It’s Mental Health Awareness Month, so I wanted to dive into a common emotion: anger. Honestly, it’s something I’ve always struggled with, especially because it’s so hard to face and talk about. Some of us bottle it up until it explodes. Some of us turn anger inward, which can make us hate ourselves when we shouldn’t. And we’ve all met one or two guys who are just boiling over, constantly, with rage. So that’s why we reached out to Jesse Hernandez, M.S. LPC, a therapist in San Antonio, Texas, to help us figure out just why the hell it can be so hard to manage our anger—and why getting in touch with it is well worth the work. —Chris
frens(he): Let’s talk about anger. Is it always a problem?
JESSE HERNANDEZ: No, I don’t think that it is inherently wrong. But when it’s misinterpreted as “I can do what I want when I’m angry,” that’s when it gets a little messy.
Anger comes in whenever we want something that we’re not getting. What I teach my clients is that anger is a message that says, “There’s something you want that you’re not getting right now, so I’m gonna give you the energy to go get that.” Anger is the loss of filter, the loss of anxiety, the loss of insecurities to get that thing that we’re not getting. It’s not inherently bad, but it can turn into something bad, quote-unquote. A lot of times the thing that we’re wanting is just that: a want, not a need. Anger is most useful when it identifies a need that we need to be met. That’s when it’s healthy anger.
Can we talk about cultural messages about men and anger? Because it’s easy to turn on the TV and find an angry male character—the whole “big, strong man” trope—but not as easy to find one who’s gentle or sensitive. What messages about anger and masculinity do we pick up from culture?
I think anger, rightfully so, does give us strength and power. But when we’re constantly overcompensating for insecurities with this anger, it’s a false power. In male culture, there’s often an idea that you have to be the strongest in the room. But if someone’s confusing that with “I have to be the angriest in the room,” they become interchangeable: “If I’m the most angry, then I’m the most powerful.” The angriest person demands the most attention and respect, according to a lot of our culture.
Can you speak a little more about how anger can relate to a desire for power?
Yeah. When you’re angry, somebody made you feel powerless, inadequate, or incompetent—that kind of thing. It all stems back from, “What was that moment of powerlessness that you experienced and what are you doing to overcompensate for that?”
A lot of times, anger is about trying to re-gain. It’s a really addictive emotion because it does fuel us with the power to get what we want. But when we never identify what it is that we’re wanting, we’re just kind of high on this anger—with the illusion that it’s the power that we want. And if it works, that’s when it gets dangerous. If you continually overpower people who give in to your rage or whatever, it becomes reinforcing. You might think, “If I raise my voice, then I do have the power that I was missing. My father, my boss, or whoever made me feel powerless, so I can continue to be angry and feel strong and powerful.”
Well, some people might look at that and say, “If it’s working, it’s working.” What’s the problem if it’s getting results?
I mean, this is the hard part because a man specifically has to recognize this as harming the people around him: “Yes, I’m holding on to all this power. It makes me feel good, but what is the cost of that?” If the people around me are getting hurt, are becoming afraid of me, not having the respect that I actually want from them, that’s where a person has to acknowledge that it’s more harmful than good—and that he needs to find a healthier source of power.
Anger is really addictive. It activates our survival response.Jesse Hernandez, LPC
Let’s go back to what you said about anger being addictive. We all know the physical feeling of being angry—the heat and the tension. What’s going on in our bodies when this happens?
Anger is really addictive. It activates our survival response. Anger can help us get over things; a lot of times, it’s a survival situation. And if exerting force or asserting my will on somebody is a survival thing, then the body has to make it worth my while, right? It’s sending all these chemicals through my body that may be motivated to act this way. Over time, of course, they become paired together enough times that we don’t realize that this is not a true survival situation.
So if I’m angry a lot, I might start to like the way I feel when overpowering somebody—or just feeling like a strong guy. It can become a cycle of feeling “off” when anger isn’t present. So I kind of have to look for something or constantly be in a state of anger to feel at my level. Some people are just looking for an excuse to feel that rage, that power. I’ve literally heard this from people: “I need to hit somebody.” Because they recognize that feeling angry makes them feel powerful. The body releases chemicals into the brain and they feel good. And again, that’s addictive.
We’ve been talking about outward anger. But what about the “nice guy” who’s simmering with rage under the surface? How else can anger show up, especially for men in particular?
