As counselors and therapists, we need to be knowledgeable about anger and how it can best be addressed in the therapeutic process. This requires an understanding of the psychological, social, and cultural context for this powerful emotion as it manifests in male behavior.
Most people, including many professionals, see anger as a bad, unhealthy emotion that should be controlled, suppressed or eliminated. This is an antiquated viewpoint that does far more harm than good. In this article, we’ll place emphasis on the necessary and valid role that anger plays in overall psychological and emotional health.
When anger is expressed in an aggressive and explosive manner, it leads to damaged relationships, violence, and generally destructive behavior. When it’s denied and suppressed, it can lead to various types of mental, emotional, and physical illness.
When anger is understood, healed, and expressed in an emotionally intelligent manner, it leads to greater focus, determination, and personal power for creating positive, productive outcomes.
With these points in mind, this article is divided into three parts:
- How did we get here? This section takes a look at how we’ve come to think of anger as always bad, and how unhealthy, destructive anger is primarily associated with men.
- What do we do about it? Here we’ll look at a cognitive and emotional healing process that has proven highly effective in addressing and healing anger issues. An emotional intelligence framework will provide an additional context for organizing and understanding this process and its stages.
- Where do we go from here? In this final phase of the article, we’ll look at the little understood phenomenon of healthy anger, and all of the many ways it can serve us in fostering healthy, productive behavior.
Part One: How Did We Get Here?
The primitive human brain has only three choices when facing threat or opposition: fight, flight or freeze. As men, we generally consider it more masculine to fight than to freeze or run away. That’s one of the seeds of our current issues with male anger. The default emotion for men who feel threatened, confronted, criticized or questioned is far too often anger.
This actually weakens our position as men, because of the ways that unconscious anger diminishes our functional capacity. With the powerful chemicals associated with testosterone and adrenaline running in the background, primitive (i.e., unconscious) anger can lead to a shutdown of higher brain functions and very destructive behavior. In mild cases, this shows up as difficulty in thinking clearly and interference with effective communication. In the case of extreme anger outbursts, an otherwise intelligent, compassionate man can become blindly abusive and violent, often toward those he loves the most.
Anger as a Solution to the Problem of Helplessness
Various circumstances throughout any childhood may lead to feelings of helplessness. While these feelings are unavoidable in childhood, as adults we naturally find a sense of helplessness to be unacceptable because of how vulnerable and exposed it leaves us. Thus, feelings of helplessness can often serve to trigger an unconscious anger response.
Even though anger seems like a solution to the problem of helplessness because of its illusions of power, when it’s unhealthy, it actually creates even more feelings of helplessness. Men who can’t control their anger, for example, feel helpless to manage their own thoughts and actions when this powerful emotion is triggered.
Pathways from Helplessness to Anger
We all come into this world helpless, as a natural state of affairs. Any experience of abandonment, neglect or abuse can deepen the sense of vulnerability and helplessness.
Many male children, for example, were raised primarily by their mothers, due to the absent-father scenario so common to many families. Boys growing up in these circumstances will sometimes overdevelop their masculine aggression to fend off what appears to be a controlling mother, or to fill the void of masculine presence in the home and to make up for the pain of the absent father figure.
When men’s childhoods included instances of physical, mental, sexual or emotional abuse, it’s pretty clear how excessive anger might develop as an attempt to overcome the resulting feelings of helplessness.
In a normal adult life, these powerful and untenable feelings can be triggered by events as mundane as health issues, financial stress, and relationship conflict.
The Inner Workings of the Angry Mind
The “logic” of the subconscious mind goes like this: If helplessness, vulnerability, and fear are the problem, then anger, aggression, and fighting back seem like a solution.
The real problem comes when these angry victims remain disconnected from their vulnerability, and fight harder and harder to become powerful in order to avoid returning to the fear of helplessness that is actually driving their rage. This is where the term “blind rage” comes from—the unconscious effort of frightened men trying to avoid their own pain and vulnerability translate into horrific destruction to those around them.
From a Jungian perspective, the unclaimed shadow (i.e., the unacknowledged internal victim) gets projected onto angry men’s victims and outside themselves. They have rejected and denied, albeit subconsciously, their own inner pain and helplessness, and loathe it when they see it around them. This plays out in a very dark kind of psychodrama where perpetrators punish the victims around them because of their disdain for the victim inside.
