We all get angry at times. When we feel we’re threatened we react with anger. But we know people who get overly angry or their anger causes problems with their relationships at home or at work. I was one of those people.
I wrote two books about how it impacted me and how I learned to help myself and my clients: The Irritable Male Syndrome: Understanding and Managing the 4 Key Causes of Depression and Aggression and Mr. Mean: Saving Your Relationship from The Irritable Male Syndrome.
When I did research for The Irritable Male Syndrome I developed a quiz to help people better understand their anger and whether it was causing a problem in their lives. Thus far more than 30,000 people have taken the quiz. Men take it to learn about themselves. Women take it to better understand and help the man in their lives.
One of the things I learned in grappling with my own anger and those of my clients was how anger in men was often a sign of depression or bipolar disorder. My father suffered from both of these disorders. I also have suffered from both depression and bipolar disorder. When I was irritable and manic or frustrated and depressed, I wasn’t easy to live with. The thing we want and need the most is love and understanding, but our emotions often illicit sympathy and our partner often withdraws in fear or reacts back with anger.
My wife used to tell me that I would get “that beady-eyed look” when I was angry. She said it would chill her to the core. Often the more she withdrew the more angry I would become and, of course, the more she would withdraw, a vicious cycle that would just make the problem worse. Here some tips I’ve found helpful:
1. Understand that an irritable and angry man is often hungry for love.
Andrew Solomon wrote a very personal and comprehensive look at depression and describes the relationship between depression and love. In The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, he says, “Depression is the flaw in love. To be creatures who love, we must be creatures who can despair at what we lose, and depression is the mechanism of that despair.”
When I was angry it was often because I was feeling desperately lovely and cut off from others. I recognized that my anger was pushing away the very people I needed to love me, but I often couldn’t reverse the negative cycle of anger, withdrawal, and more anger.
2. Recognize that you are not to blame for your partner’s anger.
When a man gets aggressive and angry, it often appears to him like someone must be to blame for his unhappiness. He often directs his anger at others and you may feel like the target. Sometimes you can start to feel like you are the problem and you come to believe that you really are bad.
Don’t let yourself believe it. You are not to blame for his anger and you aren’t really the target. Laura Huxley wrote a wonderful book, You Are Not the Target: Recipes for Living and Loving. Huxley says, “At one time or another the more fortunate among us make three startling discoveries.
Discovery number one: Each one of us has, in varying degree, the power to make himself and others feel better or worse.
Discovery number two: Making others feel better is much more rewarding than making them feel worse.
Discovery number three: Making others feel better generally makes us feel better.”
Helping yourself feel better and helping an angry man can be a gift to you both.
3. Be aware that under his anger is hurt.
Most angry men feel deeply wounded. It can help you listen to his anger with love and understanding if you are aware that the angry man is often covering his hurt with anger. Once he’s cooled down a bit. Ask him to tell you more about the hurt and pain he’s experiencing. That may trigger more anger, but most often it will help him get in touch with his sadness. Once he can share his pain, he is well on his way to healing.
4. Be willing to see the fear under the hurt.
One of the most difficult things for me to accept was that I was feeling a great deal of fear. I was afraid of many things: that I wouldn’t be successful as a man, that I’d let myself and my family down, and that I was causing damage to my relationship and hurting those I loved the most. I was deeply afraid of my own feelings and that my behavior and emotions would drive my wife away. Being able to recognize my own fears and eventually talk about them was tremendously freeing.
5. Once fear is expressed, we recognize that we carry a great deal of guilt.
Most of us feel guilty for what we do or fail to do. I felt guilty that I wasn’t being a better husband and father. I felt guilty that I couldn’t seem to control my emotions and felt like a stick of dynamite that always had a short fuse. The angrier I would get, the guiltier I would become. I hid the guilt with more anger. Allowing myself to recognize my guilt enabled me to deal with the most difficult emotion, shame.
6. Shame is an emotion most men feel, but are ashamed to show.
Where guilt is the feeling of having done something wrong, shame is the experience of being bad at the core of our being. We are ashamed of who we are and we are ashamed of feeling ashamed. James Gilligan, M.D. has studied the causes of aggression and violence for more than thirty years. In his book, Violence: Our Deadly Epidemic and Its Causes, he says, “I have yet to see a serious act of violence that was not provoked by the experience of feeling shamed and humiliated, disrespected and ridiculed.”
Helping a man accept his feelings of shame may take a long time. I know it took me many years, but when I could talk about the times in my life I felt ashamed and the people and situations that triggered shame, it was the final step in being able to love myself.
7. Accepting all our feelings including anger, hurt, fear, guilt, and shame allow us to heal old wounds and find the love we so desperately need.
Once we recognize that all our feelings are OK, that there aren’t really “good” feelings or “bad” feelings, it’s easier to accept our own feelings as well as the feelings of those we love. Rather than turning away from a man’s anger, we can turn towards him and help him move through all the feelings on the way to love.
It’s good to remember the old adage: When you’re going through hell, it’s best not to stop. All feelings will take us to love if we keep on going.
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