The comedian Kumail Nanjiani was on Ellen recently talking about the plot of his latest movie “Stuber.” In discussing the dynamic between the two main characters of the movie (who have opposing views of the value of anger) he said something which resonated.
The only emotion that men feel comfortable expressing, in general, is anger. We’ve been told that’s the only manly emotion there is. Sadness isn’t manly, fear isn’t considered manly, even joy can be turned into anger… And I felt for many many years I wasn’t in touch with those emotions. I only felt comfortable showing anger.
I don’t think he is alone in those sentiments.
Being a man generally means anger is never far out of reach. We keep it holstered on our belt, ready to reach for it at a moment’s notice. I don’t consider myself an angry person, but I do know how easy it can be to lose my cool, to default to anger.
I’ve started to wonder recently why that is. How did anger become our default method of emotional expression? How did it beat out disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, surprise and any number of others as our go-to?
I think the deeper truth is fear; fear of how we might feel or appear. And that fear is so powerful. It can control us, guide us, and make us act on autopilot in ways far different than who we are at our core.
So often when I witness somebody immediately escalate to anger at something seemingly small, I find myself wondering why. Why does this impact you so much? What do you feel like this says about you? What do you think the world might think about you if you didn’t react in anger?
I imagine it is often something deep-seated, something baked into the cake at an early age that was never really dealt with. The early wounds of our life either heal, get covered in scar tissue, or fester, becoming more and more profound, deepening and widening until we see them not as wounds or hurts, but fundamental to who we are. As much a part of us as the color of our eyes or the sound of our voice.
We get angry, not necessarily because we want to, but because we have not pursued any other way. The more intense the stimulus, or even just our perception of it, the more intense the response will be. And that is scary.
I don’t look at intensely angry people as being fundamentally built that way. When I see people with so much anger they can barely breathe, faces red and nostrils flaring, I see somebody who is deeply hurt, or insecure and struggling to feel seen and heard. And without the ability to rectify those issues for one’s self, anger is the easiest response.
A catastrophic response at that. One that escalates conversations beyond resolution. One that results in violent actions of horrible finality. Anger quickly becomes a destination from which there are few return options. Even the language we use to describe what must happen next is frightening: Diffuse. We must diffuse anger. The same way we will try to diffuse a bomb as if that were an easy thing to do. Trying to figure out which wire to cut so as not to trigger the explosion.
Even when we are aware it can be hard to stop ourselves in our tracks. I have felt it in myself. Getting angry, expressing that anger verbally, while at the same moment, mentally questioning why I am so angry, to begin with.
For example, my fiance took me to a beautiful hotel for my birthday recently. It was an incredible gift of which I was very grateful. And yet, while getting set up at the pool for an afternoon of relaxation, I struggled to get one of the oversized umbrellas to open up while she looked on. Instead of letting the umbrella close, pausing, and asking for her help, I snapped at her.
Of course, there was no reason for it.
But even in that moment of anger, I understood immediately I wasn’t really mad at her. I was frustrated the umbrella was hard to open. I was embarrassed because I thought the other people at the pool were looking at me like an idiot. My anger was all about me. Being in a relationship, unfortunately, means you are usually close enough to be the unwitting recipient of irrational anger.
It was a small moment, but our lives are filled with those small moments where instead of looking inward, we project outward. Most things probably aren’t worth getting angry about. But that doesn’t necessarily mean we don’t want to feel that anger. We become ingrained in our ways, tracing a familiar path, and we become addicted to those feelings. Whereas surprise or happiness might be more productive emotions, we shut off those valves and take the familiar pulse escalation.
We train ourselves to not contextualize. We see every act of ignorance, stupidity, or error as a personal transgression. We prohibit ourselves from seeing any individual moment as a part of the fabric of a whole. We mortgage our future patience by paying for our anger now, in cash.
It can be hard to ask somebody who is so used to being angry if it is really worth it because, to them, it probably does seem worth it. I am just beginning to pay more attention to anger. I don’t believe I will be able to solve anybody else’s problems, but I can work on myself. And I can acknowledge the anger in others. While I might not be able to diffuse, I can inquire, I can attempt to understand their thinking in the moment.
And if we can maintain control of ourselves in the moment, we will be better off every moment going forward.
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