What it Really Means to “Keep Your Temper”

The following article was contributed by a Fierce Gentleman reader who is a self-described “ex-outlaw biker”. For anonymity purposes, he is going by the pseudonym The Mariner. 

Is it our culture, the media or religious conflict that make us angry men?

Action movies, thrillers, TV miniseries, TV news shows all display and provoke anger. Anger and fear are the proven tools for boosting TV viewer ratings. Our heroes may or may not display moral courage, but they almost always engage in righteous indignation and violence.

We forget that anger can sometimes be expressed with cold words. We reserve the adjective “cold-blooded” for our villains. Hot temper, loud words and violent actions are full of drama. They are “heroic.” And…we seem to love it. For some men, it has come to define masculinity.

It wasn’t always so, and we do not need to perpetuate it. It is the preferred tool of adolescents, the poor and the disenfranchised. In other words, the powerless. If they have no voice, they sometimes think shouting louder will get them heard.

They are wrong. They will just succeed in annoying the rest of us like the cranky child throwing a temper tantrum in a shopping mall.

Many years ago, I taught in a junior high school in a rough section of Brooklyn. I forget the euphemism they used to describe the neighborhood, but I remember we were paid on a higher scale (combat pay?), and I was obliged on several occasions to break up fights physically.

In one of my classes, there was a rather large, formidable-looking boy named Willie who was especially sensitive on the subject of his mother. Once the class found this out, they amused themselves by calling out, “Hey, Willie…yo’ mama!” He would always jump out of his seat and look angrily around the room to find out who had called out (presumably with the intent to teach a very pointed physical lesson to the offender). Willie wasn’t very bright or very observant, so all his rage was ineffective. He was like a monkey on a leash, dancing for the amusement of his classmates.

I, on the other hand, was quite observant and soon identified the offenders, putting a stop to this in the interest of classroom discipline. It wasn’t until years later that I fully understood the cruelty of Willie’s tormentors, but I did note the uselessness of anger in the face of amused detachment. Just so much sound and fury.

“No one can make you angry.”

Many years later, I found myself court-ordered to 20-sessions of drug and alcohol diversion, in plain language—group therapy. The counselor who ran the program told us, “No one can make you angry.” Since a lot of my behavior depended on my anger, I decided to prove her wrong. I discovered that this lady was particularly sensitive on the subject of her 19-year-old daughter. Like the students in my junior high school class, I worked this sensitivity, telling her that 19 was my favorite age when looking for girls to seduce.

I succeeded in pissing her off, but her words got to me, and when the sessions were over I went to her office and apologized. Her point was that anger did not have to be a knee-jerk reaction, that there was an instant before the anger exploded when we had the option of choosing a different reaction.

It was the knee-jerk, automatic quality of that reaction that made me the easily manipulated tool of others, just like Willie in that junior high school class. People might do things to me that I didn’t like, but I didn’t need to rage.

Viktor Frankl, in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, writing about his experiences in a Nazi concentration camp, asks “Does man have no choice of action in the face of such circumstances?” His answer: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”  (Tweet this)

We have free will and, therefore, are accountable for the choices we make.

The real meaning of “Losing one’s temper” 

For a hog-riding biker, bar-hopping with my buddies looking for women and trouble, my anger was very useful. The thing about anger is that it is easier to lose one’s temper than to learn social skills, easier to intimidate people than face one’s own feelings of awkwardness, guilt or inadequacy. Besides, it gets the attention of the women.

In the meanwhile, it was ruining my life. In the course of time, my hair-trigger temper drove my friends away and, in the words of Bob Dylan, “there wasn’t even anyone there to bluff.”

“Temper,” when applied to steel, is its hardness and toughness. It’s what enables a knife to maintain a razor-sharp edge. Losing one’s temper is, in effect, losing one’s keenness and focus. This is one reason why a raging bull can usually be defeated in a battle of wits. (Or, is that the point at which you start beating on the other guy, you crazy bull, you?)

Ironically, we admire the man who remains cool and focused in stressful and hazardous situations. Such a man develops gravitas (seriousness and moral weight), which pervades his every action and stance. And, such a man, almost inconspicuously, inspires respect. You don’t have to scream and threaten to get people to listen to you. Quite the opposite.

Rage is worse than a bad habit, it is a cup of poison. Anger, and particularly rage, is so common a part of the addictive personality that it merits mention in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. “Anger and resentment are the dubious luxuries of the normal drinker.” Notice that it is a “dubious luxury” for the normies. It’s potentially harmful to them as well (like a steady diet of rich foods). But, for an alcoholic (or any other kind of addict), it is a sure path to relapse.

