The first time my father punched a hole in a wall was because my brother and I were fighting over a game of Nintendo Duck Hunt and he was stressed about selling our house. My brother, Mike, was shocked by the cracked drywall and scolded our dad. “Look what you did,” he said. “Now no one is going to buy the house, Dad.”
Mike got what he deserved — loss of his Nintendo privileges and an inherited habit of punching holes in his own walls. Over the years, I learned that this wasn’t just a family tradition, and it wasn’t just walls. Lots of men, it seems, punch lots of things. My math teacher punched the overhead projector, my ex-boyfriend punched a book, and my colleague once took a swing at a tree. My dad punching a wall may have been the first match I saw, but fighting inanimate objects is far from uncommon. Why do men fight objects that can’t fight back? Because their emotions are overwhelming, and they don’t want anyone to get hurt.
“From an early age, men are taught to vacillate between two emotions: joy and anger,” explains Mackenzi Kingdon, a therapist who specializes in trauma and anger management. “We accept male aggression as a norm and a simple biological response. I would argue that more often than not it is a learned response. “
Boys are taught from an early age that certain emotions such as sadness and anxiety are more feminine than others, and it’s less acceptable to express them as a result. But this doesn’t stop boys and men from experiencing those emotions. Instead, there’s evidence that they learn to convert these emotions into feelings that are endorsed as more masculine, such as anger and aggression. When intense feelings intersect with a limited emotional vocabulary, the result can be a sudden urge to fight or flight, Kingdon explains. In order to avoid fighting people, the aggression is displaced, and no walls are safe.
“This deep fear of appearing weak is reinforced by our culture at large, and often by our families and social circles as well,” Kingdon says.
Still, the tradition of men punching holes in walls is not entirely a symptom of precarious masculinity, but a product of the myth of catharsis, or the notion that releasing anger and aggression helps people manage it. The problem with this idea of blowing off steam is mostly that it doesn’t work. When a team of social scientists conducted a series of experiments designed to intentionally provoke anger in participants, they allowed half of them to punch a punching bag afterward. Results revealed that the people who were able to blow off steam by punching the bag were actually angrier and more aggressive as a result. They only thing punching did was make more steam.
Although plenty of women fall for the myth of catharsis too, they are afforded more freedom with how they express emotions such as anger. However, for men, displaced aggression is a learned response often from fathers who, like mine, punched a wall in front of their sons. But there are better ways for boys and men to deal with their feelings, says domestic violence counselor Monica White.
“Punching holes is a sign that someone does not have enough coping skills,” White says.
My brother was not wrong for scolding our dad, even if it only pissed him off more. But according to White, Kingdon, and the research, my dad would’ve benefited from a few deep breaths, a quick walk around the backyard, watching a funny video, or any other distraction until the rage ceased, which typically takes less than 20 minutes.
If redirection is not enough, men can also benefit from the help of a therapist or support group with other guys who’ve punched their share of walls. Through this, men can stop fighting walls, because the wall is always going to win, White warns.
“People can replace this coping skill by using healthier coping skills,” she says. “There are hundreds of coping skills that are healthier than punching a wall.”
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