At the Men’s Resource Center of West Michigan, we’re concerned with the physical health and mental well-being of our community, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. This is a fragile time for everyone. Long stretches of isolation, uncertainty, and feelings of helplessness and loss of control can lead to violent or abusive expressions of anger and frustration. Al Heystek is one of the therapists at the Men’s Resource Center. He provides online counseling and in-person therapy for men with anger management issues and individual group therapy for men in the domestic relationships program. Heystek sat down with Randy Flood, psychotherapist, and Director of the Center, for this segment of the Revealing Men podcast, where they talk about men’s relationship with anger and how men can learn to express anger in a healthier and more productive way.
Anger is Normal
Flood: Today we want to talk specifically about men and anger, learn about that, and understand men’s relationship with anger.
Heystek: Well, obviously everybody knows that there’s a tendency for all of us to get irritated, frustrated, pissed-off, however you want to call it. That that emotion is real, it’s normal, it’s a natural part of who we are.
Flood: And do you see one of the positive functions of anger is that it can alert us to problems or injustices and maybe move us into action.
Heystek: Absolutely! Absolutely! And that actually, what you just said, ends up being one of the things that we’re trying to help men to recover about this emotion which can have so much negative baggage with it. And so guys can come here and think that “oh gosh, this anger that I had, that I displayed to my kids or to my partner, it really scared them, it scared me, reminds me of my father” or something like that, and they go “gosh, this anger stuff is something that I need to stay away from. This is bad stuff.”
Flood: Right. So, they’re like, “help me get rid of this, Mr. Heystek, it’s causing all kinds of problems for me and damaging my life.”
Heystek: We really want to start right away reminding guys that “hey, this is part of how human beings and communities respond to something that isn’t right.” It’s like, “Hey, we’re not happy about this, City Hall,” or whatever it is. The community gets together or the person feels like there is something that’s awry, something that’s not fair, something that’s wrong in the workplace or similar. And anger is right there, saying, “o.k., this can marshal your energy to do something.”
And one of the things that we really want to try to emphasize with guys is, “o.k., let’s have your anger inform your response, not be your response.” Much of the time in our relationships, if we feel safe with a friend or with a partner, maybe we can just come out with it but, in a lot of places, it’s better to take a breath and “o.k., what am I going to do with this energy?” “How can I allow this anger to help me solve a problem or create a better situation?”
What We’re Taught About Men and Anger
Flood: I’m wondering if part of your education and work with men is helping them appreciate the way in which male socialization cultivates their relationship with feelings.
Heystek: That’s really a common conversation. Guys can get to the point where it’s pretty easy for them to see and understand that it’s easier to feel anger, safer to feel anger sometimes, than it is to feel hurt, or fear, or sadness, or shame. That vulnerable, emotional response is disempowering. It feels like the enemy. Just the other night in a group one of the guys said, “Well, I remember when my father said, ‘well, stop that whimpering. I’ll give you something to cry about.’” And it’s almost like that must be out of the playbook for a lot of our experience. … that’s kind of the message that these other feelings are not acceptable.
Flood: Right. If you’re a man. It’s like the only time it’s o.k. maybe to cry is if you’re really physically injured. Otherwise, if there’s nothing broken or bleeding, then the emotion you have is not legitimate, and so suck it up. And so, there’s this teaching to stuff those feelings and maybe even learn to transform them into the anger because anger creates power.
Heystek: Well, that’s really one of the very attractive things for men and one of the reasons why anger is such a vulnerable emotion for us. Because adrenaline is related to it. We’ve talked in group before about how — probably faster than mainlining heroin, as quickly as somebody might have an experience of a high from that — getting angry is like split-second, and you can transform hurt, or fear, or sadness, into a power feeling position. So that makes it challenging because you get this adrenaline cocktail that you experience. And [for] many men, boys growing up, … this can become such a habitual sort of pattern that they may not even be aware of what the trigger is.
