What's "normal" anger?
July 10, 2013 7:27 PM   Subscribe

You are a person who has a normal, healthy, societally-standard relationship with anger. What does that look like? How do you express it? How frequently? How do people around you respond to it?

It's becoming clearer and clearer to me that my approach to anger (i.e., that anyone who expresses any anger is a Bad Person Who Cannot Be Trusted) is not healthy, or at least not usual. My partner does occasionally express anger or frustration, and an outburst which he appears to have forgotten 5 minutes later leaves me distrustful and shaky for a day or two. A recent example: I heard him yell "Never do that!" at our toddler over the weekend and went tearing through the house to find them, fully convinced he was beating the shit out of the baby. (He's never laid a hand on anyone, and was pretty disgusted that that was my response. Meanwhile it's 4 days later and I can still barely look him in the eye because I'm still afraid.)

The thing is that I do actually think that my partner has had a problem managing his anger recently, but because I have no internal calibration for this kind of thing, I'm not actually sure if he's just skewing into the normal range after being more repressed, or if these are actual legitimate danger signs. I have discussed therapy with him. He absolutely refuses, and I plan to get a referral for myself at my next doctor's appointment to help me sort through what I can handle, and what sort of developmentally-appropriate limits I should be setting for my child.

But as a preliminary starting point, I'm interested in hearing how a person who can actually be angry while still being a functional person in society does it, just to get some sense of what "normal" means in this context. Do you yell in private? In front of family? In public? Do you separate yourself from the situation and go for a walk or engage? Do you maintain some composure or lose your cool? How often do you get angry? Explain it like I'm an alien. (I've seen a couple of Asks from people on the opposite end of the spectrum which is helpful, but maybe the answers are overcompensating in that direction.)
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (28 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
I can imagine few incidents where I would yell at a toddler that did not involve the impending death of such child.

I also think anger is s spectrum disorder like autism or OCD. Not to minimize those, but different people can function at different levels with different levels of anger.

I'm also 42 now and not nearly as angry as I was 20 years ago. I still get worked up about shit from high school. It's like it's ingrained. Same stuff happens now, I could care less.

I'm not sure you will find the answer you are looking for. Anger is too situationally dependent. It's also too dependent on the individual.

I would say anger is like alcohol. It's your own damn business until it starts to affect others.
posted by cjorgensen at 7:39 PM on July 10, 2013

There are times when it's appropriate to get angry about something, and a lot of people express that anger loudly, sometimes explosively. There often needs to be a safe place, time or situation for people to express their anger, in a way that won't hurt their social and professional relationships. For example, I am a manager, and I have made my (closed door) office a "safe" zone for venting. People can come in, close the door, and swear, shake their fists, call people names and generally vent their frustrations, and I will neither judge nor be offended. I see it as helping my colleagues.

There are other times, though, where I have been in earshot of someone venting their anger, and have definitely not felt comfortable - mostly because people in that mental state are liable to do things they regret later. My approach is to disengage, get out of the situation, and come back when the person is calm and see what can be discussed rationally at that stage.

If you'll allow me to look past your direct question to your situation, it reads like you are very fearful and somewhat judgmental of people who express their anger out loud. So, allow me to turn the question on you; how do YOU express yourself when you're angry? Do you bottle it up inside, or do you express your anger openly in some way? Could the way you express yourself be colouring how you see others' expression of anger?
posted by LN at 7:39 PM on July 10, 2013 [7 favorites]

The question of what constitutes "good" anger has come up a few times before on AskMeFi. I think in summary, this usually breaks down into two camps:

A) Anger is scary and "lazy" because it is a secondary emotion (e.g., people use anger to express hurt or betrayal), so it is "bad"
B) Anger can be a "good" force by compelling someone to act in a creative way to solve a problem (e.g., organizing public outrage against some perceived injustice)

I think we can use these two points as goalposts to define a continuum of "good" anger. If you can express your anger in a poignant, focused manner without being overly threatening, I think it can be a useful thing. But there is always a potential for anger to be perceived as aggression, if it isn't tempered with reason and very carefully communicated, so you must tread lightly.
posted by deathpanels at 7:43 PM on July 10, 2013

I heard him yell "Never do that!" at our toddler over the weekend and went tearing through the house to find them, fully convinced he was beating the shit out of the baby. (He's never laid a hand on anyone, and was pretty disgusted that that was my response. Meanwhile it's 4 days later and I can still barely look him in the eye because I'm still afraid.)

