What We Get Wrong About Anger & Angry Men
TikTok’s “Anger Professor,” Dr. Ryan Martin, discusses the biggest myths about anger and the secret to stopping outbursts before they start.
The inspiration for Ryan Martin, Ph.D.'s new book about anger came from an unlikely source: librarians. When a librarian reached out to him for help training her staff how to deal with hostile, aggressive patrons, Martin knew we were in trouble. “How is it possible that we’ve gotten to a place where people are yelling at librarians?” he laments in the introduction to his new book, How to Deal With Angry People.
Known as the “Anger Professor” on TikTok, where he offers advice and clarity on the subject, Martin is a psychology professor and associate dean at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay who has spent years researching and writing about healthy and less healthy expressions of anger. Although the spotlight on anger is widening to become increasingly egalitarian, men have long been considered the stars of the show when we talk about anger. Angry faces are perceived as more “masculine” by both adults and young children, and anger was long considered the only socially acceptable way for men to express emotion. Men’s emotions, such as sadness, loneliness, and fear, gender-stereotypically are often relegated to the backseat, if not stuffed in the trunk.
Fatherly spoke with Martin about how men can learn to cut off angry outbursts at the pass, the biggest misconceptions about anger, and why cathartic acts aren’t the solution many think they are.
Let’s talk first about how anger can affect relationships. Even if someone doesn’t actually take their anger out on the people in their lives, it has a big affect on them.
Anger can be alienating in relationships. If a person's go-to is to suppress anger, they might hold it in and tell people, “I’m fine, don't worry about it,” which can be annoying to others. Their partners might say, “Why can't you just tell me how you're feeling, or why won't you tell me why you're mad?” When you’re not expressing anger in healthy ways, it can alienate people and leave you feeling lonely and disconnected.
Also, anger is sometimes described as a social emotion because it often occurs in relationships in ways that other emotions don’t. Often when we’re angry, we’re angry with someone in ways we might not be when we’re sad. Anger’s impact on others can look a lot of different ways: It can scare the people around us, hurt others or just annoy people. There's an assumption that an angry person is treating others badly and that they’re being cruel to people in their lives. That might be true, but sometimes it’s not.
Regardless, there can still be an impact. If I’m riding in a car with a spouse or father with an anger problem, and they're getting mad at other people on the road, that might scare me. Even if they’re not taking anger out on me, I’m still suffering because of it.
People often react angrily in the moment and then maybe a day later, they decide that maybe they overreacted. But if you can pause in the moment, you might have that thought that you overreacted sooner.
That reminds me of what you wrote about anger being “contagious.” Can you explain how that happens?
When we’re unsure how to feel about something, we tend to look to others in our environment to see how they feel about it. It’s natural and important in human development, but you see this even in adulthood. You’ve probably been in a meeting at work and looked around to see how your team feels about something that was said. It’s called “social referencing,” and it’s very common.
With anger, it can happen in different ways. If we’re unsure how to feel about something, we might gauge feelings, unintentionally or intentionally, of people around us. People pick up on how others around them are feeling and model that; for example, it might influence the intensity of how angry you get. We see it happening among moms online, at political protests, and – this is one of the best examples – at sporting events. There’s a feeling of safety in numbers, so when someone is upset with an official and boos, that signals “I can be mad about this, too.”
The gender thing plays a role here, too: We’re more likely to model emotions of people who are most similar to us. If you’re a man surrounded by other men expressing anger in a hostile, aggressive way, you might engage in that same practice.
Sometimes we hear that angry people lash out because they’re feeling insecure. Can you talk about how insecurity plays into aggression?
Insecurity oftentimes is connected to a tendency to get defensive. When someone gets criticism or feedback about something they’re feeling insecure about, the criticism feels more hostile than intended. It’s a natural emotional response to feel attacked when someone is challenging you, but that defensiveness ends up looking an awful lot like anger. Someone might think, If you’re going to attack me, I’m going to attack you as a way of defending myself.
Insecurity also has to do with the tendency for angry people to catastrophize, which means making the bad situations you experience much worse in your mind. If you don’t feel confident you can handle life's problems, things can feel more catastrophic than they really are. But if you feel like you’re equipped to handle the challenges life is throwing at you, you’re less likely to catastrophize.
Your book lays out differences between a person who gets angry and an angry person. How can guys figure out which they are?