The Angry Masculine Role Model
Male children, especially ones with “father hunger,” may seek to emulate their fathers even more intensely to compensate for the dominance of their mothers in the home. If those fathers happen to be overtly or covertly angry, which far too many are, these boys might make a concerted effort to claim their masculine power in the same way their misguided fathers do. If the fathers abandons their families, these sons may blame their mothers for this, further exacerbating their anger towards the feminine (within and without).
A flip side of this is when male children side with their mothers against angry fathers, making up their minds to never be like the tyrants in their homes. This can translate into passivity and/or passive aggressive patterns, depending on the circumstances. Young men growing up in this type of family dynamic could actually become very angry in spite of themselves, determined to fight male dominance they see in families, social/cultural arenas, and even on the global scale.
The Golden Child and the Entitled Adult
Another dynamic that can contribute greatly to male anger issues results from the “golden child syndrome,” in which certain children are favored, revered, and given special attention. This often occurs in families with a strong gender bias toward males, and can also focus on the firstborn or the “baby” of the family.
These golden children receive more than their share of love, and are often the center of their parents’ world. In extreme cases, this can also result in the occurrence of emotional incest. This can result in a troubling dynamic where a father is jealous of the mother’s attentions to the son and acts those feelings out in the form of abuse and/or neglect.
It is hard for golden children’s experiences in the adult world to compete with the overwhelming experience of love and adoration they received from their parent or parents. Children, victimized by these dynamics, feel a strong sense of entitlement in their adult relationships, seeking in vain to find something that competes with the warm limelight of their childhood. When spouses, children, and society in general fail to measure up to the worshipful appreciation that mom and/or dad used to display, rage often follows.
In extreme cases, entitled adults have such an inflated sense of value and self-importance that they feel totally justified in their tyrannical, abusive behavior. This translates into, “If I’m doing it, it must be right.” This is one of the most powerful dynamics underlying the extreme cases of persecution and violation that occur around the world, extending from domestic to global arenas.
What Happens when the Anger Stays Inside?
Because anger is so commonly seen as wrong, bad, and unhealthy, many men successfully suppress and control this strong emotional tendency, sometimes at great expense to their health and sense of personal power.
Anger’s original purpose is protection, and its methodology is usually aggressive in nature. This aggression does not go away when anger is suppressed, it is simply directed internally. Author Marion Woodman says, “Anger is like a fist held down . . . magnificent energy wasted” (Bly & Woodman, 1998). Not only is the energy wasted, it has to go somewhere, and usually translates into some sort of inner conflict leading to chronic tension, anxiety, depression, and related physical ailments.
Think about it like this: we have anger because we’re human. We don’t want to have anger, because we’ve learned that it’s “bad.” There’s our inner conflict. And we cannot fight with ourselves and win, obviously, so we lose; we lose energy, enthusiasm, focus, clarity, and many other positive qualities that require the healthy integration of all of our emotions.
There is abundant research showing how suppressed anger contributes to the occurrence of depression and anxiety. Depression and anxiety interfere with immune function and otherwise hamper the body’s ongoing efforts to preserve well-being. In other words, if we suppress our anger, we are highly likely to get sick in one way or another.
Additionally, our relationships will suffer. If we’re uncomfortable with our anger, we will avoid conflict, and therefore fail to express to others how we really feel. Ironically, when we suppress one emotion, others get suppressed with it. This makes it difficult to share our deepest thoughts and feelings with others, interfering with our capacity for emotional intimacy.
So as you can see, the misunderstanding, suppression, and unhealthy expression of anger represent a major underlying cause of many of the modern woes we face. Since there are no ready solutions available for most men, medication or self-medication are far too often the remedies sought, usually to no avail.
When the unhealthy anger explosion provides the only stress relief men experience, they begin to rely on this type of release, in spite of the destructive outcomes. The internal build-up of tension is followed by the anger release, which gives relief from the stress of holding it inside. The physiological benefit of this is so great that in some cases it overrides the moral imperatives that otherwise might lead to better emotional control. This can actually manifest in cyclical patterns of anger release, in which angry men are triggered by otherwise trivial issues because their ultimate goal is release and relief, not problem resolution.
