In Toastmasters you traditionally do your first ten speeches from the Competent Communicator manual. Each one has a focus – get to the point, organization, body movement, vocal variety, etc.
The tenth one is intended to inspire. And, motivated by the violence and racism that is currently choking out my ability to feel pride in the United States, I decided to talk about anger. I think the speech has some good parts, but it needs a lot of work. Unfortunately, the speech is due soon (the day before this will be posted) and so I need to work on memorizing it and quit revising it.
Let’s Talk About Anger
I can remember vividly a time in college when a then-girlfriend and I were talking about our upcoming summers. She felt out how I would feel if she smoked pot occasionally. I was immediately angry, which confused her and also myself. Later, I realized I wasn’t angry at all, I was scared of the idea of her smoking pot, and then cheating on me. That’s a little sad, but it’s the truth. I knew she was going to be seeing her ex, who was not so bright but very good looking, and I thought with inhibitions loosened up with drugs, she might make a decision I wasn’t too keen on.
With age, and good friends, and now a wife who is great at articulating her thoughts and feelings, I think I have gotten much better at trying to identify and then express what is going on inside me. I am still inclined to feel anger first, before anything more complex, but I am aware enough to know that it’s usually the hard outer layer, and if I relax and take a step back, I’ll usually find out more.
According to Psychology Today, this is normal. Men have few emotions that are considered socially acceptable – anger, pride, jealousy. If you see a man experiencing or expressing one of these things, that is considered OK.
Picture a strong American male. Can you name a movie star or character that comes to mind as an example?
When I think of that kind of person I think people who represent the greatest generation: strong, silent, hard-working, unlikely to complain, stoic, resilient. Anecdotally, my parents, many of my friends, my wife and I represent the idea of a relationship where the female is more likely to talk about emotions, or show emotions, and the male is reticent about those things.
But that doesn’t mean being emotionally aware isn’t something to strive for. Ask yourself, if I feel angry, or any sort of emotion, is it beneficial for me to present a flat countenance, bottle it up, or would it be good talk about it, with others or in my head? I’m here to tell you, it’s better to talk about it.
Today I’d like to talk about the view of why anger is seen as so ok for men in America, why it’s important to think or talk about it, and how you can start to go down that path.
I – Why is Anger Normal for Men?
There have been a number of times that I’ve been around family, with my nieces and nephews running around, where a spill or something upsetting happens, and I pick up a niece and saying ‘awwww, what’s wrong?’ vs saying to a nephew, ‘shake it off, buddy.’
According to studies, children become “gender aware” at a very young age (typically between three and five), and they begin to develop gender stereotypes almost immediately after. These concepts become rigidly defined between 5 and 7, and begin to have lasting impact on identity and self-esteem by adolescence.
I don’t have any kids, yet, but I think from being around others that there are definite ‘boy’ behaviors and ‘girl’ behaviors that aren’t taught, they are innate. But, and you’ll excuse this analogy I hope, think about people like computers. We have our hardware, which is our set in stone genetic makeup, and then we have our software, which is the culmination of our life experiences. Your hardware may have you naturally inclined for one field of work, but you can overcome that and do other things by working, training and teaching yourself. You may have to work harder then a colleague who seems to be wired for something, but you can still succeed.
There is hardware in each of us, for example more testosterone in men, that help make sense of men being tough and angry. But then there’s the software. Go into a toy store and tell me, honestly, that it’s not pointing you in a direction of ‘normal.’ The aisles are color coded like a classic nursery. This is the boy aisle, this is the girl aisle. And inside the boy aisle are action, violence, outdoors, and science oriented toys. Inside the girl aisle are beauty, care-taking, and home-making oriented toys.
Is it a surprise to carry these ideas forward, and think of guys attempting to prove themselves better than their male counterparts by being stronger, less likely to show emotion, more physically noticeable? Anger is easy, and in the United States it is considered more socially acceptable for men to show anger than women, and it can even be seen as a strength to show that anger.
II – Why It’s Important to Talk About Anger
The next question is why is it worthwhile to talk about it? After all, there are a number of ways you can work off anger without confronting it. You could work out, you could just sit and stew, you could go to a rally with some friends and some tiki torches, but I don’t recommend these approaches.