This is not normal.

You need to find out why you react to anger this way. Your husband was likely scared that the toddler was about to hurt itself. That you can't get over it when it was a non-incident is also ... unhealthy.

How do you express anger? Everyone gets angry just as everyone gets sad, happy, mopey, ebullient or sleepy.

Talk about it with a therapist. You shouldn't have an adverse reaction to a regular emotion from someone you trust (which is how you describe your partner).
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 7:53 PM on July 10, 2013 [10 favorites]

I heard him yell "Never do that!" at our toddler over the weekend and went tearing through the house to find them, fully convinced he was beating the shit out of the baby.

This leaves out a crucial part of the story. Was he actually reacting to the toddler doing something dangerous (reaching out to a hot stove, trying to climb through a window, grabbing the dog by the neck, etc.)? If so, yelling "never do that!" is not even an expression of anger at all; it's an expression of urgency made in a split second order to protect the child. It's only an issue of anger if what triggered your husband to yell was something that wasn't actually putting your child in danger. I mean, you can see there's a meaningful difference between yelling "never do that!" at your child for throwing Legos vs. throwing a knife, right?
posted by scody at 8:00 PM on July 10, 2013 [38 favorites]

I once asked one of my meditation teachers how to know when I was wallowing in an emotion vs holding it in balance, and he said, "Wallow. Until you know, consciously, what it feels like to be out of balance, you won't be able to gauge when you are in balance." This was in the context of a different emotion, but I have found his advice very helpful over time.

Also, I am, in Buddhist psychology terms, an "angry" type. As a consequence, my first impulsive reaction to almost any stimulus is anger. That has become much less obvious over time, with my increased awareness, and with my increasing understanding that the benefit of anger is that it can transform to clarity. Sometimes it takes that burning anger to just shear away everything extraneous and brand into your mind the essence of what the problem is. Anger is a very useful tool so long as you do not become its tool.

I feel like these are just partial answers but do feel free to memail me if you want more info.
posted by janey47 at 8:04 PM on July 10, 2013 [17 favorites]

I think I have a pretty normal amount of and relationship with anger. I can't even remember the last time I was ANGRY in my day-to-day life. The most recent time that comes immediately to mind wasn't even in 2013.

I do get annoyed/ticked off. I feel like I have to give examples since what I will do varies depending on the situation.

I have had many roommates in my life. One roommate was playing video games super loud at 6 am and woke me up. I lay in my bed feeling very annoyed for like a minute, and then I got up and walked over and stood in his doorway. While I was opening my mouth to speak, he said, "Well you don't look like you've been up for very long." I told him his video games were so loud that I dreamed I was in them. He laughed and said he would turn them down. I turned and went back to bed, I didn't have enough energy for more of a response.

The same roommate left the toilet seat super dirty one day. I opened the lid and saw it just before I had to go to work. It was disgusting and I was so pissed off that I thought about it all day at work. What I did was I just turned around and left it there, with the lid up, which we normally don't do. When I got back home the lid was back down and it had been cleaned up.

If someone's driving is annoying me sometimes I will do petty things in response if I am alone in the car. For example once there was a guy who went nuts behind me because, in slow-moving traffic, I didn't move up immediately every time the car in front of me moved up. He went nuts like honking, making gestures at me, and I could hear him screaming about what a bitch I was. He was right up on my bumper. So, on purpose I went super super slow, and just made him wait a couple extra seconds in general. I don't do immature car-related things if other people are in the car with me, ever.