In extreme cases, this can develop into intermittent explosive disorder (IED), in which the destructive anger eruptions escalate to debilitating levels, interfering with employment, social adaptation, and the ability to maintain quality relationships at even the most basic level.
Part Two: What do we do about it?
Before a problem can be solved, you have to accept that there is a problem. Some men are so disconnected from their emotions that they will make statements like, “I don’t have any anger issues” or, “I never get angry.” So, the first step toward emotional integration, emotional intelligence, and healthy anger is to recognize that we indeed do feel angry and internally conflicted about it at times.
This corresponds with the first domain of emotional intelligence: self-awareness. The four areas or domains of emotional intelligence—self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management—provide a good framework for some of the key content of this article. We will explore this framework further below.
To be self-aware is to recognize that we are intellectual, physical, and emotional beings, and that our emotions are as natural as our physicality and our thought processes. Another key component of self-awareness is to understand what emotions are, and how they operate. Anger, for example, is simply a strong protective emotion that arises when we feel threatened or opposed by someone or something in our environment.
Of course we feel something when we’re threatened or opposed—we’d likely be dead if we didn’t. Our anger is a part of your sophisticated internal network of self-preservation reactions and response patterns.
Our anger is also connected with what matters most to us. Whatever we hold most dear, whatever we consider to be the most important, that’s what we want most to protect. So when there is interference or threat to any of the highly valued aspects of our lives, we are very likely to feel anger, regardless of whether we express it.
The real question is not whether or not we feel angry; the question is, what do we do with this powerful emotion, and how can we make it work for us and not against us?
Now let’s begin making the distinction between unhealthy and healthy anger.
There are thoughts, actions and feelings that go along with unhealthy anger. It’s important to be aware of these, so that we can change them. Take a look at Figure 1 and see if anything looks familiar.
We can see the victim mentality and the fear of helplessness all through Figure 1. Awareness is the first step to growth and change, and this overview enhances awareness of unhealthy patterns that might otherwise only be operative on a subconscious basis.
Healing Toxic and Dysfunctional Anger
When anger is stifled and held inside, it becomes bitter and toxic. If it is nurtured with ongoing thoughts of frustration and resentment, it actually grows stronger and results in anger eruptions. When it is denied, judged as wrong, and never expressed, it can interfere with our normal physical and psychological functioning.
In my over forty years as a counselor, it has become clear to me that a very large percentage of men have some form of toxic anger inside. In my efforts to help, I have come up with a four-part emotional healing process that applies to the healing of toxic anger, as well as numerous other related psychological and emotional issues.
We see an overview of this four-phase process in Figure 2. One of the many benefits of this approach is that it brings previously subconscious processes into conscious awareness, thereby facilitating the desired healing and behavior change.
The Four-Phase Emotional Healing Process
As outlined in Figure 2, phases I and IV are cognitive, and phases II and III are affective/experiential.
In phase I, a personal history review reveals past emotional trauma and dysfunctional belief systems that are associated with that trauma. The trauma anchors the perceptions and beliefs of clients on a subconscious level, which explains why old and subconsciously held belief systems have such a strong hold on us until we begin working with them directly.
In phase II, through the employment of several experiential therapeutic processes, the past trauma is revisited for the purpose of understanding and healing. This is the component of the work that identifies the emotional pain, fear, and trauma that gave origin to the development of dysfunctional anger. Primary methodologies utilized here include experiential Gestalt exercises and guided imagery techniques that help clients bring understanding, love, and compassion to traumatic memories that may have been devoid of these healing elements when they occurred.
Unresolved grief is often found to be underlying anger issues with clients. Phase II is the appropriate part of the process for addressing grief and loss, and facilitating the grieving process.
Phase III is a continuation of the work in phase II, with an increasing emphasis on self-acceptance, self-love, and self-nurturing to fill the unmet needs of the traumatized child (or adult), and to begin laying a foundation for self-esteem and effective self-management. Healing energy is accessed in this phase, in the form of the positive emotions of empathy, joy, and love that clients experience in their newfound connection with their own inner selves. They actually recognize and acknowledge their own helplessness, but with the newfound empathy and self-love they feel, they begin to feel strong even in light of their vulnerability.
