We do the things we most regret when we are angry. Anger is activated by the back part of the brain, the reptilian brain-the seat of the fight or flight response-and often inhibits our ability to make rational decisions from the prefrontal cortex. So without some conscious training, when a man gets angry, he is most likely to do and say things that will not only cause him pain, but cause pain to others as well. This then later causes him to realize that he made a bad decision.
What happens when we get angry? Because anger often bypasses rational thought, we may react instinctively in ways that helped us survive in the far distant past but are now counterproductive. In dangerous times, anger could intimidate, control, or stop an enemy by displaying the willingness or intent to become violent. In this manner, anger was a primitive form of communication.
Getting angry was a way to warn someone that if they continued their behavior, they would suffer in some way. If the unwanted behavior continued, then the violence that followed was also a form of communication. Its message was, “Now that I have hurt you, you know how I feel. So don’t do it again.” (Ironically, for the primitive man, violence was his attempt at sharing his feelings.)
We have celebrated the image of the violent man; women find him sexy. Both men and women go to movies, where you see Jason Bourne or James Bond randomly killing anonymous people, and we feel admiration. It gives us the image of the strong man, not a wimp. He does not back down, cannot be dominated, and is a protector. He protects his woman and the people close to him, and he protects what is right. He protects through violence. As men, we have been trained to think this man of violence is a cool guy.
What happens in the movies does not translate very well to regular life. In the movies, the great hero can randomly shoot people. If you try to do that in regular life, you will end up going to prison. Acts of violence are not condoned in real life.
Man frequently finds himself in a situation where the choice seems to be to dominate or to be dominated. Either get angry and inflict pain – or the threat of pain – to gain control of the situation, or lie down, roll over, and let people walk all over you. In the past, this was a no brainer: use force and anger to win the war, each and every time. Be a real man.
The dilemma that modern men all over the world face today, both with other men, in the pecking order at work, and at home, is this: is he going to dominate or be dominated? Both feel undesirable. When he dominates, he becomes the old style macho guy who never feels or shows emotion, is hard, and is capable of committing violence without feeling another’s pain with no empathy. Or he learns to feel, which makes him more empathetic, but this can also frequently lead to him being dominated and wishy-washy: he becomes the beta man at the bottom of the pecking order.
The Magic Key
The solution is the magic of consciousness. Being mindful is the key. A conscious man transcends the dilemma, to dominate or be dominated, by developing the capacity to feel and bring anger alive within him without having to mindlessly react. You move beyond the impossible choice. You can fully feel your anger, and you are able to explore more deeply. If you get rejected and feel angry, rather than mindlessly rejecting back, you can access your original intent of the best for everyone and have the choice to find another way to boldly and fearlessly achieve your positive intention. You transcend the duality of unconscious expression or unconscious suppression, which were both equally automatic.
To act out without awareness, or to suppress without awareness, are equally expressions of unconscious masculinity. The fight or flight response comes unconsciously from the reptilian brain. Meanwhile, emotional responses, including empathy as well as reactivity, come from the limbic part of the brain. Cool rational logical awareness is associated with the pre-frontal cortex. Each of these on its own would be imbalanced.
To be conscious means that the whole brain is activated. The reptilian brain is active because you are still able to feel righteous anger, righteous indignation. This provides power, energy, and motivation. At the same time, your limbic system is active because you can feel your own emotions yet also empathize with others. This can give you a greater motivation to care about others and the ability to feel what you really want. The prefrontal cortex allows you to make conscious choices about how to best take action and when to hold back: to create an outcome best for yourself and everyone else as well. This naturally creates trust in everyone around you in your capacity to take leadership. They know you have their backs.
Feeling anger without immediately acting on it may sometimes involve you taking a breath to relax the tendency to yell but also communicating firmness. Or you may simply back off and take a breath. By feeling and being aware of your anger without acting on it, you are learning to honor your mission and purpose and to stay on track. In this way, you convert your anger into authoritative leadership. You now have the capacity to not just be taken over by emotion but to also recognize what you are feeling, which is a different thing. Awareness of anger is very different from being angry.
Feeling anger, rather than simply being angry, leads to becoming more aware of what someone else is feeling as well. When we become emotionally charged, when we “are angry,” we cannot feel other people because we have been too taken over by our own emotion. We become oblivious to what is going on around us. But when you experience emotion together with awareness, you can say to yourself, “Right now I am feeling angry.” Only then can you also recognize, “This other person is feeling threatened; that is why he/she is speaking and acting this way, which is provoking anger in me.” This insight, that comes from empathy, can soften the tendency to strike back and instead inspire great leadership: the intelligence and creativity to find a better outcome for everyone.
Anger becomes compassion. You become a more trustworthy leader, more so than either the angry, action-oriented macho man of the past or the overly empathetic, soft man, who denies feeling anything but love, peace, and apology.
From Conscious Men by John Gray and Arjuna Ardagh. You can order on Kindle or as a paperback on Amazon here.