There are a lot of angry men in the world and there are many who would like to help these men, but don’t want to have the anger turned on them. There is a joke by comedian Elayne Boosler, that has more than a grain of truth:
“When women are depressed, they eat or go shopping. Men invade another country. It's a whole different way of thinking.”
I’ve been helping men, and the families who love, for more than 40 years. I’ve found there are seven simple steps you can follow if you want to help an angry man and keep yourself safe while doing so. Although these steps are simple, they aren’t always easy. They require practice. If you are living with an angry man, you’ll have opportunities for a lot of practice.
1. Understand that a man’s anger triggers fear.
Whether anger is mild, “I’ve had a bad day. My damn boss drives me crazy;” or over the top with rage, “I’m going to kill that SOB,” men’s anger is scary. This is particularly true for women who are generally smaller and more at risk of physical violence. If he’s angry, first tune into your own level of fear. Breathe deeply and tune in with all your senses. Assess the danger.
2. If you are at risk of being hurt, get away fast.
For millions of years of evolutionary history our ancestors had to quickly assess danger and escape if necessary. We are descended from people who did that successfully. Those who didn’t, were killed and didn’t pass on their genes to us. Trust your intuition. Trust your gut feeling. If you are in danger, get out fast. Don’t think about it. Get yourself into a safe place, then figure it out.
3. Most angry men aren’t violent. They need understanding and love.
Anger is a natural feeling when something important to us is threatened. When we yell at a driver on the freeway, we are feeling that the person is “cutting us off.” We may feel we are in danger or we may feel our “space is being violated.” When we yell at our partner, we often feel that our self-esteem is being threatened. It isn’t always easy to feel love and compassion for an angry man, but that’s what he needs.
4. Use this trick from the world’s greatest animal trainers.
Yes, men are animals. Not in the derogatory way that some people assume, but in the sense that all males are male mammals (and of course all women are female mammals). When animal trainers want to get the lion, tiger, whale, porpoise, etc. to do what they want, they reward the positive and ignore the negative.
Here’s an example of what not to do and what to do. Imagine you are having a quiet breakfast and your husband comes running down the stairs yelling angrily, “Where is my green tie? I’m late for the meeting.” Most times the partner will react from fear, jump up, and frantically run around looking for his tie. Or the partner may get mad in response. “Why are you yelling at me? I didn’t take your damn tie.” Sound familiar?
Here’s what we can learn from the world’s greatest animal trainers. Get very quiet inside. Breathe, relax, do nothing. Don’t try and fix the problem. Don’t try and fight the problem. When you don’t react, the man will generally calm down. As he calms, he’ll either find his die on his own or ask for your help. Either way things will work when you simply ignore the anger and reward him when he connects in a calmer manner.
5. Men are sensitive to shame in a similar way that women are sensitive to fear.
For our ancestral female relatives living in Africa 50,000 years ago, her greatest risk was from being attacked by a wild animal or a man of a different tribe. Even today women are sensitive to fear. Men often don’t recognize that their loud voices and even their hostile looks can chill a woman to the bone. For ancestral men, shame was the feeling that was most wounding. If we were put down, ridiculed, or disrespected we suffered a loss of status in our group. This is such a hurtful feeling that most violence among men today results from being “disrespected.”
Women are often not aware of how words and looks can wound men and contribute to his feelings of shame. If you want to help an angry men, look for ways he feels disrespected at home or at work. Note the words and non-verbal communications. Eliminate the shame you unwittingly pass on and you’ll eliminate a lot of male anger.
6. Irritable and angry men are often depressed.
When was doing research for the book, The Irritable Male Syndrome: Understanding and Managing the 4 Key Causes of Depression and Aggression, I came to realize that men and women express depression differently. Men often act out their unhappiness in angry and aggressive ways. Women often turn their unhappiness inwards. Helping men recognize that their anger is often an expression of depression can be more helpful than trying to get them to stop being angry.
7. Anger often covers deeper feelings.
The training most guys grow up with limits the feelings that are OK to express. Often softer, gentler feelings are viewed as being unmanly. For many men anger is the only feeling that they felt was “manly enough” to express. I’ve found that underneath the anger are deeper levels of feeling including hurt, fear, guilt, shame, love.
Think of anger as the tip of the iceberg. If you don’t run away from his anger, or fight back, you can help him learn to express these deeper feelings of hurt, fear, guilt, shame, and love. I’ve found that all these feelings, if recognized and accepted, help move us to deeper feelings of connection and joy.