We Are Angry!

We’re angry. As a culture, as a nation, as a normal part of being human. And why shouldn’t we be? We have plenty of reasons; Covid, insurrections, financial instability, racial and social injustices, lockdowns, hearing the word “unprecedented” repeatedly, lack of predictability, homesickness. In the cocktail of uncertainty and powerlessness, anger makes us feel powerful.  It tells the world, “YOU have a problem!  YOU need to fix it!  NOW!” Anger allows us to get a lot of pent up energy out of our bodies and into the world.  That feels good. It’s as if we’re saying, “I can’t contain this energy to just my body anymore. I’m giving it to you, now do something with it to make me feel better!”  Um, yeah….. That doesn’t work.  The recipient of your angry energy is more likely to be like, “Screw you” rather than “It would be my pleasure to appease you.”

Why doesn’t anger get you what you really want?

Anger is perceived as a threat. Anger is also a response to a threat.  If you come at someone with anger, they are likely to come back at you with anger. Or stonewall you.  Ignore you.  Taunt you. Mock you. You’re going to get some kind of protective response.  Anger is an awesome source of protection. It’s usually a first choice response to threats because it’s quick, often socially acceptable, and feels good. What you really feel – usually some form of vulnerability –  stays well hidden. And what you really want is to have your vulnerability addressed.

Consider the following situation. Which is more likely to happen?

“Get back! Put your fucking mask on. What is wrong with you? Can’t you see the signs everywhere?”

OR

“Excuse me, do you have a mask to put on?  It would make me feel less vulnerable if you wore one.  I’m immunocompromised as is my elderly mother whom I care for.  Being around you without a mask exposes me to your germs,  jeopardizing her life and mine.  Please help protect my mother and I.”

The first one, of course! We’ve probably even watched an exchange similar to that.  And I’d bet that whoever wasn’t wearing a mask didn’t quickly put one on either.  It’s more likely they came back with either a passive or aggressive (maybe both) form of protection like anger, stonewalling, ignoring, mocking, or taunting.  Why?  You can never shame anyone into better behavior.  People will not make better decisions because they feel bad about themselves.  They will protect themselves rather than address your vulnerability. The very same vulnerability that they don’t know exists because you have it so well hidden.

If anger doesn’t work, what does?

The short answer is to figure out what, specifically, is making you angry and give voice to that. Hint:  It’s going to fall into one or more of four categories:  shame or guilt, sadness, anxiety, and/or insecurity.

The long answer is to understand that people respond best when they have suggestions and are asked to comply. (Like when the flight attendants say, “We’re going to ask that you…”) But people are also more willing to be receptive to what you’re saying if the vulnerability is made known. It feels good to be empathetic. 

Do I have to walk around with my heart on my sleeve?

No. But the next time you’re about to launch into an angry response with a loved one, ask yourself, “What’s really going on here?  What am I feeling beneath the anger?” This serves two purposes; 1. It slows you down and gives you a chance to actually think about what you’re doing and choose your way forward.  The slower pace allows the other person to do the same and you’re more likely to get what you want. 2. Allows you to connect with your softer side and perhaps speak from that place.

Proactive Ways to Check Your Anger

Check to see if you’re self-sabotaging your own anger management.  Here’s some common ways we feed our anger:

  • Angry people often seek out other angry people.  Anger can be rewarded with social inclusion, therefore there is no incentive to be less angry.

  • If there is little in our lives that makes us joyful or creates exciting experiences, anger can be very exciting and thrilling.

  • We often put ourselves in impossible situations and then get angry when it doesn’t work out.  We freely throw angry blame around, at ourselves and the world.

  • We are physically mean to ourselves. It can be subtle like drinking or smoking or more dramatic like bingeing, doing hard drugs, stop taking essential medications, erratic driving, or poor hygiene. People start to pull away from us, judge us, and misunderstand us.  We get angry at them for pulling away, judging and misunderstanding us.

  • Consuming content that riles us up and feeds the anger. 

  • Your diet has too many trans fatty acids.  Studies have shown that too much causes aggression.  

Accept that anger is protecting either shame, anxiety, insecurity, guilt or sadness.

You can work with a therapist in a lot of ways to tame your anger. One of my favorite techniques is to deconstruct a past episode of anger. Together, we go through the events in “slow motion” to analyze what set you off and what were the signs that it was coming.  There are always signs.  We need to bring awareness to those cues and learn how to intervene before there’s an explosion.

The bottom line:  We are angry.  We exist in a culture of anger.  But it’s not working.  Anger does not get us the thing we all long for: connection. We need to get more real with our own shame, guilt, sadness, and anxiety. This will pave the way for genuine connection and contentedness.

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