So, how does one change what amounts to a very bad habit? You didn’t get there in one step. Backing off from it is a process. It starts with a willingness to change.

1. What is the common element?

One day, early in my recovery, I commented to a friend that I was having a difficult day. No matter where I went or whom I encountered, I seemed to be running into so many assholes. My friend pointed out that the only common element in all these encounters was me!

He suggested that I take these encounters, one at a time, and ask myself what my part in the conflict had been. What did I say or do that provoked the other person? What was my expectation? Did I project an antagonistic or demanding attitude? What could I have done differently? It surely got me thinking.

It was my first tool for dealing with anger, I acquired in the program of recovery.

2. The person opposite you is sick.

If a child is crying because it is sick or in pain, you may find the crying gets on your nerves, but you do not beat the child. The expression that you hear in the meeting rooms is “We are all sick. Some are just sicker than others.” Notice that this expression puts you in the category of “less sick” because you are controlling yourself and not letting the other guy provoke you. You are more in control. Even the medical profession acknowledges that addiction is a disease.

3. Writing about it.

Early in my recovery, I moved in with another guy working the program. We both were working on sobriety, we both liked girls and we both liked movies. What more was there? What could possibly go wrong?

I won’t go into irrelevant details. Suffice to say I was a street hustler and he was a redneck. One day after a shouting match, he left me a note on the refrigerator, describing all my flaws as he saw them and letting me know he was heading up north to visit his dad.

Here I was, boiling mad, and he wasn’t even around to bear the brunt of my anger. I knew the anger was bad for my program and, after all, we had to live under the same roof, so I composed a “conciliatory” letter, except I was still angry, so in the final paragraph I put a “hook,” a remark that started with “So, if you weren’t such an asshole, we wouldn’t be having this argument.”

The next day I looked at the letter and knew this wouldn’t do. I wrote another letter, more conciliatory, but still ending in a hook, though a less inflammatory one. In the next four days I wrote four more letters, each more conciliatory.

By the time he got back to our house, the letter was genuinely and completely conciliatory, the heat of the argument had cooled and my roommate’s demeanor was obviously also conciliatory.

That was all I needed. I never gave him the final letter (or any of the others) as it didn’t seem necessary. Compatibility was still an issue, and four months later he moved out. It was two years after that before we felt completely comfortable with each other when we would meet at an AA meeting.

4. Ignoring the offense isn’t (always) best.

One of my hare-brained strategies in dealing with people who provoked me before I worked the AA program was to pretend to ignore the annoyance. Maybe they called me by a nickname I didn’t like, maybe they nagged me to do something they thought I should do, maybe they asked me questions that pertained to personal matters and that were none of their business. I was “too cool” to let these things bother me, so I said nothing…until these behaviors became intolerable. Then, I would tell them off, call them names, use profanity and, if I was angry enough, smack them up the side of their head.

5. Setting boundaries helps.

It was my last wife who helped me see the light. She explained that I have a right to set boundaries, to let people with whom I associated know that certain actions and words were not alright. If they were friends, or at least respected me and valued my company, they would honor those boundaries.

Boundaries were not rules of behavior in general. They were only rules about how they treated me. Most of my friends and acquaintances honored those boundaries. I learned to avoid those who didn’t.

I didn’t deliberately provoke them. What was the point? I wasn’t going to be able to change them. But, I made no effort to be friendly with them beyond mere civility. To let them provoke me would have given them control of the situation and put me in the role of Willie. I don’t let jerks provoke me. I won’t dance to their tune. I walk away and leave them standing there. I’ve got nothing to prove.

6. The illusion of control.

One last cause of anger is our trying to make things happen that we have no control over, things that rely on circumstances and the cooperation of others, neither of which we can control.

This is mostly a young man’s game. As we mature, we discover the futility of that course of action. The only person that I can have complete control over is myself. I can change myself, I can change what I want, and I can change the way I look at the situation. Coercion, intimidation and money can get others to do what you want, but the results are limited. Once the money or intimidation stop, so does the compliance.

Sometimes, people want the same things we do. That’s called cooperation or teamwork. But those conditions only apply in specific situations. This is one reason why male organizations are so hierarchical. Think about corporations, armed forces, political agencies and organizations, religious hierarchies, teams and crews. Someone has to decide on the policy. Someone has to supervise and coordinate the effort. And, someone has to do the heavy lifting.