If someone in a car does something that seriously endangers my life (I'm thinking of a time where I was in the process of changing into an exit lane, and someone speeding crazily behind me in my lane zoomed up, passed me on the right in the lane I was changing into even though there was an open lane to my left, and zoomed off not giving a shit) then I will probably yell a few loud vulgarities as a reflex even if other people are in the car with me. Not for more than a few seconds at most. Then I refocus and I don't drive dangerously as a reaction.

Umm. I had this moment down at a municipal sports field where a group of out-of-towners having a picnic told my friends and I that they had "claimed" the field we were trying to use by getting there before us, and they would be kicking us off when they finished their picnic and wanted to play. All the other fields were full. The sports fields actually have rules about this and you can't reserve a field like that. They were very hostile and snotty towards us (one of the guys talking to us had his wife yell over to him and shriek, "kick them out, just kick them out!!!")

We were considering staying on the field to make a point, but then another field opened, so we decided to just let it go. We told them that they can't "reserve" a field like that, and if they keep coming to our town they would be likely to meet other groups of people who would not give up the field, but we would move to a different field because there was one open. At that point, the men said okay and thanked us. We were all still kind of giving each other the stink eye, but everyone for the most part was pretty rational even if their tone was really hostile at first, and nobody screamed except for that one crazy wife.

Here are things that I never do. I never throw, kick, punch, or break things in anger. And I absolutely cannot be around anyone who does that. It raises my anxiety and stress to a crazy level.

I also cannot be around yellers. I do yell sometimes if I'm trapped in an argument with a yeller, I will yell back. Fortunately, I'm not currently in a life situation where I get trapped into arguments with yellers. In general, hearing angry yelling at all, even if it's not directed at me, makes my anxiety shoot up. I could not share a wall with an apartment where people yelled at their kids a lot, for example.

I definitely cannot be around the kind of person who has this simmering anger where you can feel the tension in the room, and you just have to wait for their anger to EXPLODE! Regardless of whether it does explode, or never ever explodes and you just feel like it will, I can't be around people like that.

I also just dislike being around people who are angry A LOT, even if they don't let it out in the above ways. By a lot I mean like once a week even. More than that would be very stressful for me.

Apart from real life situations, I do get angry about things I hear on the news or read about. When I was a teenager I would have angry verbal fights with people of the opposite political persuasion (which included yelling on both sides, but not really namecalling or really bad hostility). Now if I feel the urge to do that I just do it on the internet. If I talk about these things with someone IRL it is usually mutual rantfests with someone who agrees with me.

If I am in a bad mood in general I try my best not to take it out on others or be cranky in unrelated situations.
posted by cairdeas at 8:06 PM on July 10, 2013 [7 favorites]

There's a huge difference between just being angry versus directing anger towards others. Lots of things make me angry: traffic, the cat peeing on the floor, uncooperative computers... but I don't yell at anybody about it. Yelling at other people is often not "expressing anger", so much just general abuse.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 8:13 PM on July 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

FWIW this is an excellent book on understanding anger: When Anger Hurts
posted by gillianr at 8:17 PM on July 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Also, I have believed for a long time that my lifelong anxiety disorder was triggered in large part by having been yelled at and hit so much as a child (like daily, often multiple times daily). Even if I hadn't been hit I think the just the yelling itself could have done it for me. I doubt that I will ever be completely free of my anxiety disorder and there are times in my life when it has been very debilitating.
posted by cairdeas at 8:22 PM on July 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

I am an angry man. With anger comes tolerance. Lashing out at people does not evince desirable results. You learn to accept that society, as a whole, is not out there to please you or conform to your will.

Most people who trigger an "anger response" do so unwittingly.

