Anger Management for Men, a Talk With Aaron Karmin
We all have anger issues. Anger is, as has been pointed out by Aaron Karmin, a licensed clinical professional counselor who specializes in anger management, a “secondary” emotion. Anger usually follows frustration or some type of emotional pain. We all become frustrated and annoyed, and we can all suddenly angrily over-react and hurt someone. We are simply not taught to look at the source of anger and often do not realize that if we can just focus on how to work through, for example, feelings of frustration, we can avoid anger.
It is also important to remember that anger evolved in our emotional repertoire for a reason and attempts to merely suppress it may lead to a worsening and uncontrollable situation. My talk with Aaron Karmin, author of Anger Management Workbook for Men and Instant Anger Management: Take Control of Your Anger and Master Your Emotions.
Why was writing something directly for men important?
Many of us know the aggressive anger that men stereotypically display. Yet other men suppress their angry feelings because they think anger isn’t nice. Some men are aware of being angry but have a hard time letting others know—and then they get mad at themselves for not being able to express their anger. And still other men are able to experience and express their anger but feel guilty when they do. Many men use anger to protect/cover up other vulnerable feelings. They may have learned that it’s not manly to have feelings, emotions are a sign of weakness or anger makes you tough.
I wanted to create a book to help men listen to their emotions and understand what they mean. If we ignore what our emotions tell us, our feelings build up and may result in a display of violent behavior or foster a breakdown in physical health. Anger, like every other emotion, exists for a reason. When you discover the purposes that anger serves in your life, you put yourself in a position to understand your anger and manage its impact in constructive ways.
When is our anger justified?
Anger is an instinctual emotional response triggered by a real or imagined threat. While everyone is born with the potential to feel and express anger, we each have our own learning experiences, which cause us to react to frustration differently. The feeling of anger isn’t the issue, the behaviors of anger are what cause problems. Anger often crosses the line when our behavior is used to control others by fostering dominance to gain submission. The expression of anger does not have to involve yelling or violence; sadness does not have to involve crying; fear does not have to involve hiding or avoiding.
It is correct to say that emotions are an automatic physiological response. In that way, they are outside of our immediate control, like our eyes blinking. But we can become aware of our blinking, and similarly we can become mindful of what triggers our emotional reactions. If we can take control over our automatic reactions like blinking, breathing, and memory, it is also possible to manage our emotional reactions.
How do we reach people who think all their anger is justified?
We may not be able to change the behavior—people only change when they want to change—but we can manage our own response or reactions. Knowing how to communicate effectively can influence others in a positive way when we are acting as a model for proper behavior in a difficult situation. Realize that as soon as we defend ourselves, we lose. When we respond to someone’s criticism, we are making their accusations real, as if they were worthy of rebuttal. The other person is not the judge and jury. Instead, if we can sit with someone’s emotional reaction—be curious about it, maybe ask questions and listen for the feelings behind the words rather than rush to explain or defend ourselves —we will have a much better chance of managing the conflict.
It can be helpful to translate complaints and criticisms into requests. Criticism and complaints put people on the defensive and, as a result, their capacity to listen goes down. It is more effective to translate and restate complaints into requests for action. This is done by asking conciliatory, compassionate questions, which will allow us to move forward, rather than focusing on blame. In addition, we will get more cooperation by using specific, action-oriented, positive language when responding to another’s complaints.
Is our popular culture responsible for an anger and violence explosion?
Expectations of instant gratification versus the capacity to self-regulate have become embedded in modern life. Historically, men were raised in conditions where some level of hardship was the norm. Thrift used to be an essential part of middle-class life and the things you longed for did not appear instantly, they had to be earned. As a result, there was much more value and appreciation for what you had, rather than focusing on what you lacked. There was a sense of pride in mastery and achievement in having worked one’s way to a goal, in having had experiences with adversity and growth from struggle. In the past, men welcomed challenges, learning to ‘make-do’, to adapt, to wait, or to work for lengthy periods to achieve a goal. Of course nobody would suggest that today men should increase hardship and create obstacles to earn everything they want or need. There has to be some happy medium.
