Raise your hand if you have snapped at someone and then regretted it.
No, seriously, this is not rhetorical. Go ahead, no one will think you’re weird; it’ll just look like you’re stretching one arm or adjusting your sleeve.
Now that most of you have ignored me and skipped the exercise, ask yourself why it was so important to you not to raise your hand. Am I annoying you with this entire thread? Maybe ask where that comes from, too.
Anger has its roots in a control mechanism. Instead of feeling whatever more vulnerable emotion we are supposed to experience, such as sadness, fear, shame, or guilt, we often unconsciously choose anger (or worse, contempt) to gain control. We still get the feeling of an emotion, but not the emotion we were supposed to feel. Rather than feel the disappointment or surprise of a situation, we use anger as a proxy emotion. It tells our brains that we felt something, which should be satisfying, but if it is the incorrect thing relative to the event that occurred, we are left unsatisfied. And then we get angry all over again. If you don’t have time to watch this crappy (but informative) 12-minute video then keep reading and I will explain.
Emotions serve a purpose: they tell us what is happening in our environment. Sadness tells us our expectations did not get met. Shame tells us we failed to meet someone else’s expectations. Fear tells us that something dangerous is present. Anger motivates. And so forth. We have 10 discrete emotions in our limbic system and they are universal, present among all human beings and across all time that humans have walked the earth.
Imagine getting cut off on the road. What do you feel? Your answer should be “scared” because a very clear threat to your health and well-being is present. But what do most of us do? We get pissed. We fly into “road rage.” Why?
Society has told us that anger is easier and more effective than being vulnerable. And guys have it worse than ladies because our vulnerability is viewed as particularly weak (which it is, but more on that later). And then we are told that weak equals bad, which is not true (more on that, too, later). So if we encounter a situation where we are let down/ashamed/scared, rather than risk being seen as weak, we replace it with what passes for strength. But real strength is tolerating the discomfort. Real strength is in being vulnerable and moving through the distress. Anger is completely appropriate when it serves a larger purpose, such as motivating to make change. However, no change can be made on the highway by becoming angry and dropping f-bombs and shooting the rod through your windshield at the other driver. Or so I have been told…
Anger can be useful but it has to be analyzed and used correctly. Quarterback Tom Brady is said to have been angry long after his multiple Super Bowl victories simply because he was drafted in the sixth round several years prior. He channels his anger into his workouts and work ethic to become great. Some politicians are so angry at the system, they use it to stay motivated to make legal changes.
If you struggle with anger, ask yourself what purpose it serves you. And please do not rationalize it by saying that it somehow “motivates your kids to take out the trash.” Chances are good that if you state that, you are missing the point and, in turn, teaching your children to be angry too. Instead, consider what really lies beneath the surface of that anger. Are you disappointed? Ashamed? Scared? Chances are also strong that you learned anger by watching someone else throughout childhood while others learned to be okay with fear, sadness, shame, and guilt.
Anger is a choice. If you choose anger, you had better have a good reason, otherwise you are likely to burn a lot of energy for nothing. Think about what you are communicating and how anger works – or does not work – for you and your family. That aforementioned quarterback’s anger originally stems from disappointment in being drafted very late. Sadness is a very different feeling than anger, but he chooses anger to propel him to success. The politician may be afraid about a loss of freedom so she instead chooses anger to institute laws that secure those freedoms. Do you have a reason why you choose your anger?
Teach your children their emotions. Model for them that anger can be useful and appropriate. But no matter what, let them know that it is always a choice. Do that through being mindfully aware of your own choices to be angry and, hopefully more often, show them how to tolerate the vulnerable emotions so that they do not choose inappropriate anger. That is real control. That is fatherhood.
For more on emotional functioning, check out zephyrwellness.org or drchristianconte.com.