When dealing with relations that are not so formal, I can hope for the cooperation of others, but I cannot expect it. And, if I get angry because people have chosen not to cooperate, I am the fool.

Anger is not necessarily bad

If you have read this far, you may have concluded, incorrectly, that anger is bad. Perhaps you have heard the adage, “I don’t get angry; I get even.” Or, as Archie Bunker said, “What’s the matter with revenge; it’s a great way of getting even.” Some of us justify this attitude by arguing that if we allow injuries or insults to go unpunished, we invite more of the same.

The problem is getting even without suffering punishment. You usually can’t respond directly by hauling off and smacking the offender in the face. He may be bigger and stronger or a more skilled fighter. If you do this in front of witnesses, you are likely to face assault and battery charges. If you move in more law-abiding circles, you can sabotage his plans or damage his property. Of course, the revenge is meaningless unless the offender knows that the act of vengeance came from you.

Plus, getting even is no guarantee that there will be no repetition of the offense. In the meanwhile, you have been obsessing about the injury, running it round and round in your mind. (How could he have said this to me? Does he know who I am? And, what about all those people who watched him do it?) This is bad for your physical and mental health and, at least until you take your vengeful action, does not hurt the offending party. In fact, he’s not even aware of the angst you are going through. You are “renting out space” in your brain to the person who injured you.

Often, fantasies of crushing vengeance end with no action being taken. And, simply stuffing it (holding on to the anger but doing nothing about it) is also ineffective and damaging to your health. I can tell you, it is a primary cause of chronic depression.

What’s bad is not the anger but the heat. What you need to do is make a “tactical withdrawal” without showing fear. You need to give yourself time to engage your reasoning brain and think about it, not merely run the emotional pain of the encounter round and round your head.

I’ve already discussed some of the things you need to think about, but you have to distract yourself first. See a movie, listen to music, read a book, work on some project, reconcile your checking account. When the heat subsides somewhat (this may take an hour, a day or even a couple of days), consider:

  1. What did you do to precipitate the conflict?
  2. Was the offensive action by the other guy conscious, intentional and unprovoked? Be rigorously honest with yourself.
  3. What is the other person’s reputation among the people you both know? If he is a known ass-hole, people will probably recognize that the conflict was his doing and may even admire your restraint in not rising to the bait.
  4. If your anger is merely a disguise for fear—fear of losing something that is yours—possessions, position, respect, friendship or affection—examine this fear. Is it reasonable? If you have been embarrassed or your feelings have been hurt, there might be some point in making this clear to the other person. Sometimes, others are ignorant of things that seem obvious to us. Sometimes, the offense was unintentional, the result of ignorance.

Expressing anger does not have to be done abusively. In fact, you have a better chance of being heard and understood if you express it respectfully and honestly. If the other person has a reason for getting along with you (friendship, working together, sharing a home etc.), he or she is more likely to respond cooperatively when the heat has subsided and the two of you are engaging in a calm discussion aimed at avoiding a recurrence of the conflict. On the other hand, if this person has some personal dislike for you or has decided that you are an enemy, your best bet—for your own serenity—is to avoid or minimize contact with him or her. There are crises and conflicts enough in daily life, so you do not need to seek them out.

Anger & Women

One last word about anger, specifically in relation to women. We can sometimes seduce women (if you are into that kind of thing), but we can’t make them love us. You can buy all the candy and flowers in the world, take them to fancy restaurants and nightclubs, take them to concerts and plays. The only woman you can buy is a prostitute, no matter what she calls herself. And, for you to rage because she does not reciprocate your yearnings is foolish and futile. Will she love you more after you’re through haranguing her?

Women have free will as well as men. The only love worth having is the love that is freely given. And, the things you give her or do for her should be freely given, as well and done without expectation of return. In other words, if you are doing something for her just to get into her pants, don’t do it. (Her pants probably won’t fit on you, anyway.)

Things have changed radically in the past 50 years. Some men still try to insist on male prerogatives that only existed when the division of labor in a typical family was men as the breadwinners and women as the homemakers and child-nurturers. That no longer prevails. Those are the facts of life. The modern pattern is more of a partnership. If you live with a woman that you feel you have a right to control, it might make for a more amiable relationship if you experimented with the other, cooperative partnership pattern. Even in the day when men were head of household, the happiest marriages were those in which the preferences and desires of the woman were respected.

If some idiot asks you who wears the pants in your family, answer him truthfully, “Both of us do!”

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One of the greatest things you could do for an anger addiction is take up the habit of meditation. Right now we’re beta testing a 7-day class. You can join it completely FREE right here.

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