It’s important for people to develop an intimate understanding of their own anger. It’s okay to be angry sometimes. But spend some time thinking about whether you’re angrier than most people. If so, why? What’s going on there? Ask yourself, Is my anger unhealthy for me and others around me? That can be figured out based on consequences and how often you experience it.
We hear a lot that expressions of anger are “masking” some deeper underlying feelings. Is that true, and if so, what feelings might lurk under an angry surface?
I sometimes get in arguments with people online about the degree to which anger is, quote unquote, a “secondary emotion.” There’s an assumption, especially online, that anger is always masking something. If you google “anger,” you’ll see pictures of icebergs, illustrating that anger is on the surface, but something else is really going on.
I’d say, yes, sometimes that’s true. Sometimes it can be due to adverse childhood experiences of not having needs met, for example. All of that is fair. But my concern is, if we always talk about anger as a secondary emotion, or insist it’s always masking something, we end up minimizing times when people really should feel angry.
But I do think insecurity, grief or loss and sadness are another piece of this, especially for people who are emotionally immature. It can be hard for some people to express sadness if they’ve been taught not to express it. Men, in particular, spent so much of their lives being taught that they can't be vulnerable; so some feelings, such as jealousy or guilt, can come out as anger because that’s the safer thing to express and it doesn’t make them feel fragile.
If we always talk about anger as a secondary emotion, or insist it’s always masking something, we end up minimizing times when people really should feel angry.
Another myth you bust in your book is about catharsis. Could you explain why things like screaming into a pillow or punching a punching bag aren’t good ways to defuse anger?
This is a myth that won't go away. It’s remarkable how long we’ve known that catharsis is actually bad for us, yet we’ve failed to make a dent in people’s belief in it. The research is very clear that catharsis does not “release” anger or decrease aggression; if anything, it makes anger and aggression more intense and more likely to occur later. There are almost countless studies on this, and essentially no research that it works.
The problem is that catharsis can feel good, but that doesn't make it good for us. Screaming or punching something feels good, like overeating or using drugs or alcohol can, but that doesn’t make it a good strategy for coping with angry emotions, especially if you do it all the time.
You also write that exercise isn’t a good strategy for dealing with anger either. Why is that?
It’s better to try to de-escalate instead of doing things that will keep the heart rate up. If someone is having a panic attack, you wouldn’t tell them the best thing to decrease their anxiety is to go for a run; you’d encourage them to take deep breaths or de-escalate that reaction.
The physiological response to danger and stress – our muscles tense and our heart rate increases – makes it hard for us to think clearly, so we’re running on instincts. Finding a way to pause and do some deep breathing allows us to decrease that physiological activation. Then we can get back to thinking more rationally and reasonably while de-escalating those physiological forms of anger.
People often react angrily in the moment and then maybe a day later, they decide that maybe they overreacted. But if you can pause in the moment, you might have that thought that you overreacted sooner. That’s why I think it’s so important.
If someone is having a panic attack, you wouldn’t tell them the best thing to decrease their anxiety is to go for a run; you’d encourage them to take deep breaths or de-escalate that reaction.
You also talk about how angry people often get defensive. What strategies can help combat that tendency?
During moments of anger, pay attention to whether you’re trying to divert your concentration or thoughts away from your own actions and onto someone else's. If I find I’m hyper-focused on what someone else has done, or maybe not even what they’ve done in this circumstance but in a past one, that can be a good window into whether I’m being defensive. And if you find yourself not really listening to them and preparing your comeback instead, those are signs you’re feeling defensive in a way that might not be productive.
What else can help defuse unhealthy anger?
One of the things I advocate for in this book is diagramming an incident that made you angry (or diagramming an incident that made someone else angry). Write out your provocation, your mood at the time of the provocation, and what you're thinking about the provocation.
This helps in a couple ways: First, it helps intervene in the moment the emotion is happening. Second, it helps reveal patterns over time about how people deal with anger.
This helps you explore those thought processes and maladaptive thoughts and replace them with more adaptive or helpful thoughts. If I can recognize myself labeling others in negative ways, like thinking someone else is a fool, I can stop myself and start thinking about that person more holistically. Say I get cut off on the road and decide the person who cut me off is an idiot. I can start recognizing other motivations. Maybe it was just a mistake and they feel bad for cutting me off. All those things are likely more realistic and accurate and healthier, and will help lead to less anger.