differently. I may ask a man who is acting out grief, “What else are you feeling now?” He may not know. I may have other men in the group double for him and someone else may say, “I’d be angry right now,” The man may say, “That never occurred to me, but, yes, I’m kind of angry… at the way things are… at that person… at myself.” That may be the first time he gets in touch with anger. Then I would give him an opportunity to express it. He may leave with a new awareness, and with more of a life energy. Anger can empower the sad, grieving person and help him find more balance in his life.

When the man who has always been angry gets in touch with his loneliness or sadness, he may be afraid that he’ll never stop crying or feeling sad. But there is nothing more healing for a person who’s been angry all his life than to feel some sadness for a few weeks. Likewise, if the man who is afraid to feel anger because he’ll be out of control takes a chance, he will discover that the anger ends, and he will find other emotions. The pendulum must swing in both directions.

Doing it Differently

In my men’s groups, I role-train men to use their anger constructively. For example, there was a man who was angry with his employer over a scheduling problem. He was a fellow who tended to be passive until he couldn’t hold back, and then he would explode. In the men’s group, the man dealt with his employer psycholdramatically, in three scenarios. In the first scenario, we reenacted the scene the way it actually happened. In the second scenario, we re-enacted his wildest fantasy. In the third scenario, we enacted a scene the man could feel proud of. Typically, this scenario is in the middle of the other two, not passive or aggressive, but assertive. So all of the men gain a new assertive frame of reference for handling situations. The man was able to go back to his employer and deal with the issue in a more mature and grounded way, with an acceptable and assertive style, without attacking or being submissive.

The Payoff

It takes a lot of work to get men out of their heads and into their hearts, but when they get into their hearts, they find a warm, loving part of themselves that has been disconnected for a long time. I’ve gotten letters from wives telling me they’re very pleased with the changes they’re seeing in their husbands. The men in my groups report that their children or their wives are noticing changes in their level of relaxation, their tone of voice, their thoughtfulness. Colleagues or bosses are saying to them, “You’re different. I like the new you.” But more important than that, it’s the men who are feeling that they are being more true to themselves.

As men become more available to their wives and their children, they will, in turn, feel love. There is a tremendous amount of love that men have to offer, and when they do, is very transformative. Men love every bit as powerfully as women, but differently. Change begins for them by accessing anew behaviors and expressing feelings. It continues by strengthening their relationships, and then transcending their egos, become involved in their communities. The ultimate payoff is a healing that this society and the planet desperately needs to see.