There are three reasons to talk with someone else, or at least have a conversation with yourself.
One, bottling up anger can lead to that anger showing up in other ways. One study conducted by psychologists from the Harvard School of Public Health and the University of Rochester found that suppressing emotions may increase the risk of dying from heart disease and certain forms of cancer. The body is a wonderful and crazy thing – a cause can show up as many different effects which make finding the cause confusing and difficult.
Two, if you are bottling things up, you may struggle to connect with others. Think about the last time you were overwhelmed by some emotion – it could be grief, or joy, if someone came to you and wanted to have a conversation about something personal, or if you had to attempt to process complex information, it’s not easy. You have to try harder to focus on what that person is saying, because you’re constantly batting away any rogue thoughts like you’re playing whack-a-mole with your emotions. Stifling something you are feeling means you are constantly multi-tasking until you come to terms with that thing, or you have sufficiently buried it to face it in the form of a large bowl of ice cream a few days later.
Three, talking about your anger lets you know yourself better. I mentioned, at the start of my speech, that example of a college girlfriend. After thinking about it, I realized that the anger was borne out of fear. That’s interesting, and good to know! If you think, ‘why am I angry?’ and your answer is, ‘I don’t know – I’m just angry about this.’ That’s boring, and an incomplete answer, you’re smarter than that.
If you find yourself angry, and you don’t know how you got to that level of anger, or you don’t know WHY you’re angry, you’ve got a problem on your hands, and that’s fun.
Exploring anger, or any emotion, is a great way to attempt to discover some new pieces to the puzzle that is yourself. Maybe if you figure out what sparked an unexpected bout of anger, you’ll finally be able to have a new piece of the puzzle come into focus.
III – Ask Why/Do Something About It
Now, you’ve got all this knowledge, what do we do with it?
Be your own three year old psychologist and ask the question ‘why’ an insufferable amount. If it’s someone else who is showing anger, listen and help them ask why.
Going back to technical things again, here’s an interview question I love. ‘Explain the internet to your grandmother.’ It’s a question that assumes, rightly or wrongly, that your grandma doesn’t already understand the internet, but the intent is great. You have to take something technically complex, and then explain it simply. You want to work mostly with people who are able to take complex things and make them simple. Likewise, wouldn’t you prefer your relationships, whether that’s with a family member, spouse, or friend, to be with people who are able to explain themselves better than with frustrated noises and exclamations of ‘you wouldn’t understand!’’
If someone struggles to explain, try to gently help them. Don’t push an answer, but give them gentle nudges in different directions. ‘Do you think you might be extra frustrated about that because work has been more stressful?’
There are also conversation starters everywhere. For example, commercials. Those things are chalk full of lazy, cliche and stereotype oriented views because they express an idea quickly. The next time you see an ad featuring a man, or a woman, or a family situation, look at the ad and see how many cliche things there are, and then ask the people you’re with if that makes sense, or if they have counter examples they like.
What do I mean by counter examples? My dad was in the Army for 26 ½ years, he was a Ranger, he’s a tough and stoic fella all around … and he likes to garden and bake. You know how comforting that was for me, to see my dad doing non-stereotypical things? It felt like it gave permission for me to break the mold in ways, as well.
I know this talk has a very limited scope in theory – men talking more about their anger, but I think the concepts I presented here are applicable to everyone.
It’s worthwhile to talk about your anger because it’s good for your health, it’s good for your relationships, and it’s good for understanding yourself, which, coincidentally, is also good for relationships.
If you’re thinking, ‘that’s a nice theory, but … eh’ or maybe you’ll think about this later today and decide it’s difficult to try and have explore feelings that you or someone else is feeling. Think about this.
If your work said, ‘what you’re doing is good, but we need you to adapt and do x, but also incorporate a little bit of y.’ I DOUBT you would say, ‘hey, I am what I am, I can’t change.’ No. You’d try, you’d look up things online, you’d take a class, you’d find someone who is already good at that new thing and learn from them.
If you’re willing to put in an extra effort for your job, you need to take a step back and realize it’s also worth putting in a little extra effort for yourself, your own ability to process and deal with anger, or any intense emotion. It could improve not only relationships in your life, but also yourself.