Men need to have success with self-control and learn to apply consistent effort to be responsible. Wellbeing does not come from easy indulgence, but from the sense of being in control, with confidence in their personal effort and being the master of one’s fate. Maturity is about finding out that you can’t always have what you want, that you can deal with that, and still be healthy and happy. The learning that results from delaying gratification contributes to the growth of resilience. Resilient men have the capacity to withstand setbacks, to rise to a challenge, to find new ways of solving problems, to feel a sense of self-confidence in managing the social and material world, and to know that hardship can be overcome.
Should parents, relatives and teachers actively model anti-anger/peaceful behavior?
We are all children of anger. Each one of us has seen our caregivers get angry and this had an impact on how we express our own feelings. We learn math and science in school. We are formally educated on logic, reason, and cause and effect thinking. However, we learn about our feelings by following others’ examples. To a greater or lesser degree, our parents’ anger taught us things about ourselves and life. Many of these lessons were not positive ones, but that shaped us all the same. They did not make us stronger and more competent to cope with the realities of our adult lives. Quite the opposite, they undermined our good judgment and impaired our ability to see the world objectively.
Everyone has seen children who are showered with toys, are given any food they like at any time they like, have entertainment on tap, without having to go looking for it. Whatever they want they can have, without actually having to wait for it, to earn it, create it, or to find an alternative if it’s not available. For such children, new toys become a two-minute wonder, played with fleetingly because they are so easy to get, but are soon quickly cast aside in favor of the next gratification. These children learn to expect that what they want will always be provided and they won’t have to wait or make an effort.
So, what happens to men who grew up on this diet of instant gratification? They have difficulties in life related to problems with impulse control or self-regulation. These are central components of many psychological disorders from alcoholism to drug abuse to gambling to pornography addiction to anger. When something goes wrong for others, it’s their fault. When something goes wrong for them, it’s not their fault; it’s the fault of external forces. They project blame. This projection often antagonizes a situation. Feeling entitled to something they aren’t getting, leads to anger, which triggers emotional eruptions and exaggerated reactions.
Does therapy only work on people who recognize that they have a problem?
The media is full of experts giving people advice. They tell us how to be good parents, loving spouses, supportive friends. The problem is most of the advice doesn’t work. Other people may be trying to help us by telling us what to do at every turn, but that only perpetuates dependency. It makes us angry because we are not able to figure it out on our own. It may make us question if there is something wrong with us for feeling the way we do and being the way we are.
If someone isn’t ready for or doesn’t want to invest in counseling, it’s counterproductive to force it. We will get out of therapy what we put into it. People can choose their attitude and that choice will decide what they get from an experience. Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist, psychologist and Holocaust survivor said, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
We are not taught about our emotions or how to handle them. Have you thought of developing a curriculum we can take into our schools to help kids overcome what makes them feel angry?
There are public and private agencies attempting to deal with the plague of violence in our country, but their focus seems to be on the overt act, such as handguns or road rage. If they can prevent these acts, they feel that they will have prevented violence. But the underlying issue that leads men to seek violent solutions isn’t being addressed. The issue is not violence, the issue is mismanaged anger. There is no violence without anger.
All humans struggle with their feelings and can benefit from psychological guidance. I think mental health should be addressed on par with physical health. We get an annual physical, but most do not see the same value in routine mental health check ups. Seeking counseling is a sign of strength, not weakness. We all need help from time to time and its a sign of strength an intelligence to know when to seek support.
Are there strategies we can use to ensure we don’t make others angry?
We need to avoid explaining why we did what we did, because our defensiveness can make others feel frustrated, unheard, and confused. When we are being defensive, we are focusing all our attention and energy on ourselves as opposed to offering support and understanding to others. The way that we each perceive an event is all that really matters. We need to accept that we see things differently and accept others’ perceptions as their opinions. Usually, people just want the opportunity to express themselves and feel that they have really been understood.
We can choose to agree with the feelings, not the facts—agree that others feel the way they feel. We can say, “It’s awful, isn’t it!” Or, “I don’t blame you for being angry.” We are not agreeing that they are right. We are just letting them know we heard what they said. We can agree that it’s painful and that this pain hurts, or we can choose to agree that the other person is upset: “It’s so frustrating when this happens, isn’t it?”
We do not need to go on and on, defending the inaccuracy of others’ accusations, trying to win a pardon for an unproven offense. We are not required to defend against fiction; they are not a judge and we are not guilty.
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