Anger is an emotion we all feel from time to time. It’s normal, even healthy. In fact if we don’t express our anger it can be unhealthy, making us stressed and even depressed. Feeling anger is morally neutral, it’s neither good nor bad, it just is. We are entitled to feel angry, but what we do to express it can be problematic, especially to women. Why is this?
Well often when we get angry it triggers the ‘fight or flight’ response. This is a basic human instinct that is controlled by an evolutionary old part of the brain. As the name suggests, once it is triggered our bodies are primed to either fight the threat or run. Adrenalin pumps through our system and the blood rushes to our limbs in readiness to protect us. Our boyhood years were spent play fighting to fine tune our capacity to defend and attack. For a man, our inclination when angry is to aggress.

Women have the fight or flight response too, but they have also developed a different system called ‘tend and befriend’ to ward off the worst excesses of their aggressive behaviour. Thinkers in evolutionary biology suggest that because it’s harder for women to fight or flee if they are also responsible for vulnerable children, women have developed a different system which prioritises keeping the peace and diffusing tension. It’s not that women don’t aggress; just they get their own way differently to men.

For women, of course, male aggression is problematic. Being physically smaller and weaker than men, they are naturally fearful of male aggression. As we get older, and our levels of testosterone drop, we naturally become less aggressive. This does not mean to say that we should not work to spot and curb our aggressive behaviour toward women and, indeed, other men. But how to do this?

Well most of the threats we experience that make us angry in the modern world are psychological threats not physical threats. The fight and flight response, in other words, gets triggered because of what we think is a threat, not what is about to kill us. Thoughts like “he’s looking at me funny” or “She’s taking the piss” can make us furious. Fortunately we can spend time learning what triggers our aggressive behaviours, and learn to think more flexibly and creatively in response to the perceived threat. In this way we even cut the root of our anger in the first place.

Although anger is normal, aggression is generally inappropriate in most situations. If we consistently and relentlessly aggress, especially to someone smaller and weaker or less able to defend themselves, then this is abuse. Often men find it difficult to place their behaviour on the anger-aggression-abuse continuum. Learning for yourself the boundary between when expressing legitimate anger becomes aggression, and when aggression becomes abuse, is a useful skill to have. If you’re unsure where your behaviour fits, try asking those around you. Women are much better at spotting the boundary, so I would ask them first.

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