Many boys and men in our culture today are angry. They are angry for a variety of reasons; some justifiable and some not so good. For instance boys raised without the benefit of a father to teach them how a man acts, thinks, solves problems, and relates to the world around him are at a distinct disadvantage in life and thus are understandably angry. Other males are angry for reasons more related to how they internalize the world around them—lack of hope, childhood wounds, and a culture that seemingly tells them they are unnecessary or at least need to change to become some things that they were never meant to be.
Males generally are not very adept at understanding their emotions nor very comfortable dealing with them. Emotions are powerful and often uncontrollable. That’s why many males keep such a tight lid on their emotions–once released they are difficult to predict or control and often result in a situation ending in vulnerability. The one emotion however that they are relatively comfortable with is that of anger. Anger for many men is an old friend; one they call upon in a variety of circumstances. Like all powerful emotions it can be used destructively or for good. For instance anger can be terribly destructive in relationships. All we need do is look at the devastation caused to women and children through a man’s uncontrolled wrath and anger. Anger can lead to emotional, psychological, and even physical abuse.
On the other hand anger can be channeled into productive pathways. Anger can be used to motivate a man to achieve more than he might otherwise be able to accomplish. It can be used as a mechanism to encourage perseverance under duress or in grueling circumstances. Many a boy accomplished some difficult task all because they got angry when someone told them they couldn’t. When teased many males use that anger to motivate themselves to “prove” their offenders wrong. One method in coaching sports is to get young men angry in order to motivate them to perform beyond their self-imposed limitations. In fact, many men propel themselves with anger and grit to succeed in life because a father-figure constantly told them they wouldn’t amount to anything. Warriors often used anger towards their enemies as motivation to succeed in battle or even a school yard fight.
Anger produces a physiological arousal in males. It creates a state of readiness and heightened awareness. It creates energy that can be directed outward in the form of protection or even as a weapon. Anger causes a fight or flight response designed to protect us. It is frequently a powerful tool for boys and men to use to cover actual or perceived inadequacies. Many young and even older males react with anger when they become overly frustrated or are hurt emotionally.
The surge of adrenaline and associated arousal can be addicting to some males. Young males need to be taught how to deal with and control their anger. In order to do that, they must learn to own their anger and identify the source of that anger. Then they can learn to determine how to choose to respond to their anger.
Regardless of how it is used anger is the emotion most familiar to males. Oftentimes anger in males is a secondary emotion used to cover underlying emotions such as fear, hurt, or frustration. Anger is used by males to cover or mask other emotions. For instance, certain emotions such as fear, anxiety, vulnerability, or distress often produce a feeling of humiliation in males. Humiliation is considered a weakness by males. Remember, for most males to show weakness is to be vulnerable and open to criticism. To be vulnerable is an invitation to be attacked. But anger is a defense against attack and may even be a weapon to attack others. Very angry men and boys are seldom messed with, even by bullies.
Rather than feel humiliated by these “unmanly” emotions, many males instinctively and automatically use anger to cover those feelings. Even pain (physical or psychological) can be covered by anger. Notice how most males react when they hit their thumb with a hammer. They’d get mad than cry. Most men also get angry rather than depressed or hysterical when faced with an emotional crisis in a relationship. Again, this is a protective mechanism for their fragile egos; egos that are often covering secretly ingrained feelings of inadequacy and incompetence.
Sometimes anger is even used consciously. I was raised in an alcoholic and abusive home. I can distinctly remember at about the age of 12 when I first discovered that if I just got angry I didn’t have to feel that humiliating emotion of being afraid. In typical naive boyhood fashion I told myself, “This is great. I’ll never be scared again for the rest of my life!” However, this was foolish as I just spend a significant portion of my adult life being angry. Angry because I was really afraid because I had never had a positive male role model show me how a man lives his life and faces his problems in a healthy manner.
Young men who are not taught (generally by positive male role models) how a man acts, what his roles in life are and how to fulfill them adequately and competently are very often angry. They are angry at life and at the world. They take this anger out on others, hoping to hurt them before they themselves are hurt; even if that hurt is just humiliation from their own ineptness. When that happens men have a difficult time being the kind of loving, caring fathers and hubands that they want to be.
One solution? Let’s provide boys (and men) with healthy male role models to teach them how a male processes his emotions. We’ll explore that topic next week.
Excerpted from That’s My Teenage Son, by Rick Johnson, Revell Publishing.