There are no battles to be won, no fights to be started, only a willingness on the part of the aggrieved ( ie: me) to find their own inner solution. You learn to accept what is beyond your control; from asshats delaying shopping lines to clowns driving like morons while babbling away on their cells.

Shouting at a child I cannot help you with, children don't anger me ( unless they're acting up in a restaurant then I have been known to say "take that kid to church!)
posted by Max Power at 8:40 PM on July 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

The only time I use my scary teacher yelling power is when my students do something reckless or violent that I need to end right that moment. So far I've had to use it twice while teaching a group of at-risk students. The first instance, a student threw scissors in my classroom. The second, one student slapped another student in front of me, in my class, and I was pretty sure I had about two seconds before an actual fight was going to go down. The reaction both times to my teacher yell was an immediate halt to everything that was going on in the room and varying levels of contrition amongst the offenders. None of them ever pulled those behaviors in my classroom again, and I won the best teacher award by that whole group of students so I'm fairly confident in saying the classes don't think of me as a terrifying and angry person.

Other than those two times, I cannot recall the last time I actually yelled at someone. It would've been back in high school, I imagine. I mean, I yell at people all the time in my head or sometimes alone in my car for a second or two. But actually at someone is only for danger.

If I were to yell, "Never do that!" to a toddler, it would be for a "holding a metal knife and trying to insert it into a light socket" type of situation. In which case I'd feel absolutely fine about having yelled in that situation.
posted by vegartanipla at 9:16 PM on July 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

It's all about context. Toddler running toward a busy road? Absolutely appropriate to yell. Toddler crayoning on the wall? I wouldn't yell over that. My husband (a stay-at-home-dad) does yell at our toddler occasionally, like when he threw a dirty litterbox or when he Sharpied everything in a four-foot radius. It does seem to impress on our son that these things are Not OK, and usually he will sit quietly in a time-out after an incident like that, because he knows that Daddy is mad.

I personally am not much of a yeller and really reserve loud anger for the life-threatening things like proximity to traffic, but I don't think there's anything wrong with yelling, but there's yelling and then there's YELLING, you know? So without hearing the tone it's hard to say whether it was normal or not, and whether your reaction is appropriate or not.

I can't say that I've yelled in anger other than the toddler/traffic incidents (there have been two of those) in years. I don't yell at other adults, no matter how angry I am, I discuss why I am angry. My spouse definitely is more of a heller when angry, but it's maybe 2-3 times a year. I think we are both pretty normal
posted by rabbitrabbit at 9:27 PM on July 10, 2013

Having kids can be incredibly stressful and can lead to raising voices in a way that does not necessarily indicate an unhealthy level of anger. It sounds like you and your partner have different ways of expressing emotions.

I would recommend getting the book Becoming The Parent You Want To Be for both of you. It will help you both learn useful, practical ways to express your emotions to each other and your child.

I come from a family where all the emotions are right there on the surface, and I grew up used to noisy overwrought expressions of those emotions that were then followed by whatever apologies or explanations were necessary. My husband grew up in a family where nothing was ever said out loud. As joint parents we find ourselves at an impasse all the goddamn time. Learning to deal with each other's vastly different ways of handling emotional expressions has been pretty much key to not killing one another (I would do it violently and messily and then weep about it in the front lawn until the cops showed up, he would quietly smother me in my sleep and then hide the body without telling a soul).

Yelling is not necessarily abnormal, neither is being able to be frustrated and angry without showing it in word or deed. But for everyone in the family, being able to recognize emotions, give them a name, understand how those emotions affect the people around us, and apologize for those effects if necessary, is important.

In the specific example of "NEVER DO THAT!", a parent might say something specific like "we don't bring food into the living room!" or "hitting the dog is not kind!". A parent might need to raise her voice to underscore the importance of this, with a small child, particularly if it weren't the first time the child had been asked to behave in a certain way, but very clear instruction works best.
posted by padraigin at 9:30 PM on July 10, 2013 [4 favorites]

I've almost asked this question myself, several times. What I've found over time is that "what's normal" kind of doesn't matter. Your comfort zone is your comfort zone. I've moved only about 10-20% in my ability to deal with anger. (I still feel like they're crazy and dangerous but can now stay articulate enough to reply.) And your instincts probably are mostly valid.

