This past Sunday during the Oscars, Chris Rock made a joke about Will Smith’s wife. Will Smith walked up on the stage and slapped him for it. When first seeing the video, I was shocked and thought it was staged, it was so unbelievable. But it wasn’t. Will Smith was angry. The reactions varied from those saying he was defending his wife to his actions being an indication of toxic masculinity.
Outside of seeing the clip, I didn’t know the context. Did the two have a history? How many times has Will Smith heard slights or jokes about his wife’s medical condition? This by no means condones the behaviour, and there are obviously much better ways one could have handled it. But the event made me look at my own relationship with anger and my work on managing it.
What is anger?
The American Psychological Association defines anger as “…an emotion characterized by antagonism toward someone or something you feel has deliberately done you wrong.” We often think of anger as bad, but like all emotions, it has a place. Anger can alert you to when you, or someone you love, is being hurt or mistreated. It can also motivate you to solve a problem.
However, chronic anger, and misplaced anger, can result in poor physical and mental well-being, as well as damage relationships. A US survey of more than 34,000 adults found 7.8% of adults experienced damaging anger. And during the pandemic, 39% reported feeling angry in the past two weeks. While anger can be experienced by both men and women, it’s far more prominent in men and younger adults.
Anger is a powerful emotion. It’s one of strength and action. Being angry can help in getting things done. But anger can also be a secondary emotion. When one is hurt or disappointed, anger may be a far more comfortable emotion to express. It can be protective, rather than facing more vulnerable emotions such as sadness and grief.
My relationship with anger likely began in my childhood. And this is often the case for many people. Throughout middle school I was bullied. I experienced verbal and physical abuse at the hands of my peers. Sometimes it involved schoolyard fights, but more often it involved a few kids pinning me down and writing with marker on my forehead. I wasn’t the only one subjected to this and a friend of mine said he was glad I was around so he wouldn’t be targeted as much.
I never fought back. I never told a teacher or anyone. I was ashamed. I felt weak. Back in the 1980s, there was a more prominent tough it out attitude. And even if you found a teacher willing to jump in, you knew telling on the other kids would come back to haunt you. So instead, I stayed quiet and hoped they would get tired of bugging me. Even now with all the progress, bullying still happens and kids can still be ostracized by seeking help.
By early high school, the bullying stopped. Over the next few years I became more resilient and independent-minded. I found confidence in sports. But I also became more aggressive. I spent time in the school gym lifting weights and using the punching bag. I loaded expectation onto myself to do better and prove myself. And I became more easily irritated.
In my early 20s I found an outlet in men’s hockey. A ‘safe’ place where it’s acceptable to get angry. As I wasn’t very skilled, my contribution to the team was goading one of the other team’s better players into a fight. The fights didn’t last very long as I would usually fell on the ice. Many other players also seemed to take out their week’s frustration in the weekend hockey game. After a couple of years I stopped playing as I was disgusted by the person I was becoming.
While recognizing where one’s anger stems from is important, it in no way justifies the hurt and harmful behaviours caused to others. The first step to addressing destructive anger behaviours is recognizing it occurs. That’s easier said than done. Especially if it’s an emotion that’s been with you all your life. Or one that’s crept up on you over time. Usually it requires someone else telling you it’s a problem.
Making amends to those affected is important. Apologizing to people who may have been hurt is necessary. After receiving his Oscar for best actor, Will Smith apologized to the audience for attacking Chris Rock. But he never mentioned Chris’ name. The day after, a written apology was posted on Instagram in which he did apologize directly to Chris Rock.
Apologizing is hard. It means admitting you did something wrong. It stirs up emotions of guilt and shame. It also makes you vulnerable to those you apologize to as they may (rightly) tell you how it made them feel. An apology also needs to be done without any expectation it is going to be welcomed. When you’re ready to apologize, the receiver may not be ready to forgive, or even hear the apology. It also needs to be personal.
I’ve begun apologizing to those I’ve hurt. In most cases I’ve delivered the apology personally. In others who may not be ready, I’ve written it out letting the person know I would be willing to discuss it with them if/when they are comfortable doing so. Instead of typing the letter, I write them by hand. Seeing it in my own hand makes it more personal for me and hopefully for the receiver. At the same time one can only truly make amends by changing the behaviour. It does no good to apologize and then continue in the same destructive habits going forward.
Feeling angry is not wrong. It’s normal. We feel what we feel. And at times it can be helpful. But other times acting on anger can make thing worse, and that’s what we don’t want. Will Smith obviously felt angry, and most of us would agree his anger was justified. But storming the stage and hitting Chris Rock made things worse. Similarly if someone cuts you off and takes the parking spot you were moving into, you would be justified in feeling angry. However, acting on that anger isn’t likely to make things better. And if you still felt angry later in the day such that it prevented you from being happy or affected how you interacted with people, this can be problematic.
There are two key ways to minimize ineffective and harmful anger. One is to not be angry in the first place. Making sure you get a good night’s sleep, regular exercise and healthy eating can all help reduce your chances of getting angry when faced with a stressful situation. If anger is a secondary emotion, try to identify what you’re truly feeling. If you know your triggers, look for ways to avoid them. Or if that’s not possible, how to cope when they do occur. Using a self-directed workbook can help with managing anger.
The other is developing strategies on what to do when you are angry. This may be the hardest step of all as when we’re angry all rational thought goes out the window. But the objective is to not let your anger make things worse. As anger is a very physically charged emotion, doing something such as exercise can be a great way to burn it off. Or you can remove yourself from the triggering situation and distract your mind with something you enjoy. If that’s not possible, focus your mind on your environment using the 5-4-3-2-1 technique to ground yourself.
Additional supports can include joining a support group, talking to your family doctor and/or seeing a therapist. Of course, changing a pattern of behaviour that may have been present for years is not easy. It takes times and the process won’t be perfect at first.
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