One of the main reasons that we are seeing a crisis in men’s mental health is that men often struggle to express their genuine emotions. This happens for all sorts of reasons. Men may feel that showing their vulnerable side will make them appear weak in front of male peers, or perhaps unattractive in the eyes of a potential or current partner. The experience of mental health issues, then, can feel even more emasculating than normal feelings of sadness, worry, and self-doubt. The despair and intense sadness of depression or debilitating worry of anxiety can make a lot of men feel they’re failing as men.
In order to maintain their sense of masculinity, men will often ignore, deny, hide, and project their emotions, so as to avoid accepting and expressing them. However, men don’t bottle up every single emotion. When it comes to notions of traditional masculinity, displays of anger are seen as acceptable, as well as irritability and aggression, which often accompany anger.
Why Anger is the Only Acceptable Emotion for Men
A big part of maintaining a masculine identity – and thinking of yourself as a ‘real man’ – is being macho. This involves a certain conception of toughness and strength. Truly tough and strong men are seen as stoic in the face of any hardship that arises. Men have to push through the pain and hold back the tears. Feeling upset, hurt, vulnerable, fearful, inadequate, uncertain, and insecure is viewed as emasculating, something effeminate.
Anger, on the other hand, can be seen as consistent with a machismo identity that many men try to conform to. Anger can be very in your face, explosive, and threatening. For the same reason, men may feel that displays of aggression are acceptable because this aligns with masculine norms, such as violence and dominance. Anger and irritability often go hand in hand, too; so a man may be more likely to have a short-temper and be snappy when he is distressed, rather than be honest – both with himself and others – about what that experience of distress is really like. The psychotherapist Avrum Weiss highlights:
Women are socialized to direct their anger inwards (Dittman, 2003) and to believe that open expressions of anger are not feminine. Men are socialized to express their anger overtly and to use their anger to control their partners and their own emotional experience. Anger appeals to men because they can be angry and still remain well defended and not vulnerable. Being angry not only helps men to feel more in control of their own emotional experience, many men clearly use anger in an attempt to control their partner’s expression of feeling as well.
Emotional Pain Expressed as Anger
Controlling one’s emotions is extremely important for many men. But you can never make emotional pain disappear – you can only suppress it. When you suppress emotional pain, though, it will tend to find a way of manifesting itself. This is why men often express their hurt and vulnerability through anger, irritability, and aggression. These are the culturally sanctioned feelings that act as outlets for men’s emotions. For a lot of men, anger is the default filter for their emotional side. Jackson Katz, the author of The Macho Paradox, writes:
Countless men deal with their vulnerability by transferring vulnerable feelings to feelings of anger. The anger then serves to ‘prove’ that they are not, in fact, vulnerable, which would imply they are not man enough to take the pressure.
When going through difficult periods, be that a stressful week at work or a fully-fledged personal crisis, the panoply of emotions involved in these situations is repressed. This is why it can be so hard to understand a man’s emotional pain since we cannot always see it for what it is. If there is a man in your life who is prone to angry outbursts or who often says hurtful things in fits of anger, your knee-jerk reaction is probably not to show empathy or sympathy for the emotional pain that may be at the root of this intense anger. Instead, it is natural to immediately respond with scorn, fear, judgment, and disapproval.
Men who have ‘anger issues’, a lot of the time, are struggling with emotional pain that isn’t being recognised, by either themselves or others around them. And the result can be devastating. Prolonged periods of anger can easily push others away, putting a serious strain on relationships with family members, friends, co-workers, or a romantic partner. Indeed, when men live within a narrow band of emotions, it creates all sorts of issues. It stops men from truly connecting with themselves and those that they love and care for.
Rather than admit to themselves or a loved one that they’re not okay and feel afraid, men will deal with these feelings in a more macho way, and become angry at themselves, people around them, and the world at large. In the long-term, this habitual response will only cause more pain in a man’s life, as it fails to address the deeper issue at hand, which lets the pain fester and grow. Plus, being angry all the time makes it less likely that others will want to care and support you since it’s hard for people to understand what the anger stands for. It’s easy to interpret anger as a character flaw.
Scenarios and Explanations
Weiss notes various situations in which a man may show anger, when in fact, beneath that anger, there is fear or insecurity:
- Feeling angry that your wife or partner spends a lot of time talking to her friends. This could mask your fear that your partner doesn’t enjoy talking to you as much as her friends.
- Feeling angry when your partner comes late home from work or has to continue to work from home, checking work emails etc. Since a lot of men attach a high degree of importance to work, your anger in this situation may mask envy or fear about how you might be less successful than your partner.
- Feeling angry when you are criticised by your wife or partner, which may be a cover for your fears about not being able to please your partner and be the kind of man they need in their life.
- Feeling angry when your wife or partner prioritises the kids and doesn’t seem to dedicate the same amount of time to you. This may mask feelings of inadequacy or fears about how you don’t know how to have the kind of emotionally intimate relationship that your wife has with the kids.
There are, of course, a wide range of situations in which men will express anger when they are feeling more tender emotions. In terms of traditional notions of masculinity, if men find themselves in a scenario where they feel their masculine identity has been compromised, they will often convey this emasculation in the form of anger. This can happen when a man experiences:
- Losing in competitive games or sports
- Unemployment, job loss or job insecurity
- Low income
- The success of others
- Being single
- Male sexual problems, such as performance anxiety
- Lack of independence
- Romantic rejection
For any man, these situations can elicit feelings of low self-esteem, low confidence, lack of self-worth, shame, embarrassment, and guilt. Women may experience these feelings too, in similar situations, but they at least have a much easier time disclosing these feelings to others, whereas men are much more likely to bury these feelings and think, speak, and act in terms of anger instead.