Your problem is that you are co-parenting and can't just walk away from this person. Maybe via couples counseling you two can learn how to deal with this difference? It's unfortunate he won't consider that. Hopefully via therapy you can find a way to ask for that, or for other changes that help keep you in the comfort zone.
posted by salvia at 11:50 PM on July 10, 2013 [3 favorites]

To me, a huge difference 'tween anger expressed about someone (in another car or some such) and anger expressed directly to someone, and countless shades of gray.

Big difference 'tween a driver saying, "Fuuuuuckin' idiot" in a normal voice, yelling that, yelling more than a couple words.

Not clear how you define "outburst" or how often they happen (or what the toddler was up to), but it's hard to see how outbursts of any seriousness and frequency reflect a healthy approach that doesn't need to be addressed.

From what you've said and about 35 years of adult life experience, can't see that this is "skewing into the normal range."

The refusal to try therapy is concerning relative to him, you and the child. What does he have to lose?

(Since you asked, I raise my voice once in the bluest of blue moons, and that's true of the overwhelming majority of people I've been around, regardless of context.)
posted by ambient2 at 12:53 AM on July 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

The guy upstairs was screaming at his toddler a couple of weeks ago, and his wife was trying so hard to intervene. The guy finally shut up, and his toddler was bawling and bawling, terrified.

I felt horrible hearing it. Screaming at a toddler is not okay. People who haven't learned how to manage their anger appropriately shouldn't be near babies. Yes, your husband may be stressed or tired or whatever, but he's a grown up and it's his job to learn how to manage his emotions without terrifying your baby.

Does he resent your baby, btw? Does he seem to enjoy your family, or is he a reluctant, unhappy father? If there's any resentment, etc., I'd say you should squirrel money away until you can make sense of what's happening and then leave if he continues screaming at the baby. Your husband is responsible for learning to control his emotions. You can't help him. You can only shield your baby from another terrifying emotional outburst from your husband by leaving.
posted by discopolo at 1:09 AM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

I get very angry when I feel I'm not being listened to or someone's deliberately testing me or wasting my time (or trying to kill me with their stupid driving). But I usually walk (or drive) away. Sometimes I raise my voice but I don't really ever yell. I don't really like being around people who yell and I'm deeply affected by angry responses for a very long time (no childhood abuse, though). I am more likely to withdraw and get grumpy when I'm angry. I do swear a lot in the car though.

We don't know why your husband said what he said so we can't know if it was a rational or irrational response. Anger can often be associated with fear. So was he afraid of your toddler hurting themselves? If not, it's probably more concerning - maybe it's work-related, maybe he's concerned about his ability to parent.

I would talk your responses out with a therapist.
posted by heyjude at 2:28 AM on July 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

Like others have said, it's one thing if your toddler was doing something dangerous or violent. That might merit a shout.

At the same time, it's another thing if your toddler was doing something innocuous that for some reason or another just happened to be something your partner doesn't like. Here is what you need to establish:

1. What caused your partner to shout
2. Whether your partner intended to shout
3. Whether your partner thinks he shouted

If he continues having angry outbursts at your child when your child is doing nothing that merits shouting, please talk to a therapist and consider leaving. I have a friend who grew up in a household with a father who would frequently yell and rant at the kids and then "forget" that he had shouted. It did not get any better as she got older. As a result she says she has trouble finding healthy ways to express her emotions, and she has severe problems with guilt and anxiety.

On the flip side, if he says something like toddler-anon kicked me in a particularly sensitive area, or toddler-anon was dangling out the 4th floor window, respect that someone might reasonably get very loud about that sort of thing.
posted by donut_princess at 5:29 AM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Anger is an emotion. It's neither good nor bad.

