When Anger Is Legitimate

Men who speak out about personal issues, along with others advocating for men’s issues, are sometimes charged with being ‘angry men.’ The accusation is designed to reduce a man’s story to a single emotion; he is no longer a man telling his story with a tone of anger, but a story-less freak whose entire manhood is synonymous with anger – angry man – no more and no less than a single taboo emotion.

By labeling him an angry man, a complex human being is reduced to a one-dimensional caricature that dehumanizes him, discredits his claims to a wider audience, and ultimately aims to censor his evidence of pain or unfair treatment. The implication is that angry men are irrational and should be listened to only after they have calmed down and domesticated the raw emotionalism. However calming down would be better termed as pushing down, because that’s what happens to a man’s concerns and sense of passion in the face of the angry man charge.

Calming down leads that initial anger, which longs to effect positive changes to the world, to look for another outlet. Sometimes it intensifies into destructive or violent acting out, or worse, is converted into a neurotic self-censorship through the aid of drugs, depression and not infrequently suicide. If censorship is the desired aim of the angry man taunt, then suicide is delivering it in spades.

One would assume psychotherapists and counselors are savvy to the therapeutic benefits of anger, and sometimes they are. The more aware therapist knows that even the famous and talented are driven to greatness by giving expression to anger, with the trick being to direct it intelligently toward a goal.

The bulk of the therapeutic industry however is captured by the feelgood cliches of PC culture, advising men to find ways other than anger to express themselves, referring to it as an ‘anger problem,’ or ‘toxic anger’ or perhaps simply ‘unhealthy anger.’ Such practitioners are unlikely to consider any expression of anger acceptable, preferring instead to nip it in the bud with kindly admonishments about it being a barrier to progress and personal growth.

While we can agree that some expressions of anger move beyond healthy expression and into the rage-zone, these incidents often come on the tail of being ignored, perhaps serially and over a long periods of time when a man is expressing anger within more normal ranges. That rejection is what the PC therapist ironically tends to specialize in through his refusal of the anger that a man might otherwise use to articulate what’s pissing him off.

For many men anger is the vehicle that gets the message out, a message that remains buried in its absence.

The purpose of emotions, or rather the aim of them is to find a way out; as tears on the cheek, smiles on the lips, clenched fists, or the quivering of the bowels.

Anger likewise wants out – as outrage. By this move anger finds a target; it rages out at the family law courts, the misandric TV ads, the lack of funding for male health problems, infant circumcision, male homelessness. Outrage gets political – takes its concerns to the polis; letters to politicians, making a stand at the polling booth, a placard in the street, or thoughts written on a blog. So too with a man’s personal life; his long hours in a shitty job, his pressurized marriage to a nagging wife, his lack of liesure time, all of which might be tackled with some healthy outrage.

We don’t even need to have solutions to the things we’re angry about, at least not initially. As the late psychologist James Hillman suggests we can start out with an empty protest:

Take your outrage seriously, but you don’t force yourself to have answers. Trust your nose. You know what stinks. Don’t try to replace the helpless frustration you feel, the powerless victimization, by working out a rational answer. The answers will come, if they come, when they come, to you, to others, but don’t fill in the emptiness of the protest with positive suggestions before their time. First, protest! I don’t know what should be done about most of the major political dilemmas, but my gut (my soul, my heart, my skin, my eyes) sinks, creeps, crawls, weeps, cringes, shakes. It’s wrong, simply wrong, what’s going on here.1

How different his advice from that of the average therapist! The idea here is that we follow our animal response to the insults and thoughtlessness of the world around us, and not follow the therapists’ advice that we have cold rational answers before we open our mouths in protest.

The real danger here is that if you don’t get the anger out, if you don’t engage in outrage, it always finds another way. One of those ways is through conversion of anger to psychosomatic symptoms, often crippling ones which cause long-term disease and disability. Alternatively the reaction might be to convert anger into a less outwardly destructive mood such as depression, which is all too common. The old saying “Anger turned inward is depression” rings true for far too many men.

The process of anger morphing into depression can be referred to as sublimation, a swapping of a supposedly unacceptable emotion for a more acceptable one in the eyes of our PC culture. The end result of that process is often suicide, and the therapeutic industry is directly implicated for some of those suicides by reason of its suppression of male clients’ anger.

On the other side of that coin, depressed people who receive encouragement to express anger often experience a lessening of their depressive symptoms and suicidal thoughts. Psychologists have given moving accounts of men who, when put in touch with the things that anger them, experience a lifting of depression and witness the blood flow back into their cheeks. The upshot is that contrary to the therapists who recommend we men bury our anger, the opposite is a likely way to bring about psychological health.

In summary it is therapeutic per se to express anger,2 and when allowed that opportunity it’s less likely to be intensified into uncontrolled rage or conversely transmuted into a death wish. The man-friendly therapist encourages expression of anger as a prophylactic against depression and suicide, and as a way to potentially reverse depression and suicidality in those already there. Outrage might even bring the bonus of changing an ugly world into a better one, because a man sticking apologetically to his convictions compels the world to sit up and listen.


[1] James Hillman and Michael Ventura: We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy and The World is Getting Worse, HarperOne 1993

[2] Catharsis, Dictionary.com