How Men Get Trapped by Anger
The author Steven Stosny, who has written many books on relationships, describes the unique male experience of anger:
Most male anger comes from feeling like a failure as a protector, provider, and sexual-lover. These acute vulnerabilities can be stimulated by the mere unhappiness or displeasure of his wife, even if her distress or negative states have nothing to do with him. And he is likely to blame his sense of failure and the feelings of inadequacy it stimulates on her. Blame gives him status as a victim. Victimhood gives him a temporary sense of self-righteousness, along with a retaliation impulse, which, in turn, stimulates anger.
Stosny also elaborates on how men can actually get addicted to the anger that they feel. He adds:
The adrenalin rush of anger, like any other amphetamine-effect, always crashes into some level of depression, at least in the form of self-doubt and energy depletion. He then uses a low-grade resentment to militate out of depressed mood – to gain temporary confidence and energy. Resentment keeps him partially aroused most of the time and highly susceptible to angry outbursts. The excess adrenalin and cortisol in his bloodstream make it hard for him to sleep and more difficult to concentrate when awake. Often tired and distracted, he needs more anger for energy, focus, and motivation. He gets caught on a recurring roller-coaster of resentment-anger-depression-resentment-anger-depression. Chronic blame keeps him mired in victim-identity, which continually reignites the cycle. If he allows himself to realize that he may be a victimizer, he sinks lower, possibly into thoughts of suicide.
Once this pattern becomes habituated, the content – what makes him angry – is no longer important, as he will look for anything to give him the adrenalin shot he needs. He becomes a kind of anger-junkie, in search of blame to get his fix. He lives predominantly in two emotional states, either buzzing along with some form of low-grade anger or plodding ahead in mildly depressed mood. His life becomes a joyless drive to get things done.
On Dealing With Emotional Pain
So, now that we have elucidated why anger becomes such an issue for so many men, it’s also important to highlight some solutions. Even though traditional masculinity is still tightly wrapped up with anger, this doesn’t mean men are doomed to respond angrily to every difficult situation or experience. Here are some ways to deal with emotional hardship in a healthier and more productive way.
Biting the Bullet and Having Intimate Conversations
As a man, if you can begin to recognise the more tender emotions underlying your anger, then it is always worth discussing your true feelings in an intimate manner, especially with your partner, who may be the one who bears the brunt of most of your anger. Understandably, you may feel hesitant, resistant, and doubtful about telling your partner that you are fearful or struggling. However, if you can open up and show your vulnerabilities, the rewards are likely to far outweigh any awkwardness or embarrassment involved.
Use Feelings of Inadequacy as Motivation
Men can be especially susceptible to feelings of inadequacy in a relationship. They are also likely, however, to view these feelings as a punishment. It is much more helpful to instead use feelings of inadequacy as a form of motivation. Whenever we are learning something new, like when starting a new job, for example, it’s completely normal to feel inadequate at the beginning. But we can use this feeling to motivate us to improve ourselves. And the same should apply to relationships. Stosny states:
For a man to be successful in a modern marriage, he must develop the habit of acting on his sense of inadequacy as motivation to improve his relationship. He must clearly understand that his bad feelings are not punishment; they are motivation to be more protective and loving. By developing new habits of connecting-by-protecting, he will realize that he feels far more valuable and powerful when compassionate than when angry. He will realize that compassion for loved ones is power.
Practising Mindfulness and Loving-Kindness
Two popular forms of meditation practice are mindfulness and loving-kindness. And both of them can prove to be highly beneficial in dealing with anger. When you practice mindfulness meditation, the aim is to simply notice feelings and thoughts arise without judging them. If you’re struggling with anger, you may be able to watch how anger arises, without getting entangled in it and fuelling it. Mindfulness meditation can also help you to recognise the emotions that are beneath the anger. Ultimately, this habit of becoming more mindful of your emotional states will allow you to prevent angry outbursts in your day-to-day life, as well as connect more deeply with the full range of emotions you’re experiencing.
Mindfulness meditation is also best coupled with loving-kindness meditation. The latter involves harnessing feelings of warmth and kindness and directing them toward yourself (and then to others). In the practice, you usually repeat phrases of loving-kindness, directed at you or someone else (e.g. “May I be well”, “May I be free from suffering”, “May I be peaceful and at ease”, “May I be happy”). If you struggle with feelings of anger, the practice of loving-kindness can help you recognise the true nature and extent of your mental suffering, and allow you to show some kindness towards yourself. This is important, as many men may find it awkward or uncomfortable to mentally soothe themselves in this caring way. But really, you are just treating yourself as you would a friend or a loved one.
For men struggling with anger, know that you’re not a horrible person for feeling this way. Angry outbursts can disrupt relationships and cause others upset, but it’s not your fault that culture tells men anger is acceptable and vulnerability isn’t. So in order to prevent things from getting worse, try applying the above recommendations in your daily life. If you’re still struggling to cope with the anger, then there’s also no shame in seeking professional help, such as a trained therapist or counsellor.