I’ve often said that “anger is a mask over fear.” And to a predictable degree, the people who disagree with this are almost always male. Usually angry males. They really, really don’t like the implications. Sometimes they get angry with me for saying it. You can imagine my amused reaction: they are afraid of the implications.
To go into this, let’s define terms. Fear is “an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.” Let’s broaden that a bit, and say that it doesn’t have to be dangerous or threatening to you, personally. It can present a threat to anyone you care about or empathize with: a child, family member, member of a group with whom you empathize.
The test is this: when have you ever gotten angry about something you took pleasure in seeing happen to yourself or someone you care about? Isn’t EVERYTHING you get angry about something that creates pain, discomfort, loss? When those exact same things happen to someone you DISLIKE isn’t that “schadenfreude”?
Just for an exercise, let’s ask why guys might have a problem with this notion. I’ll use myself as an example.
When I was a kid, I was badly bullied. I had no father in my home to teach me to “get out there and finish that fight,” no uncles or older brothers to teach me to box or wrestle, or who I could talk to about what I was going through. Small and afraid, I was ignored by the girls and held in contempt by the guys. For the record, my fear wasn’t being “laughed at” by girls. It was the fear that no attractive woman would ever find me appealing. Although I never thought about it that way, that is genetic death. Dealing with guys I was afraid of actually being damaged, and never having “tribe”, so that I would be alone. We don’t survive well alone. We need tribe.
Every voice in my head said I was a coward, weak, insignificant. Then one day I experienced something unique: pushed beyond my limits by a bully named Rudy, I found a place in my heart that was beyond fear. Beyond the social games. I was ready to die, or kill him. And he knew it…and left me alone from then on. I swore that day to find that place again, or die trying.
The martial arts were where I went looking, and I began to learn skills. What I didn’t realize is that in the United States in the 70’s, in general you could find martial schools where you get fit and strong physically, but they didn’t deal with the internal states. OR…you can find emphasis on the internal calm, but they sucked in terms of combat. I thought that the physical skills were what I sought. Nope. They are like putting a thin, thin, candy shell over a chewy but toxic chocolate center.
And although I advanced through the ranks, and even had tournament success, one day when I was about 25 I got my ass kicked by a brilliant 14 year old fighter (who went on to become the world kickboxing champion) and all I could see was Rudy. It felt as if nothing I had learned in the intervening years meant a damned thing. It BROKE me psychologically, and from then on, the prospect of sparring created massive fear response in my body. And shame.
I fell into a cycle of approach-avoidance. If I started losing skills, I’d go back to training. But once I got enough skill and fitness that I stopped being afraid of the outside world, the seething cauldren of emotion within me emerged, crippling my progress so that I stopped going to class. Over and over this cycle recurred.
I went to coaches, therapists, gurus, hypnotists, biofeedback experts, senseis and sifus by the score, and none of them could help. This went on for over a decade, the most miserable time in my life. I remember driving down the street with tears rolling down my cheeks, asking God why the hell he wouldn’t either just let me practice this stuff, or let me quit. I was emotional road-kill. Unable to stop, unable to move forward. It was horrible, and it damaged my sense of self on every level.
I wasn’t a man. I wasn’t a martial artiist. I was broken. I was weak. Just possibly, I was insane.
My pattern of asking for help continued for years, even after I gave up hope. Then one day I accompanied my brother in law Patric Young to see his Shorei Chito-Ryu instructor Terry Lettau for a private lesson. After the lesson, we were sitting around in Terry’s kitchen, and I rather miserably asked him the same question I’d asked everyone else, expecting a blank expression concealing contempt.
To my surprise, Terry just shrugged. “Your problem isn’t fear,” he said. “Your problem is lack of clarity.”
I squinted, and did a Scooby-take. Urr?
Ummm…”lack of clarity? Well, is there a way to deal with that?” I expected an answer like “nope.” A perfectly circular trap. The good news is that you don’t have cancer, you have Iocaine poisoning. The bad news is that it doesn’t have any cure either…
Instead, he said “sure. Just imagine a glass tube filled with water. Glitter is suspended in the water. Watch until the glitter settles.”
WTF? That was it? That was all? I went home and started practicing for about 30 minutes a day. The water roiled with glitter, swirling in a violent current. Then…about six weeks later, something happened. The water started settling. And then stilled. And the glitter settled.
And with a flash of insight, I SAW IT.
My problem wasn’t fear. My problem was that I thought the fear meant something it didn’t. I thought it meant that I couldn’t, or shouldn’t, or mustn’t. That I was small and weak and helpless.
Nope. It just meant that I was afraid. That some part of me sensed a threat. And was preparing me to fight, or run. That was all. All the rest of it was bullshit.
And the reason it had been so awful, for so long, is that I was ashamed of the fear. And then worried about my shame. And then guilty about my worry about my shame. And then confused about my guilt about my shame about my worry about….
An endless fun-house of mirrors, an infinite regression from the primary emotion: Fight or Flight. And every step away I took drained the energy I would have used to defend myself, escape, or gain the perspective from which to see the solution to the problem.