How you react to it internally and externally is one thing that characterizes growth. As you get older and older, anger stops being the thing that justifies bad or destructive behavior. Its origins lie in 'hurt', and I've found that I dwell more on the fact that I am hurt as I age, and anger helps me identify when that is happening.

Yelling is but one form of behavior. By itself, it's not bad. You seem to be confusing the motivation behind the yelling with the yelling. It may have the beneficial outcome of preventing the behavior of the kid quite well. So may explaining. It's not always inappropriate.

Telling someone to get therapy because he's 'angry' is at best, a misstatement of the problem. We all get angry. It's part of being human. Would you get him a therapist for being tall or talking with an accent?

Getting him a larger playbook of responses to it may not take a therapist. It may take a book, a friend, patience, husband training, a long time.
posted by FauxScot at 5:40 AM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

My family fights by getting very quiet, very short, and overall kinda icy. My GF's family fights Italian, loud voices, pacing, hand waving, and hyperbole out the wazoo. It can be very hard for me to tell the difference between 'ARGH! IRKED!" and 'OMFG, ANGRY!' Also since it is not my fighting/survival style, any raised voices can make me pretty skittish. There are things you can do to minimize your reactions to anger. Being out and out afraid of anger does seem dis-proportionate (probably) and maybe unhealthy. But then, I worked with a lot of abused people so that kinda tints my world view a bit.

As for your husband, like people said, depends. Is he from one of the... well, more passionate races? How is his everyday stress and frustration levels? What was his family like? I think therapy for you might be very good to adjust to different communication styles
posted by Jacen at 7:46 AM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

This might sound silly, but I'd recommend watching Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood*. Bonus: you can watch it with your toddler! How to Talk So Your Kids Will Listen is a good book about expression of emotions in families, too. Your expectation that no one ever express anger isn't good, or healthy! But yelling isn't necessarily the best way to express it either.

I come from a simmer-while-never-admitting-you're-mad-followed-by-epic-explosion family, and so realizing that I could look at my emotions and say, "I'm really angry! I'm frustrated and not feeling good! I need to remove myself from this situation so I can cool off!" has been incredibly liberating.

Being mad is okay. Saying you're mad is okay too! Acting out of anger to hurt other people or things is not okay.

*Here is an adorable toddler singing a song about anger from the show. The lyrics, if you can't hear them, are "If you're feeling mad and you want to roar . . . take a deep breath and count to four!"
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:09 AM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

I feel like I am mellower than most (generally public transit fills me with a feeling of solidarity with humankind and when things go kablooey in my life I assume it's my bad rather than looking for someone to blame) but I have also been known to yell. Verbal expressions of anger and frustration are more common in Korean culture*; back in the day I dated a Japanese* American who was utterly horrified if I swore at him and completely baffled that I pulled two entire shelves of books onto the floor in anger. (Please note the books weren't thrown, but um, I was definitely having a conniption). But then I dated a wall-kicker who expressed frustration by taking it out on the house and that just freaked me out. Kicking! Scary! Even though it had no more force than an "aw shucks" scuff. In both cases, the "scarier" partner gradually modulated their behavior, but not completely.

So out of the answers here so far, I'm definitely more in the camp of "anger, it happens" and that we have different pathways to express/suppress it. I think LN's question as to how you respond to your own anger is a good one.

I will say that I can tell when I'm having a disproportionately strong response to stressors/irritations because I start thinking: Everyone is Doing It Wrong. I glare at the Scandinavian exchange students on the bus for not moving to the back of the bus and clumping by the driver. I glare at tourists on Segways because WRONG. Aggravations can build up and then I will get snappish with my fiance over something stupid. And then I realize, "oh, I'm underslept. Perhaps this 5 minute delay is not worth STORMCLOUD FACE and SWEARING %#*&!."

