Why We Need To Rethink The Way We Talk About Anger
Kelly Gonsalves is a sex educator, relationship coach, and journalist. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
Anger is a complex emotion, one we always tend to associate with negativity and perhaps aggression despite the fact that it's simply a feeling, just like any of our other ones.
What's more, anger is deeply gendered: Mainstream cultural norms hold that women are overly emotional except for anger, which is ugly and unfeminine, whereas men are said to have excessive anger. The stereotypes don't hold up to research, however. When researchers ask men and women to self-report their anger experiences, there's no difference between the two as far as the frequency, intensity, or duration of their anger. Where men and women tend to diverge, instead, is how they express their anger: Men are much more likely to use physical aggression as a means of conveying anger.
A new study published in the Journal of Adolescent Research sought to understand the ways in which people talk about and conceptualize anger. They asked 101 cisgender teens to describe a recent experience they'd had with anger (using their own definition of the word) and to complete questionnaires about their self-esteem and anxiety levels. The researchers chose to use teenagers for their study because adults tend to have a lot more anger regulation.
Do girls and boys experience anger differently?
Both teen girls and teen boys certainly experienced anger, but there were some gendered trends as far as the ways they each tended to view their anger. For example, the boys were more likely to describe specific instances of angry outbursts, whereas the girls tended to describe anger through stories of ongoing emotional difficulty.
Specifically, 65% of boys (compared to 7% of girls) described "singular episodes of anger," such as being angry after a bike broke or after losing a video game. "Those stories were not related to any repeatable or serious problems, but instead described commonplace incidents that could happen to anybody. In this thematic category, the focus was mainly, and often exclusively, on the outside world that provoked the anger," lead researchers Magdalena Budziszewska and Karolina Hansen write in the paper on the study's findings.
Meanwhile, 44% of girls (compared to 6% of boys) told stories that focused on their inner experiences of anger without providing much of the situational context. "These descriptions had a very different linguistic and thematic structure from the episodic ones: They were much more focused on the self and emotions rather than on the external events," the researchers said. "These stories portrayed severe problems and intense distress. Narratives in this category were also longer and more evaluative, abstract, and complex."
Why does it matter how we think about anger?
Anger is perhaps the most maligned and misunderstood emotion of all; we're exceedingly anxious to shut it down when we feel it, to fear or be repulsed by others who display it, and to try to avoid it at all costs. But like with any other emotion, not being able to understand or process our anger can lead to a lot of psychological distress. We know from past scientific studies that suppressing our emotions can be detrimental to both our physical and mental health, not to mention our relationships.
The ways we talk about and conceptualize anger can play a big role in how we deal with it.
"Researchers and clinicians have hypothesized that some narrative patterns could be less adaptive than others. For example, instead of using the anger as a healthy signal and learning from it, women could suppress, mislabel, and censor their anger to fit within ideals of gentle femininity or to protect their relationships," Budziszewska and Hansen write. Meanwhile, "boys are expected to fit within a framework of dominant heterosexual masculinity. This type of masculinity ideology is characterized by a sense of entitlement, including open displays of anger and aggression, at the cost of silencing other emotions.”
Three ways of viewing anger.
After reading through all the stories they'd collected from the teenagers, the researchers identified two specific themes that emerged most frequently: anger as burden and anger as outburst. These two themes represent two vastly different ways of viewing what anger really is. In addition, Budziszewska and Hansen also offered one additional lens on anger themselves: anger as justice.
1. Anger as burden.
This theory holds anger to be less a "spontaneous reaction to some frustrating events" and more of a "long-term and debilitating condition, something burdening, and difficult to resolve."
Here's how Budziszewska and Hansen characterized this vantage point:
In this category, anger was characterized by one or more of the following features: First, the anger was directed or focused inward (e.g., being angry at someone but not expressing it and instead ruminating internally about negative situations and self), contained self-blaming, and was connected to feelings of low self-esteem, weakness, powerlessness, and helplessness. Second, the anger experience was prolonged. … Moreover, it was seen as an aversive emotion and was accompanied by sadness, fear, hopelessness, or shame. It was reminiscent of a blend of emotions, rather than a "pure" anger emotion.
The teens who held this view of anger described associated behaviors like isolating themselves from others, crying, and even getting headaches, and the anger seemed to be something "heavy" that weighed them down and left them feeling weak. Moreover, the cause of the anger in these stories was hard to pinpoint; rather than being about something specific that happened to them to trigger an outburst, the context was general, internal frustration with the state of life itself.
Girls' stories of anger were four times as likely as boys' to fall under this category (44% vs. 9%). Those who held this view of anger also tended to have lower self-esteem and more anxiety.
2. Anger as outburst.
This theory sees anger as a much more immediate, directional emotion, something pointed at a specific person or situation. The teens who held this view of anger focused specifically on "people perceived as flawed, mistaken, and deserving of blame" and on the "external world, not on the self."
"The behavioral expressions were often strong, outward-oriented, impulsive, accompanied by an outburst of energy (e.g., shouting, cursing others, blaming others), and/or physical aggression," the researchers wrote. "The experiential and bodily felt quality of anger was hot, impulsive, connected to a rising energy level, light, quick, with an excess of strength, and like a tension striving for release. An important motif was having or lacking control over oneself during this kind of anger. The temporal duration was rather short, it began rapidly and diminished with time, and had an 'explosive' quality that was intense but short-lived."
Anger here is additionally viewed as something explicitly evil or hateful.
Boys' stories of anger were three times more likely than girls' to fall into this category (44% vs. 16%).
3. Anger as justice.
About a third of the anger narratives the teens told were neither anger as burden nor anger as outburst (31% of girls and 39% of boys).
But even so, one thing the researchers noticed all the teens lacked was any sort of positive definition or view of anger. They explain:
A core conviction in many therapeutic approaches, including Gestalt therapy or motion-focused therapy, is that all emotions can be adaptive and can serve positive functions. The role of anger is, for example, to protect oneself against violations and injustice, to assert own rights, and also, as in the case of moral anger, to fight against injustice toward others. … Anger is a self-conscious emotion, and the core of it is a sense of defending the moral order, including the sense of personal and societal justice.
Indeed, anger can be a wonderfully positive, righteous, and even empowering emotion. It can be a way of asserting your own value, a way to remind yourself that you matter and the things that happen to you matter. It can be the driving force leading you to defend yourself and the things you care about.
That's perhaps the biggest take-away of this study: Yes, we need to teach girls how to identify, express, and embrace their anger so that it can help instead of hurt, and we need to teach boys healthy ways of being in their anger without tumbling into toxic expressions of masculinity. But all of us also need to find new ways to talk about anger, ways that don't involve casting it merely as a negative or destructive human kink. All of our emotions are signals, telling us what matters to us. In this way, anger can be a beautiful and even hopeful thing.
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