Holy shit. I THOUGHT THE FEAR MEANT SOMETHING IT DIDN’T. What would I have done if I’d known? I would have DELIBERATELY brought up that fear, that terror, when working on the heavy bag, and imagined the biggest, baddest guy at the dojo pounding me. And beat the hell out of the heavy bad using the “juice” of the fear to drive my actions. Until the fatigue and focus brought me into the present moment.
And then the fear would have vanished. Fear exists only in the future, what you are afraid WILL happen. Just as guilt exists primarily in the past. In the present, FULLY in the present, there is only “emotion-driven action”. Undifferentiated, and powerful. My skills would have skyrocketed, until I was the baddest dude in the school.
Again, holy shit. I’d found a key I’d sought for decades. I’d been pushing on a door marked “pull’ in French, and finally a Frenchman had translated for me.
As simple as that. Yes, Virginia, magic does exist.
I found out where Terry had learned this, and that sent me to studying with Harley “Swift Deer” Reagan, and that’s another story for another time. The point is that fear is associated with shame, and weakness, with paralysis and cowardice by the ignorant. So some of us (especially guys) can’t tap into it directly, or use it directly, until we transform it into another emotion–anger.
Anger is macho. Anger is badass. Anger is righteous. The fact that if you remove anything you would have to be afraid of for yourself OR someone you care about will dissolve the anger is just…well…we ignore that inconvenient fact.
It’s not fear. Really it isn’t.
Part of the danger of this is that we miss a primary tool in life. If angry, all you have to do is identify the fear under it, and deal with that, and the anger vanishes. For instance:
Jason is defiant, refusing to do his homework. I get angry. Why? He is challenging my authority. Why is that frightening? Am I afraid that I am powerless, and that will damage my ability to function in the world? Is he playing into my personal doubts?
How about I’m worried about him. I love him, and want desperately to guide him to being a strong, good young man. If I cannot get him to do his work, I can’t prepare him for his life. I imagine him failing, being homeless, on drugs, being one of the Living Dead who shuffle from meaningless job to meaningless job, never find a place of joy.
Or…I’m afraid that my mother’s ghost will look at me and criticize. “You are a TERRIBLE father.” And I want so very much to be a good one.
Would I be angry if I didn’t give a shit? If I had 100% confidence in my ability to reach my dreams? If I didn’t love him? I don’t think so.
Turn this around. If someone is angry with YOU, what are they afraid of? Losing privilege? Authority? How about those Incel guys.
Potentially violent. Violence is (often) triggered by Anger. What are they afraid of? How about lack of reproductive opportunity? Remember that “genetic death” thing? Or on an emotional level, being alone, never being loved, feeling unworthy and ugly and twisted. In the depths of their private hell, alone in their Mom’s basement, they yearn for love and connection like everyone else. What is wrong with me. Why doesn’t anyone want me….
And lacking the wisdom and maturity to look in the mirror and grow the hell up, learn to love themselves so that they can be attracted to a woman who would be attracted to them, they grow bitter and even vengeful, blame women for “putting them in the Friend Zone” and that anger sometimes boils into unreasoning violence, and we have real horror.
Seek the root, and the root is fear. But you can’t see it if you don’t first look within yourself.
For years I’ve invited people to tell me anything they are angry about that doesn’t connect to something they wouldn’t want happening to themselves or someone they care about. So far, no one has mentioned a damned thing I can’t connect there.
If it isn’t true, it is the most useful lie I’ve ever seen.
And…perhaps the greatest flaw, the greatest reason to connect directly to the core emotion is that FEAR IS A SURVIVAL DRIVE. It keeps you alive. It is a source of instinct. If you don’t let yourself feel fear, you can miss one of the most important clues that you are in danger.
Remember “Get Out”?
Chris is in a strange situation, with people behaving badly. The fear messages should have been making his spine crawl. But his girlfriend Rose was the balancing factor. He wanted to impress her, be with her. Frankly, Nookie had shut his frontal lobes down. That “genetic survival” thing, combined with a “I’m a man. I’m not afraid” thing.
Ordinarily, this is a fine approach: most threats aren’t real. He would endure the weird future in-laws, marry the lovely lady, have lots of sex and raise rug-rats. Who’s afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?
But horror movies are about the times when you damned well SHOULD pay attention to your fear. And when Chris realizes the trap he is in, his personal survival drive (1st chakra) overwhelms his genetic survival drive (2nd chakra, less primary) and cancels out all emotional connection to Rose as well as any socially mandated behavior, throwing him into pure “I want to live!” mode, leading to the conclusion.
(btw: It is notable that he keeps his core values: not killing a helpless person, even if they “deserve” it. Trying to save a mother-surrogate. We have no doubt that this experience has not damaged his essence.)
It would, however, probably motivate him to start trusting his instincts more, don’t you think? Isn’t that a part of the message of horror films?
Don’t go in the basement. Don’t split up. Don’t get “gaslit” by people. Don’t ignore bloodstains or strange faces in mirror, or howls in the night.
Fear is your friend, people. And if you stop being ashamed of it, it is one of the most powerful allies we have. Don’t let society or shame stop you from harnessing it. The life you save may be your own.