Over 20 years ago, psychologist Carol Tavris wrote a popular book entitled Anger: The Misunderstood Emotion. She sought to dispel a number of myths about anger, such as the widespread but mistaken notion that "venting" for catharsis was a healthful thing to do. Anger is expressed in a variety of ways, from episodes of "road rage" on the streets to bursts of profanity in the workplace. It remains not only a misunderstood emotion but also a mismanaged emotion. Too many people are using weapons or fists to express their angry feelings. New terms such as "desk rage" and "air rage" have been coined by the media to describe the ever-increasing tendency of Americans to erupt and lash out. To this list of trendy terms, nurse researcher Linda Aiken has added "ward rage" to describe the epidemic of anger and frustration in hospitals. In addition to the disastrous social consequences of such out-of-control behavior, this mismanaged anger has significant consequences for Americans' physical health. Poorly regulated anger has been linked to hypertension, coronary heart disease, and a number of other conditions.
The "emotional intelligence" movement, spurred by Goleman's book, attempted to counter this spate of free-floating hostility and interpersonal violence. Drawing on the research of Salovey and Mayer, Goleman concluded that emotional intelligence — the regulation of emotion in a way that enhances living — may be more crucial to personal and professional success than lQ or proficiency at the tasks of an individual's job. While emotional intelligence involves several elements, this article focuses on just one: the effective regulation of anger. Tice and Baumeister showed that people have fewer successful strategies for controlling anger than for any other emotional state, including fear, anxiety, and sadness. Likewise, this research demonstrates that both men and women lack skill in anger management.
Causes and Manifestations
Why do people get angry? The author has conducted a program of research on anger since 1988, aimed at illuminating its causes, manifestations, and health consequences. Interest in the topic was sparked by a serendipitous finding of some gender differences between men and women in their ways of expressing anger.
After a literature search showed scant previous research on women's anger, a large-scale, comprehensive investigation was launched, guided by a conceptual model. It was framed within the research strategy that Coward called "critical multiplism". In Phase I of the Women's Anger Study, conducted by a 14-member team from 1989 to 1991, an extensive battery of questionnaires was administered to more than 500 women, and new knowledge resulted about the correlations between women's anger and variables such as self-esteem, stress, and depression.
Additionally, Phase 1 study participants were asked some open-ended questions about the precipitants of everyday anger episodes at home and work. Women's written responses to these questions were informative, but too brief to permit a thorough examination of the context in which anger episodes occurred and the complex meanings of these experiences. Thus, Phase II of the Women's Anger Study, conducted from 1993 to 1997, involved in-depth phenomenologic interviews with Caucasian women, African-American women, and French women living in France. These interviews yielded rich descriptions and deeper understanding of what women's anger is all about.
Researchers learned that anger is a confusing emotion for women, intermingled with hurt and disillusionment. It is generated in their most important intimate relationships; women tell stories about family members, coworkers, coworkers, and friends who have let them down in significant ways or expect too much from them. Violations of a woman's core values, beliefs, or principles provoke her angry feelings. But her anger, even when produced by a substantive violation, is often inhibited for fear of damaging relationships. The following example from the data is illustrative:
"I'm always angry with my father..[He] had an affair with another woman for 4 years before my mother found out about it...I'm still mad at him...I would never talk to my father about it...It'd be awful. He'd be angry with me...I walk on eggshells around him all the time. I try not to make him mad if I can".
Lack of relationship reciprocity is a frequent trigger of a woman's anger. The woman feels pressed, stretched, and almost pulled apart by multiple demands, and she wants someone or something to change but often feels powerlessness to make this happen. In many cases, she does not feel that the other person really listens to her requests. Cooking metaphors, such as "simmering," "stewing," or "slow boil," are often used to describe the undercurrent of unexpressed anger within her body. The suppressed anger sometimes "leaks" bit by bit, through passive-aggressive behaviors. Overt anger sometimes does emerge, usually as the culmination of a buildup of grievances over time. However, a volcanic angry outburst is not necessarily efficacious in bringing about the desired changes, and usually leads to self-recrimination over the loss of control. After all, the woman has learned during gender role socialization that direct anger expression is unfeminine and unattractive. Her female role models may have conveyed their feelings indirectly through sulking or sighing. Although relatively rare within the data, there are some examples of women using their anger in a more constructive fashion; they are able to ask assertively for what they need to address a problem or restore relationship reciprocity.