Flood: But that can feel, for some men — if they’re buying into the more hypermasculine, more power-oriented, hierarchy-dominance model to acknowledge feeling those kinds of feelings — can feel like you’re displaying powerlessness or helplessness. That other person you’re then giving them your vulnerability and then they’ll take advantage of that and overpower you, control you, and hurt you. It’s kind of a dog-eat-dog world.
It’s not easy telling men or convincing men that’s a good way to go. And, sometimes it’s not. We’re not here to say that it’s always safe to be vulnerable because the reality is, it’s not. But in our most intimate relationships, with our intimate partners in particular, you really want to practice vulnerability and openness, right? That’s what we’re supposed to be doing.
The Connection between Anger and Violence
Heystek: I think the sort of the aggressive, machismo stereotype, I’m not sure that, that’s most men. … One of the things that we talk with guys about is that there’s really kind of a continuum of response. So, on one side we can really be, we can get angry and aggressive and maybe loud and pushy.
And, of course, the real dangerous thing about anger is that we don’t want it to lead to violence. That is really what is wrong with anger is when it leads to either emotional violence or physical violence. And when it gets associated with violence, then it’s kind of like “oh gosh.” And then, somebody starts to get fearful of my anger because they saw the violence connected to it.
Flood: Right. It’s like if I’ve experienced my anger as an effective tool to getting someone to comply or be subdued or listen or respond to what I want, then I can use it almost as a tool to, not necessarily I don’t have to pop off or aggress, but I can look like I’m getting angry and then that person is trained to respond to those signals and submit and modify their behavior because they don’t want to see it escalate. And so, it becomes this dance of anger.
Heystek: If we’ve grown up around this kind of fearfulness about anger because it’s been connected to some level of emotional abuse or some kind of violence then it becomes a little scarier to be in touch with that anger yourself growing up.
Flood: In my relationship with anger, like having grown up and seeing some men in my life and role models in my life hurt people with anger, and growing up more of a sensitive person, my problem with anger was kind of on the other side – was to suppress it and I didn’t want to own my anger because I was afraid that it was going to be dangerous like I saw.
So, my relationship with anger is becoming more acquainted with it and using it in that way you talked about more positively to empower myself for social justice or whatnot. …I just wanted to mention there might be some men who struggle with suppression of anger because of experiencing trauma as a child.
Heystek: Sure. Or, being bullied at school. Or, just that the way they saw frustration or anger dealt with may not have been sort of out there angry but just more stoic. Just more “we just don’t talk about those things,” just holding it in. And I think there’s probably a majority of guys, perhaps – I’m hunching – that have similar kinds of issues that you’re talking about. Where they may end up being on the under-assertive side or cautious about really telling somebody what they think. Sucking it up and being a nice guy and avoiding conflict. That is probably where a lot of men live.
It’s coming to a place where we can take that energy and really work at being respectfully assertive. To speak to how pissed off I am in a calm way. So, I suggest to guys, it’s like you can say to your partner or girlfriend, you can say [in a conversational tone] “hey, um, I am really angry about this. I mean, you don’t have to say it like “I’m really angry about this” like you’re sweet or something, but you don’t have to be yelling. I think we really just have to recognize with socialization is that most men have not got a lot of training around that.
Flood: It was helpful to talk with you today about our relationship with anger, normalizing it and then seeing the dangers of living too much in anger and it kind of running us and hurting others and then also a little bit about the suppression of anger and how that can lead to passivity and conflict avoidance. The work you do with men is very important work and I appreciate you coming today and talking to us a little bit about it.
More Information about Men and Anger
Listen to this segment on the Revealing Men podcast and hear Al Heystek describe how dealing with anger can be like dealing with a car that’s overheating. For more segments referencing men and their relationship with emotions, including anger, follow these links:
- Life Coaching for Men in Recovery: On the connection between fear and anger
- Performance Coaching: On the harnessing and use of emotions
- Men’s Psychotherapy Groups Promote Mental Wellness: On reclaiming and developing emotion