February 19, 2024

Is Anger Just an Intense Emotion that is Looking for Release?

The internet is abuzz following an interaction between veteran coach Andy Reid and Kansas City Chief tight end Travis Kelce during the Superbowl.

Some call it an unacceptable show of disrespect as Kelce bumped Reid and yelled in his face, such that veins were sticking out in the younger man’s forehead, mouth open as he was shouting, according to Reid. “Just put me in, I’ll score. I’ll score,” while others perceive that it is part and parcel of a game that by its very nature is aggressive. Grown men with pads, helmets, and mouthguards running around a field, with the goal of getting the ball from one end to the other and through a goal post. Players get knocked to the ground and sometimes get the stuffins’ knocked out of them.

Many voices weighed in, including Reid, Kelce, and his brother, Eagles player, Jason Kelce.

In the podcast that the brothers co-host called New Heights, Kelce stated that keeping his emotions in check has been “the battle of my career.”

He adds, “Unfortunately, sometimes my passion comes out where it looks like it’s negativity,” he said, “but I’m grateful that [Reid] knows that it’s all because I wanna win this thing with him more than anything.”

Kelce spoke lovingly of the man he says he respects, “He’s one of the best leaders of men I’ve ever seen in my life,” said Kelce, and continued, “the greatest coach this game has ever seen…I owe my entire career to that guy.”

In return, Reid had this to say, “He keeps me young. He tested that hip out. He caught me off balance—normally, I’d give him a little bit, but I didn’t have any feet under me.”

The reaction of the fans was instantaneous, with concern for the safety of Taylor Swift, with whom he has a decidedly public relationship, paramount. I admit that I was among them. In my 40-plus years practice as a therapist, I have worked with clients for whom anger was a familiar companion that wreaked havoc with their personal and professional lives. I prayed that the Kansas City team won, because if Kelce reacted as he did in front of a worldwide audience, I could only wonder what he would be like in private if his team lost. Fortunately, we didn’t need to find out. I hope that they have a long, healthy, loving, peaceful relationship.

When I shared dismay at his overreaction, my Facebook friends had mixed reactions. Some shared my perspective and others minimized it. Those who expressed understanding of Kelce’s reaction, indicated that it was passion that prompted him to act the way he did. Some said it was to be expected since pro athletes need to be “on” to keep their competitive edge. Some insisted it was no big deal and that media was amplifying it. Others felt that if Reid could brush it off, we should too.

Another thought I had was that Kelce and other athletes, for better or worse, are role models for kids. If their heroes can get their way by getting in someone’s face, yelling and pushing, they will think that they can too. Do parents really want their kids to push their way into getting what they want?

I ask the same question about every public figure in any field, including music, politics, and business for whom anger, threats, bullying, and violence is their M.O.

Is anger just an intense emotion that is looking for release?

Today, I was in the car and happened to catch an episode of The Pulse on NPR called All the Rage. The first segment included an interview with author and therapist Julie Christiansen. Her latest book is called The Rise of Rage: Harnessing the Most Misunderstood Emotion.

She believes that “when we map our anger, we can learn to manage it.” In the interview, Christiansen was clear that anger is how we feel, not what we do. She encourages listeners and readers to feel it. As a therapist myself, I agree, that we can’t heal what we don’t feel. As a human being, I have had a paradoxical relationship with anger. In an article I wrote in 2014 for The Good Men Project called One Letter Away From D(anger), based on a quote by Eleanor Roosevelt, I speak about my own dance with the emotion that was, at turns, unfamiliar, uncomfortable, threatening, and distressing. I am mostly anger and conflict avoidant. My parents modeled stuffing anger with my mother quoting Thumper’s mother, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all,” and would ask, “Is it worth getting worked up over?” My father would advise, “Your life is in the hands of any fool who makes you lose your temper.” I became a codependent people pleaser who rarely raised her voice. I still stuff the emotion that I have seen scoop people up and run away with them. This is a concept called emotional hijacking, a term that was brought into the psychological parlance by Daniel Goleman, PhD, who wrote the book Emotional Intelligence. He describes the ways in which the part of the brain called the amygdala reacts when in a stress-inducing situation.