* (I am uncomfortable with essentializing, but I do think our past experiences provide context here, and cultural background is a thing, even if there is a ton of diversity within a defined culture as well. In-public yelling was a much more common occurrence when I lived in Seoul, for example. Koreans also have "anger disease" which is usually from suppressing anger. Anecdotally, I knew more older women who were diagnosed.)
posted by spamandkimchi at 8:31 AM on July 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

Hoo boy. I am an emotionally expressive person and, yes, will yell when I'm really really angry and frustrated. Generally this is not often.

Want to know the thing that has provoked more anger and frustration and yelling than any other thing in my life? Being married to someone who was so completely unable to deal with anger--their own or anyone else's--and with such deeply rooted conflict avoidance that our marriage turned into a fairly hellish passive aggressive nightmare.

Yes, the pressures of parenting brought this out in spades.

It is COMPLETELY LEGITIMATE for people to get frustrated and angry in their marriages and while raising children. There has to be a way to convey this, relieve frustration, commiserate, problem solve. Of course there are expressions of this that are way out of line and abusive. It's not at all clear from this anecdote whether that line has been crossed. But I would ask you to examine your own responses. The idea that anger is never ever acceptable is its own pathological pitfall.

My suggestion--get to counseling together. Don't present this as something that's broken in him that needs to be fixed, present it as something between the two of you that needs to be handled better. Having an impartial third party in the conversation can help the two of you figure out what's reasonable and what's not. It can be really hard to have that perspective from the inside.
posted by Sublimity at 8:56 AM on July 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

A few months ago I started seeing a therapist because instead of experiencing anger as a slow burn to frustration and then irritation and then anger and an explicit accounting of all that was offending me I was instead experiencing short and inexplicably intense bursts of anger at random times, seemingly initiated by unrelated events.

Turns out that some of my childhood-repressed-memories seem to need some attention, and my therapist and I are reworking how I experience and express anger in any case. It's been a very interesting ride with some fun bits and some not so fun bits and there's still a lot to do, but we're making a lot of progress.

One thing I learned early on is that while I initially thought a bit like you do about the expression of anger and trustworthiness it's actually not the case that expressing anger is Bad. Expressing anger is thought to be a good part of the way our overall emotional makeup deals with the constant stream of low-grade insults and frustration that we are exposed to as a part of daily life.

The other thing is that with kids, you often have to be pretty emotionally genuine and intense to get their attention. I'm not saying that getting angry a lot is the best way to set boundaries and make sure kids learn your boundaries, but it's part of the total suite. Kids and kid-raising is just so intense that they will break you down to your elemental self on occasion and it's okay to lose control as long as that doesn't include abusive behavior or long-term damage. We can't all be endlessly patient and Spock-like in the face of the constant onslaught of needing, wanting and pushing that can be raising kids. (Especially at 4 am when you're short on sleep in only the way a toddler can make you be.) Kids sometimes need to know that there are strong and well-defended boundaries in you while they push to figure out where they end and the world begins.
posted by kalessin at 9:15 AM on July 11, 2013

If four days later you can't look at your partner because you're scared that he yelled one phrase at your kid, then you're right, your internal calibration is off. Normally the people here would be able to help you tell whether your partner's ways of expressing himself are healthy/normal, because you'd be able to fairly accurately describe what had happened. But based on what you say here about your reactions, I think you're probably not able to be a reliable narrator. (Not that you don't want to be: I'm not questioning your motives. I just don't think you can do it.) So, I'd advise you to ignore any answers that try to evaluate your partner's behaviour: I don't think anyone here has the information they would need to do that well.

I think therapy for you (not couple's counselling) is the first step. You need to get your own house in order, because regardless of whether your partner has a problem, I think you definitely do. And it sounds like you know that, which is great.

