This is a question I’ve been asked many times; in fact, some version of it came up twice just this past week. Given the popularity of this very important question, I decided I would provide a written answer.
A major portion of my clinical background involved working as a domestic violence treatment provider for male offenders. In the end, it would be the truly brave and courageous men (though I did not initially meet any of them under that presentation), who would ultimately provide me the answer to this question.
Of course this question—in its generalized phrasing—suggests that all men are pathologically angry, and that only men have anger problems; to be clear, that’s most certainly not the case! However, in light of the increasing prevalence of mass shootings, acts of intimate partner violence, and even increasing rates of suicide among men (which may be viewed as extreme anger turned inwards), it is fair to say that many men are, in fact, very angry!
For those whom the label of “angry” applies, there is a short answer as to why: “Because we are hurt, sad, lonely, and extremely afraid at times! And for most of us, we’re too damn afraid to even admit any one of those things aloud!” For some men, simply reading this will evoke feelings of anger, as many do not wish to run the risk of aligning themselves with emotions which they’ve been taught to associate with the feminine—the weak! The potential social consequences are just too great.
To illustrate further, let me explain an important aspect of what anger actually is. Anger is a secondary emotion, meaning it cannot exist on its own. While it is a very real and powerful emotion—even appropriate and useful at times—it will never be present as an isolated emotion. There will always be a primary emotion feeding the secondary emotion of anger, which is true for all human beings—women included—even if it can’t be immediately or consciously identified. Any time someone is angry, their anger is the result of an unidentified, and/or an unexpressed, primary emotion. As referenced above, anger is often precipitated by the primary emotions: hurt, sadness, loneliness, and fear, to name a few. Yes, men experience these emotions too, but with few exceptions, will almost certainly never let anyone know—man or woman.
Most men have vowed to keep such feelings to themselves, as they have been taught. Many will never forget their societal initiation into male-hood when they were very young. For most young boys, this initiation was so painful that they resigned themselves to emotional shut-down and repression—pretending that their bodies, and their souls, could uphold this archetype of what it means to be a “man” in today’s world. Against the will of their own divine nature, they took an oath to protect this archetype, for denouncing it would only bring them more of what drove them to take it in the first place: public shame, embarrassment, and humiliation! To risk feeling any of those emotions again, is simply something that most men are not yet willing to do.
Of course, this strategy does not eliminate or resolve any of the primary emotions, but you can be assured that most men do their very best to suppress and distract themselves from them for as long as they can. One effort to contain these emotions includes the invention of “anger management” treatment programs, where a myriad of “coping strategies” (often more avoidance techniques) are taught in effort to help “control” anger. Unfortunate, yes, but “anger resolution,” has not yet been considered. Perhaps this has been an unconscious choice—a covert effort to further shield men from unearthing the pain and fear that’s been feeding their anger for many generations? Regardless, most men are simply not willing to risk experiencing the shame and humiliation they faced as young boys when they were first learning what was acceptable for boys to feel and to express. Men have been operating this way for a very long time, and they have no signs that it’s safe for them to come out of hiding. Men remain at a standoff with these deeply-held, long-standing social rules involving the honest expression of painful emotions, and neither is showing signs of giving in first.
So, the next time you hear about an angry male committing some horrible act of violence, you can be assured that it is not the result of biology or too much testosterone, nor will it be the result of having access to too many weapons, as the news channels and politicians will continue to have us believe. Instead, these actions will represent the intense psychological pain that could no longer be contained. Tragic to be sure, for victims and perpetrator alike.
What many people fail to see in the wake of such horrible atrocities is the degree of pain that precipitated that act. This claim offers no excuse, only an explanation, and a demonstration of just how much pain some men are in. “Hurt people, hurt people,” as I’ve stated many times in the clinical setting. Unfortunately, there remains enough repressed hurt within the male population that we all have reason to remain afraid! No individual hurts another individual, a community, or themselves—physically or emotionally—unless they themselves are deeply hurting.