Using similar interview methodology, a study conducted over a 4-year period (1997-2001) revealed key themes of men's anger. In essence, a man's anger emanates from a perceived affront to his sense of control and/or his views of right and wrong. Judgments of right and wrong are made regarding the behavior of others as well as about his own "right" and "wrong" anger behaviors in response to others.
Abstract principles and standards about proper human conduct (truth, fairness, sportsmanship, professionalism) are invoked to explain angry feelings. Anger narratives pertain to a variety of societal issues ranging from the specific (President Clinton not doing the "right thing") to the global (politics, monopolies, environmental pollution, misuse of the disability system). Although study participants view anger as a tool for dealing with moral wrongs against the self and/or others, they are wary of its potentially overwhelming and dangerous force. Metaphors they use to describe their anger are illustrative: a runaway horse, fire, flood, or vortex. "Wrong anger" can involve over-reaction (hitting objects or people) or failure to act according to internalized norms of masculinity. "Right anger" is justified, proportionate to the offense, and successful in making its point, as shown in this example:
"The senior pastor had transgressed a significant ethical boundary, and I had an ethical obligation to let that be known. I was trying to do the right thing by putting my anger forward. I confronted him."
The word "control" is ubiquitous in study participants' anger narratives. Having and maintaining control is desirable but difficult to achieve. Men become angry when they do not have the ability to control or "fix" things, whether the things are inanimate objects (computers, cars, or boats) or work-related problems (demanding customers or incompetent coworkers). Illogical actions of other people that are out of the men's sphere of personal control (for example, other drivers) provoke considerable ire, consistent with an implicit "should" that human action should be logical and reasonable.
When the initial attempt to gain control is unsuccessful (as when a teacher cannot control defiant students or a father cannot control an unruly child), withdrawal is a common tactic. Many men say they learned to withdraw from a scene of conflict to prevent disastrous actions. Although they had been forced to learn to fight in childhood (encouraged by fathers and peers to demonstrate their aggressive "manliness" and defend themselves from schoolyard bullies), this physicality no longer serves them well in adulthood. They continue to have strong bodily arousal when angry but few available mechanisms to safely discharge the tension. Throwing hammers and hitting computers provides little relief and leaves them feeling foolish afterward.
Commonalities and Differences
These studies demonstrated several commonalities between the anger experiences of men and women. Clearly, traditional gender role socialization for femininity and masculinity does not contribute to intelligent anger management. Both men and women are conflicted about anger, telling their anger stories with embarrassed hesitance and nervous laughter. Regardless of gender, guilt and self-recrimination are frequently reported, especially if anger outbursts caused others pain.
Some gender differences were observed as well. Women frequently used the word "hurt" and bad difficulty separating their anger from feelings of "hurt," but very few men ever used the word. Women reported that crying was common while angry: men did not. The bodily experience of anger also differs, as depicted metaphorically. For women, it consisted of a slow-boiling internal agitation; for men, it was a fire or flood that swept them along with its force.
While women's anger was provoked mainly within their closest relationships, men's anger was often provoked by strangers, faulty mechanical objects, or global societal issues in which a principle was at stake. These findings are consistent with Gilligan's conceptualization of differences in the moral reasoning of men and women. She concluded that the morality of men was principled and abstract, focused on obtaining justice, while the morality of women was based on caring relational values.
- Thomas, Sandra P., Anger: the mismanaged emotion, MEDSURG Nursing, Apr 2003, Vol. 12, Issue 2.
Reflection Exercise #6
The preceding section contained information
about how anger is mismanaged. Write
three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section
in your practice.
According to Thomas, what do women learn about anger during gender role socialization? Record the letter of the correct answer