In terms of what's normal -- it's really hard to say because anger is so influenced by culture. I'm Canadian, and I have noticed that I have difficulty sometimes interacting with people from Italy, Ireland, Spain, Israel and France. I have to consciously recalibrate myself, otherwise I find myself confused and anxious, wondering why they are so shouty and mad. Truth is they are shouty, but not mad. I find Scandinavians, the English and Germans much easier, but that's just because their calibration is closer to mine.

It might be worth you reading the book Anger by Carol Tavris. She debunks a lot of myths about anger -- the most important being that venting is helpful. Venting, the research shows, increases and amplifies anger rather than reducing it: the "safety valve" metaphor is actually wrong. That said, expressing anger in a healthy way is an important skill: bottling it up and being unable to resolve conflict because of fear is unhealthy.

Good luck.
posted by Susan PG at 9:53 AM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

To counter the "anger is an emotion, neither good nor bad" concept, I once read (here, somewhere) that anger actually isn't an emotion. It's a reaction to some other emotion that the person may or may not be completely aware of. I'm not sure if this is true or not, but it is an interesting way to think about anger. Because in my experience, anger usually stems from something else. Fear and frustration mostly.

Same thing with the icy coolness versus yelling and gesticulating. Those aren't necessarily expressions of anger, but problem solving methodologies. What matters is the intent. Are we loudly hammering out a disagreement? Or are we trying to be hurtful with each other? Are we venting, or do we really mean what we are saying?
posted by gjc at 7:43 PM on July 11, 2013

Kids get yelled at for all kinds of reasons. For touching breakable things, for opening unlocked windows, for lunging at electrical sockets with butter knives, for ripping a grown-ups magazine (and toddlers don't have ANY understanding of this stuff beyond "fun times!"). Sure these things are not the best things for kids to be doing, but why, in their own homes, are these things available to toddlers? Because lots of parents expect age inappropriate levels of self control from kids. There is no amount of telling a kid "no" that will prevent them from continuing to pick up your snowglobes. (As mentioned above, we have no idea what the yelling was about. But if it was about something that shouldn't even be in the kid's range of motion...fix THAT.)

Anger is not a verb. Being angry is different from yelling. Neither the emotion of anger nor the yelling are good habits to be constantly aiming at people of any age unless you're a sports coach in a loud gym, or saving a life, but especially not toward children in their homes. This may happen with great frequency across the nation (and thus be considered "normal"), but it is not healthy.

This is especially poignant for me because it took me a lot of therapy to learn/realize that I was a very very angry person into my mid twenties. But I didn't think I was angry until then because I didn't throw things, or call anyone names, or yell at people, or otherwise "do" anger.

Now, I'm a lot less angry but I do yell at drivers who nearly run me over in crosswalks. (They are almost universally speeding and running a light to turn right through a crosswalk. My primary emotion in those cases is fear, and my secondary emotion is definitely anger. Because I know that, I yell at them that they scared me and are being dangerous, or "Watch for pedestrians!" Sometimes I'll throw in a "This is not how I want to die!" while gesturing at the space between their car and myself.) Note that I do not engage in name calling, and I don't make threats, which it sounds like your husband is also NOT DOING. This is good. If he were calling your kid stupid, or threatening to spank the toddler, I'd be much much more worried.

I want you to think about how you and your husband talk about the anger. Is this a shame thing or a guilt thing? By that, I mean, is it about who each of you fundamentally is (shame)? Or about what you are both doing? Is one of you framing it one way and the other another way? Are you telling him you don't like that he "is an angry person" or that "his behavior" scares you? If you are focusing on who he is, then your odds of getting pushback are high. If you are focusing on the behavior and he is still pushing back, that's a different story.

What helped me the most has been framing things as "I am a person who works really hard to recognize and regulate my emotions and respect what they can teach me about my life." To be fair, I come from a very abusive background (parents "doing" anger all the time, often but not always directed at me) which skews my remarks.

Please do not tolerate someone repeatedly "doing" anger at your child. It is damaging in the long term.
posted by bilabial at 8:39 AM on July 13, 2013

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