The outwardly angry person is somebody who overuses his anger to get what he wants and manipulate situations to bend people’s wills. But the person on the opposite side of the spectrum was actually shamed out of anger. He was taught that his anger is useless and that he should not feel it, so that anger turns inward. It becomes anger toward the self: “I’m an idiot!” It’s almost like shaming myself into not feeling the anger, which then comes out as passive aggressiveness. The person is feeling invalidated anger. When somebody’s taught that their anger is not healthy, they people-please and keep the peace around them by muting their anger.
People like to say that anger is a masked emotion, but the way I see it is that anger is the placeholder emotion.
How is anger sometimes a stand-in for other emotions?
People like to say that anger is a masked emotion, but the way I see it is that anger is the placeholder emotion. Anger is communicating to the body, “Hey, something happened that you’re not getting.” Each emotion communicates the message that you send. For example, sadness communicates that there’s been a loss and there’s a need for connection. If that’s never acknowledged, this person is going to be constantly angry because they never got the connection they were looking for. When a person doesn’t identify that there’s a need going on, and then they just spend their time being angry, that’s a disconnected anger.
And this is a really important moment when a man has to slow down and recognize what he’s feeling: “I’m upset about something that I didn’t get. What is it that just happened? Whatever the secondary emotion is, what’s this anger trying to make me get that I didn’t get yet?”
What is a healthy way for guys to deal with anger?
It’s a multi-step process. A lot of times, the anger stems from an expectation—that’s when the thing that we’re wanting is not changeable or attainable. If you recognize that you’re struggling with anger, take a step back and recognize how you’re feeling. You might say, “Okay, I’m feeling upset right now. Is the thing that I’m wanting right now changeable? Is it in my control to change the situation?”
The answer to that question is going to guide us. Maybe there’s nothing you can do about it, and the anger subsides. But if there is something you can do about the situation, you could use the anger as motivation to get what you need.
For instance, if you’re stuck in traffic, ask yourself: “Is there anything I can do about the traffic right now?” Remove the expectation that you can get home in 15 minutes versus 30 minutes, which helps you remove the anger.
If it is something that is changeable, ask yourself: “How can I listen to this anger and take a step toward getting what I’ve been missing?”
The point about anger isn’t to be less angry about everything. It’s actually more important to be more angry about less things.
So it’s not about never being angry. It’s about working with anger when it comes up. Is that right?
The point about anger isn’t to be less angry about everything. It’s actually more important to be more angry about less things. We do that by identifying the things that are most important to us: family, job, friends. We can use anger to protect those things. When we choose very specific things to be angry about, nothing else really matters. It isn’t worth our time to be angry about things that are not valuable to us. It’s about taking those steps to recognize, “What’s important to me? Is this on my values list? if it isn’t, then it’s not worth my anger, my time, my attention, my energy.”
Yeah. Because otherwise, it’s too easy to be angry about everything. On that note, are there any signs that anger is a serious problem that warrants asking for help?
There are a few. A lot of times, men use anger to avoid accountability. This takes a lot of awareness, but if a guy recognizes himself using anger to manipulate or control a situation in order to avoid accountability, I think that’s a major sign to get his anger under control. If he’s wielding anger for his pleasure as opposed to his needs, that’s an important sign.
But also, men who find themselves chronically angry without an outlet—that’s a good sign that it’s time to talk to somebody, whether it’s friends or a therapist. It’s a sign to take a walk, exercise, that kind of stuff.
The third sign is that if you notice that people are walking on eggshells around you—changing their language, changing their vocabulary, just being very careful about how they talk to you all the time because they’re afraid they’re gonna just set you off. That’s a big one.
You mentioned therapy, and let’s face it—a lot of us would prefer to handle things on their own. What’s your advice for someone who might be seeing those signs but doesn’t want to try therapy?
That’s a hard one. It takes a lot of self-awareness and a person who’s able to recognize that what he’s doing might have worked in the past, but now it’s causing more harm than good. The point is to be open and curious to the idea of, “I don’t have all the answers myself.” Part of it is about releasing control—and thinking that it might be time to share that control with someone you can trust.
Okay, so let’s say you try doing that. What’s the payoff? Because if anger can get you what you want—on the surface, anyway—why should a man deal with his anger differently? What’s on the other side?
On the other side, is acceptance of things for what they are—and much more tranquility in taking things for what they are, not for what you want them to be. We develop a much clearer perspective on how much control we don’t have over things in the world. And when all of that becomes clear, we can let go of all the things that are outside of our control. We realize that we have much more power over ourselves. The outside world doesn’t influence us as much. Instead of living under the illusion that I have control over everyone by using anger constantly, this is what’s on the other side: true power over myself.