Phase IV involves a revisiting of old dysfunctional beliefs and behavior patterns identified in phase I, with an effort to replace these with new, positive, and healthy patterns. It is explained to clients that their old beliefs and behavior patterns were not of their choosing, being simply a reaction to the limitations of their past experiences. Their new beliefs and behavior patterns, however, are completely of their choosing, based on the person they want to be, and the change they wants to see in their future.
A Useful Analogy for Change and Growth
Without the depth of experiential work in phases II and III, the cognitive restructuring in phase IV would likely fail to take root to form a foundation for lasting change and improvement. The best analogy to describe the four-phase process is in reference to a garden.
In a garden, weeds grow abundantly, without choice or effort from gardeners. Likewise, the old beliefs and behavior patterns were accumulated and grew on a subconscious level, without clients’ active participation. Just as gardeners must till the soil to loosen the roots of the weeds before uprooting them, clients must revisit past trauma with understanding, self-compassion, and professional guidance in order to till the soil of their past experiences and loosen the hold of their old dysfunctional patterns.
In the garden, this clears the soil for growth of healthy, beneficial plants. In the therapeutic process, the groundwork is laid in phases I through III so that in phase IV, new healthy, positive beliefs and behavior patterns can be embedded, strengthened, and laid in place to support ongoing growth and development.
With the self-awareness of phases I through III comes the possibility of self-management, the second domain of emotional intelligence. Let’s take a look at the four areas of emotional intelligence now, as another framework for understanding how we got here and what we can do about it.
The Emotional Intelligence Framework
We can see how naturally each of these emotional intelligence domains feed into each other. For example, without self-awareness, sustainable self-management is virtually impossible. And, without self-awareness and self-management skills in place, social awareness will be clouded and relationship management skills will be largely ineffective.
If we were to overlay the emotional healing process with the emotional intelligence framework, we would see how phases I through III of the emotional healing process coincide with the first two domains of emotional intelligence: self-awareness and self-management. Phase IV of the emotional healing process would be the context for social awareness and relationship management skills, the last two domains of emotional intelligence.
Many high-functioning clients find that by enhancing their self-awareness and self-management, their social awareness automatically becomes more clear and accurate. They also discover that they already had the positive relationship management skills they needed, but were not able to fully utilize them until they cleared the path through the emotional healing process. For this reason, some clients do not need as much work in the latter two emotional intelligence domains.
Part Three: Where do we go from Here?
The goal for men from this point is to be emotionally integrated and to operate with high integrity in all relationships. This requires that our anger be healthy and productive. The idea of healthy anger is tricky. Because anger has so consistently been associated with inappropriate displays, it is difficult to conceive of it actually being healthy and beneficial, except in extreme situations that rarely if ever occur in most people’s lives.
No one would question the anger of parents protecting their children from an attacker, for example. This anger would be deemed justified, necessary, and appropriate. While there are other instances of anger that would clearly be justified and appropriate, these too are rare occurrences for most people. There is much more to healthy anger than simply justified aggression against an attacker.
One of the reasons the concept of healthy anger is so challenging is that when anger is healthy, it shows up as something else we are actually quite familiar with, and call by other names.
What is Healthy Anger?
When anger is healthy, it does not take over people’s brains and go against their values and good sense. It works in conjunction with their intelligence, compassion, and ability to regulate thoughts and behavior. We might say healthy anger never works alone, but always in alignment with love and wisdom.
When it’s healthy, anger shows up as effective action, focus, determination, motivation, and can even translate into enthusiasm.
But when we see someone acting in an effective, focused, determined, and highly motivated manner, we rarely think of them as angry because they’re not showing anger in the ways we are familiar with. They have channeled and directed the energy of their dissatisfaction into something constructive.
Take a look at the chart below to get an overview of healthy anger in terms of the related thoughts, actions, and feelings.
So, there is a lot to healthy anger. It’s not just emotion—it involves clear thinking, optimism, courage, and determination.