Can this phenomenon end? How will it end? I am not entirely sure; however, I am fairly confident it won’t end through any attempt to remove weaponry from society, even if there was a way to accomplish such a task. As many women, children, and in some cases, even other men can attest, many men have proven they can remain dangerous without the use of any traditional weapons at all. The threats, put-downs, intimidation, manipulation, and other scare tactics that remain in the angry man’s arsenal can batter a soul to the point where the body is no longer much of a vehicle for life.
The angry man is not likely to leave our society until the standoff ends, and one of two things happen: 1) we stop socializing our young boys this way, or 2) more and more men cease participation in this unhealthy emotional suppression. First, as a society, we must start teaching our young boys that it is okay and healthy for men to have and express primary emotions. Secondly, more brave and courageous men must decide that enough is enough and begin fighting a different war: the war against this long-standing ideology that keeps men pretending that they are not emotional creatures deserving of psychological liberation from the pain they experience during extremely challenging times in their lives. It’s very difficult to break old, dysfunctional paradigms, but break it we must if we wish to live in a healthier society!
My experience has shown me that this change is possible (though very difficult); the rising rates of homicide, intimate partner violence, and suicide, show me that it is imperative! I will never forget the first brave man who took that leap in a group I was facilitating many years ago. This man was nearly fully resigned in life—his entire body overtaken by pain and despondence. One evening, he began to share something, and the dam broke! He attempted to engage his conditioned response and repress these emotions once more, but there was no hope this time: it was all coming out, a primary emotional release with full acceptance of what was. Thankfully, in one sense, this man had given up. Being resigned as he was, he was no longer able to hold back his tears, or resist their full expression. Fear of what others would think, or how they would respond, would no longer be enough to keep his emotions from coming out. He simply didn’t care; he couldn’t care!
Surprised and shocked, the rest of the group sat captivated as we witnessed an act of healing more pronounced and convincing than words can portray. When the man began to calm down (as will happen, if we don’t interfere with our natural human processes), without any prompting whatsoever, many fellow group members said some version of the following, “Thank you for sharing; that was powerful!” But one comment offered by a particular member would cement the lesson for me: “You scared the hell out of me! Now I know what I have to do.”
Over the years, events of this magnitude weren’t necessarily a common occurrence, though I would see this type of emotional unfolding many more times, and without exception, similar results would follow. Since then, I always structure my treatment environment in a way that best allows for this opportunity to occur. My primary objective is creating the safest environment possible, so men can share the stories that ultimately led them to becoming angry and violent in the first place, should they find the courage to do so. For those who can muster the courage to be completely vulnerable, their problems with anger resolve. In these cases, there is no more need for “management” because primary emotions have been identified and expressed, leaving nothing for anger to feed on.
Years ago, I grew a sizeable practice based on this philosophy and approach; in part, because it was successful where other approaches weren’t (which, the probation departments and the courts I worked with also valued). Additionally, beyond some clinical success, this understanding allowed me to become even more adept at predicting who would likely re-offend and who wouldn’t. It is a simple formula, which continues to guide my practice today. And while it certainly applies to angry men, its implications are farther reaching (as it applies across genders). The principles are this:
- Resistance is Persistence:
- Resistance of primary emotional material leads to the persistence of anger and other psychological maladies.
- Feeling is Healing:
- The degree to which we stop repressing our painful emotional material, the healthier we will become.
Hopefully one day, our society as a whole can embrace this wisdom: I predict we will make an important and necessary leap in our psychological evolution if we do!
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 “FBI Releases Study on Active Shooter Incidents.” FBI. September 24, 2014. Accessed March 17, 2018. https://www.fbi.gov/news/stories/fbi-releases-study-on-active-shooter-incidents.
 “Violence Prevention.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. April 28, 2017. Accessed March 17, 2018. https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/nisvs/infographic.html.
 Tsirigotis, Konstantinos, Wojciech Gruszczynski, and Marta Tsirigotis. Medical Science Monitor : International Medical Journal of Experimental and Clinical Research. 2011. Accessed March 17, 2018. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3539603/.