In Part #1 of this two part series, I discussed what a myth was and looked at the first of 5 anger myths.
In this post, I discuss anger myths 2, 3, 4, and 5.
Myth #2: My anger controls me.
Myth #2 also appears in many forms.
- My anger made me do it (whatever action “it” refers to).
- I had no choice (to do what I did). I was so angry.
The implication of the myth is that you are a robot without free will when it comes to the emotion of anger.
This myth persists in part because of the nature of anger and all emotions.
Emotions have existed since man, as a species, lived in caves or on the Savannah. Emotions evolved to help us survive as a species. Humans survived by constantly scanning their surroundings for threats that would kill them. When a threat was perceived (consciously or subconsciously), the brain automatically engaged a fight or flight reaction to protect the individual from the threat. This process, initiated through the Amygdala and the Reticular Activating System in the brain, was (and continues to be) fast and automatic as it should be if a genuine threat exists.
The emotion that was experienced always matched the nature of the threat and prepared the person for appropriate action.
Today, because most of the threats we face are psychological in nature and not survival based, the match between the emotion and the reaction is less reliable.
The process, however, has not changed since we lived in caves.
Because of the automatic emotional reaction, it is easy to see why some people may believe the emotion forces them to act.
As humans continued to evolve and develop a bigger, more complicated brain, the cerebral cortex, or thinking part of the brain, allowed us to think about, or evaluate, what we were experiencing and gave us access to more choices.
Today, the emotional reaction still exists but we now have the opportunity to evaluate the nature of the threat and choose how we want to respond.
So, while the myth persists, the truth is that our brains have evolved and given us the opportunity to evaluate our emotional reaction before we act-out and, therefore, to choose how we want to respond. This is the more “modern” part of the anger mastery cycle.
The downside of the myth is that those who believe it feel helpless to deal with their anger and are left with two choices:
- never get angry
- always act-out on their anger
Choice #1 is nearly impossible and choice #2 could result in their getting in trouble or to others avoiding them.
In addition, if anger is perceived as the causative element, these individuals will perceive no need to get help.
Myth #3: Someone else can make you angry.
This myth is similar to Myth #2.
The difference is that while myth #2 blames the anger and implies a sense of helplessness, this myth avoids responsibility for inappropriate anger by blaming the “victim” of one’s anger for causing the acting-out.
Aggressive men who abuse others use this myth as an justification for their behavior.
The myth persists because it offers those who act out inappropriately an excuse for their inappropriate actions, a way to avoid taking responsibility for their behavior, and a way to blame someone else for what they have chosen to do.
In other words, the angry individual..
- Claims that they did not (mess up) because they are a bad or hurtful guy (which they most likely are) but because their anger gave them no choice and
- Avoids personal responsibility for their actions by blaming someone else for the inappropriate behavior
As an aside, people who get drunk and act-out attempt to blame the alcohol for their actions.
“If I wasn’t drunk, I would not have…”
While this statement may be true, it ignores the fact that the person chose to get drunk and is, therefore, completely responsible for their actions.
Similarly, with anger.
Yes, it may be true that if a (wife, girlfriend) had not done what they did, the abuser probably would not have gotten angry, and if they were not angry, they probably would not have acted-out. However, this sequence ignores the fact that the individual is not a robot and always has a choice regarding the actions they take.
Anger is never the cause of inappropriate behavior.
Myth #4: Anger is always a secondary emotion
Many writers choose to label anger as a secondary emotion.
This assertion is wrong, it ignores some basic research findings and it is disempowering because it denies the primary function of anger as a primitive threat detector. In addition, it denigrates the energy anger provides as a motivator of effective corrective action.
A secondary emotion is one that is used as a substitute for another feeling.
Men tend to use anger as a secondary emotion to substitute for feelings of anxiety, hurt or vulnerability.
This happens because anger is an empowering emotion which elicits a sense of power, ability to go on the attack, and a sense of strength. Anger evolved to do exactly this.
Feelings like anxiety, sadness, and vulnerability, however, leave men feeling weak and inadequate. Again, this is what these feelings are supposed to do.
So, when faced with feeling weak or inadequate, all of which “hurt”, a man may choose to express anger.
This is secondary anger and it is always dishonest.
The truth is that men need to learn to master all their feelings and the information their feelings provide if they want to be more interpersonally effective.
Myth #5: Women should not get angry.
This myth states that women should not get angry because:
- it isn’t feminine or
- the consequences aren’t worth it
This myth persists because the the truth is that for some women, expressing anger (especially in a professional office setting) can lead to unwanted consequences.
Several years ago, I went onto a professional women’s forum on LinkedIn. I identified myself as a man and respectfully asked for feedback from these women regarding what happened when they showed appropriate anger in a professional setting. I received over 2000 responses to my query. The message clearly was that when women showed anger, they were demeaned, marginalized and negatively labelled. It seems that their male colleagues were not equipped to deal with these women and their issues in a professional and validating manner.
As a side note, I recently went to the same network on LinkedIn with another question, clearly identified myself as a male and was “informed” that I was not welcome on the network. How times have changed!
The bottom line is that this myth implies that a woman is not entitled to be angry and to use her anger as a tool to bring about change in her environment. This implication is both incorrect and insidiously disempowering.
The truth is that while she may have to adjust how she expresses her anger, she needs to validate her feelings and choose a more indirect strategic approach to using the energy of her anger to facilitate change.
My book Beyond Anger Management: Master Your Anger as a Strategic Tool has a whole chapter devoted to Professional Women.
In these two posts, I introduced you to five widely held myths about anger. My goal was to show you these myths, make you aware of the various ways these myths present themselves, help you understand why the myths persist, and empower you to overcome these myths and strategically express your anger rather than be hobbled and let your anger be taken away from you by half-truths, misinformation, and ingrained misunderstandings.
I welcome your comments.