Why Are People Mean?
“Friggin jerk!” Cecily screamed at the man in the blue Volvo who swerved too close for comfort. Even though her two young sons were in the car, she raged on, “What are you, a moron? Where did you learn to drive? I hope you rot.”
Cecily wanted help controlling her reactions. She knew instinctively her temper was damaging to her children and contributed to her high blood pressure. When Cecily described her road rage to me, she described herself as being angry with the man in the Blue Volvo. “Of course you were,” I validated, “After all, the driver scared the heck out of you.” But then, I explained to Cecily how she acted out that anger by yelling.
Cecily grew up in a family with lots of shouting and sometimes some hitting. Cecily naturally thought yelling and hitting WAS anger. I explained that from an emotion science standpoint, “anger” referred only to the internal experience. When her parents yelled, shouted, said mean things or hit her, they were acting out their anger. This distinction was an important one to understand.
Most people fear anger because they equate it with hurtful, scary and destructive actions. It’s an easy mistake to make. Anger happens so fast that the internal experience and the actions that follow appear to be one and the same. We have the internal experience and we act on it in an instant.
We feel it! We act!
With a little practice, we can slow down the whole experience of being angry into the two steps it actually is. By slowing down just a little bit, we can begin to notice a variety of things happening inside that hold the key to managing anger much more effectively. If we don’t actively slow down, however, the fuel inherent in our anger will speed us up and we will react almost immediately after the emotion is triggered in our middle brain.
I explained to Cecily that we had to help her learn to experience her anger but NOT discharge it with yelling. I suggested, “Let’s break down your experience into two steps: 1) The internal experience of your anger and 2) the expression of your anger.
So, what does it mean to simply experience our anger (without acting it out)?
- First it means to just notice and validate that you are angry and what happened that just triggered it. You may sense it as a jolt to your system or a rush of energy from your core. You say to yourself something like, “I notice I am angry. I think my anger arose just after the waiter took someone else’s order even though I was next in line.”
- Your anger is actually just a bunch of physical sensations. If you can slow down enough, you can sense the sensations of anger and describe them to yourself. And that is exactly what I teach people to do. An example of something I might say in a therapy session is, “Notice what is happening to you physically. Notice the sensations you are having and notice the flow of the energy that anger generates. Where do you notice the anger in your body? What is it like?”
- Your anger has impulses towards the one who hurt you. The impulses of anger are aggressive by nature. Anger wants to be nasty, even though other parts of you may want to be nice or calm. You can notice the impulses your anger brings forth: wanting to yell at drivers, to say mean things to people, or to lash out physically against those who anger you.
Staying with the experience of anger without doing anything is a challenge. And that’s one reason so many people discharge their anger by yelling, insulting, blaming, hitting, or abusing others. We do those things to discharge the energy of the anger; to get rid of the bad/painful/scary/angry feelings inside of us. And it works in the moment. But there are always negative consequences to acting out.
In summary, when we react in impulsive ways as a result of our anger, we are acting out.
There is also a term called acting in. Acting in means we turn all that angry energy against our Self, causing us harm. Types of acting in include cutting, starving, binging, doing drugs, and blocking our anger with depression and anxiety.
What helps us thrive in life is to learn to fully experience our anger but have the control of how and when we chose to act on it. When someone hurts us, we need to tune into our physical reactions and validate to our Self that we are indeed angry. We need to know who angered us, what we are angry about, and to listen to the impulse, which tells us how angry we are. The very last step is to think through the best course of action.
What are constructive courses of action?
- Asserting one’s needs effectively with kindness and strength. A helpful image is to imagine putting your anger in your back bone and saying something like, “It’s important to me that you help out with the housework” or “It’s important to me that when I say ‘NO’ you back off and don’t continue to try to get your way.”
- Setting boundaries with firmness and when possible with a calm and clear tone of voice. For example, “I don’t want you criticizing me or calling me names. If something I am doing is bothering you, let’s talk about it respectfully.” Or, “I do not like it when you touch me without asking if I’m ok with it.” Or, “If you’re going to be late, please let me know.”
- Tending to childhood wounds. Sometimes we have blocked anger from our childhood that leaks out in the present. If you suspect you have unaddressed anger that is negatively affecting your life today, it is a great idea to seek support. Many therapists, especially emotion-centered and trauma therapists are trained to help you release pent up anger in a safe way.
Noticing our internal experience is a practice honed over a lifetime. The benefit is that it enables us to listen to our anger, to be informed by our anger and not ruled by it. When we can tune into our anger before we react, and we have time to think before we react. When we can think and feel our anger at the same time, we can choose a response that is helpful and not hurtful.
So…why are people mean?
Because people act out their anger instead of first experiencing it internally. They react from the primary impulse of the anger, which always wants to be mean and aggressive.
You do not need to be in therapy to work on your anger. You can begin practicing slowing down in the midst of your reactions and getting to know your internal experience any time you want.
What physical sensations do you have when you’re angry?
To read about a time when I did this for myself, check out a past post here.
Jacobs Hendel, H. (2018). Why Are People Mean?. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 7, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/why-are-people-mean/