I am with my two grandchildren most mornings while my son and daughter-in-law are at work. They are four-years-old and 20-months-old and are high energy kiddos. I’m not sure if running after them is more of a workout than my 60-90 minutes at the gym. Their voices can be loud and insistent. Two of Lucy’s favorite words are yes and no. She says the former with enthusiasm—the latter with frustration and anger. Dean has the words to express much of what he is feeling but still prefers to raise his voice more than a few decibels at times. I have decided to do my best not to match energy with them and up the amps on the anger in the room. Sometimes trying to co-regulate helps as I sit on the floor with either or both of them, slowing my breathing, sitting still. One time in the midst of an episode like that I slid to the floor in the hallway in which they had been running back and forth and roaring like dinosaurs (they are quite good at that impersonation), scootched down against a wall, and started to take deep breaths for a moment or two. I asked Dean what animal we could be that was still and quiet and he said assuredly, “An owl.” We three owls were able to calm ourselves for a full five minutes before they were off to the races again. There are times when I need to give myself a time out, walk away, and take a deep breath, pushing the reset button. I know that this gives me a chance to oxygenate my brain and clear away the frustration. As an adoring grandparent-caregiver, I know it is part of my role to be one of the models in their lives for managing emotions, so I need to manage mine.

Most children use anger as a way of communicating their needs. Usually it has to do with transitioning from one activity to another, being asked to do something they don’t want to do or having their desires quelled.

I saw a quote recently that reflects the process of co-regulating, “When their storm meets our calm, co-regulation happens.” That can only happen if we as adults know how to do so. Sadly, that isn’t always the case, as multi-generational anger that can take the form of domestic violence needs to be tamed to protect the next generations.

Keep in mind that anger is a normal human emotion. It tells us that something is amiss. It can fuel action, both positive and negative. It can be a tool or a weapon. It can inspire us to get involved in solving societal problems.

For some, yelling is an instinctive reaction to feeling emotional pain in the same way it might be in the face of physical pain. If you fall and scrape your knee, or stub your toe, your initial inclination is to grab that body part and howl. When it is a momentary outburst, it is a release of energy. Once it dissipates, it is possible to ease back down to a calm mode. When it is prolonged is when it takes ahold of us and we are at its mercy.

The loss of temper can be graphically described as “flipping our lid” as I have seen it demonstrated. Make a fist out of either hand as you place that thumb over it. When the amygdala, which is the part of the brain that manages emotional regulation, gets stimulated, imagine your thumb popping up.

A former colleague named Glenn Gausz, with whom I had worked for many years in an out-patient rehab program before he died of cancer, was wise and phenomenally experienced in the fields of mental health and addictions. He was my go-to guy at the office when I want to pick someone’s brain about tricky situations. In a staff meeting, he was sharing his response when an insurance company didn’t provide the support for treatment that his client needed. His response was “That’s unacceptable.” Plain and simple. No wiggle room. He didn’t raise his voice. He didn’t need to, but he did speak firmly and authoritatively. I imagine that the person on the other end of the line did a cartoon double take. I have since adopted those two words as my default if nothing else works.

Anger management techniques can be learned in a therapeutic setting, a group environment, or on our own via reading books and articles, listening to podcasts, or watching TED talks. One such book, penned by Tom Ziemann is called Taming the Anger Dragon-From Pissed Off to Peaceful. In it, he shares his journey from bullying-induced anger to becoming a man of peace and incorporates anecdotes and strategies to keep the emotion from consuming us.

A pondering. Do you think humans are inherently angry and aggressive and we need to learn to control those impulses, or do you think we are inherently peaceful and cooperative and the violence that humans do when angry is an aberration?


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