To elaborate on a few of these points:
- Thoughts: Thought processes can be readily chosen, and can feed directly into healthy actions and emotions. Self-talk and positive thinking are powerful tools, and they are essential to the development of healthy anger.
- Actions: Actions follow thoughts and emotions. Part of choosing correct action occurs in thought processes, and this is reinforced when emotions are integrated and aligned with values.
- Emotions: This is of course the most challenging part to manage and control. When we complete the emotional healing process, however, we will no longer be blindly driven by unhealthy anger, resentment, and fear, and better able to consistently direct our thoughts and actions from a foundation of healthy emotions working in alignment with each other.
A Metaphor: From Warrior Spirit to Spiritual Warrior
We are all born with the capacity for anger. The term “the terrible twos” refers to the age range when human children begin to show their anger and independence.
So with this in mind, we might say that everyone is born with a kind of a warrior spirit. It can certainly be stronger in some than it is in others, but some aspects of the “fight” reflex are there in all of us, especially men.
As we have seen in the world, and possibly in our own lives, the warrior spirit can sometimes be overblown and out of control, wreaking havoc on health, happiness, and a feeling of safety in close relationships. Naturally occurring anger in every human being is neither good nor bad—it’s all a matter of how we respond to and express it.
The spiritual warrior (as a metaphor for healthy anger), on the other hand, is something that only develops when we choose to act in particular ways, on a regular and consistent basis. Let’s take a closer look at the warrior spirit and the spiritual warrior, and what sets them apart.
The warrior spirit
- operates primarily from the “fight or flight” reflex
- is the first innocent emergence of anger, as raw emotional energy designed to protect, push away, and separate us from the will of others
- serves to help us define boundaries of where we stop and others start. It is part of the process in which we differentiate ourselves as individuals.
- originates primarily in the context of love relationships, but it can also be very damaging to those relationships
- unless it is intentionally and purposefully developed, managed, and directed, remains primitive and potentially destructive
The spiritual warrior:
- operates primarily from the “calm and connect” response (as opposed to the fight or flight response)
- begins to develop when the powerful emotion of anger becomes aligned with our values and our sense of moral responsibility
- operates in conjunction with love, compassion, and wisdom, focusing on the big picture context for events and relationships
- is content with subtle action in service to good, and does not seek recognition
- it functions in complete connection with true, authentic nature, bringing masculine and feminine qualities into balance
- is devoted to the fulfillment of our individual life purpose
When we think of the people we admire most, whether someone we actually know or someone we know only through reputation or literature, upon examination of each of these individuals, I think we find that they meet all of the criteria for the spiritual warrior.
The Sword and the Shield
One of the best ways to understand healthy anger is by looking at the symbols of the sword and shield in the hands of spiritual warriors.
- Healthy anger is direct, precise, clear, and focused. Spiritual warriors are not vague, wishy-washy or weak. They get to the point in the most efficient manner possible.
- Healthy anger is assertive, not necessarily aggressive. It is powerful without having to overpower. It wins without having to compete.
- The hearts and minds of spiritual warriors work together to generate consistent determination, enthusiasm, and motivation for positive, productive actions producing the best possible outcomes for all concerned.
- This can be seen as an expression of healthy masculinity.
- Healthy anger is used to define boundaries: where we stop and another person starts.
- The shield of spiritual warriors is for the purpose of protection, and it can be impenetrable if need be.
- The primary purpose of the shield is to create space and sanctuary to allow love to thrive.
- This can be seen as an expression of healthy femininity.
Another familiar term for healthy anger, especially in reference to the sword and shield metaphor, is “tough love.” If love isn’t tough once in a while, it gets used, abused, and used up.
Healthy anger, and its metaphorical spiritual warrior, have the purpose of preserving and perpetuating love, within ourselves and in our relationships. It is dominant goodness, and the power is focused within, not over others.
It is time we set ourselves free from the illusion that anger is a problem to be solved, and begin to recognize that it is nothing more and nothing less than tremendously powerful energy to be understood, healed, developed, and directed in positive, productive ways.
Bly, R. E., & Woodman, M. (1998). The maiden king: The reunion of masculine and feminine. New York, NY: Henry Holt & Co.