Feeling Our Way

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Angry Girls are Told They’re Tired; What About Angry Boys?

Society will recognize anger more readily in boys but still punish it.

Skinner said, late in life, that one of the humilities of old age was that, after having a good idea, he would realize that he’d already had that idea in 1953. One of my humilities is that, after having a good idea, I often recall that Skinner had that idea in 1953.

So the main point of my previous post (How to Tell What Someone Feels) wasn’t that many women think they’re tired when they’re angry; my main point was that you can only describe your emotions as you were taught to describe them by the people observing you (what Skinner calls the verbal community). Still, a friend asked what I think is the boys’ analogy to tired girls.

Anger is the emotional state in which observing damage (to the object of one’s anger) operates as a reinforcer. Damage doesn’t have to mean a broken arm; it can mean a loss of face, a disappointment, or a look of concern.

I think many Americans are less upset by angry boys than by angry girls, so boys are more likely to learn that they are angry when they are angry. On the other hand, society’s relative comfort with boys being angry and with being angry at boys means that many boys don’t learn to disguise their anger, and they are therefore more likely to incur punishment for anger. This in turn makes boys more likely to avoid authority figures and to express anger when they are not being watched. Women, often taught that they are tired, are therefore more likely to comfort themselves with food and napping when angry, and to hurt people while acting manifestly within social norms, while men are more likely to avoid self-monitoring when angry and to express it in ways that breach social norms. Parents who recognize, accept, and manage their children’s anger produce adults who recognize, accept, and manage their own anger.

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So, I’d say that many boys think they are bad when they are angry, but they recognize that they are angry. Other boys are taught that they are confused, and then they seek order through obsessive-compulsive behaviors when angry. What’s usually wanted is a parent who responds to anger with curiosity and guidance.

Boys are more likely to be mislabeled as tired when they want to snuggle. Tired or weak. Some men can snuggle only when they think they are tired. A spouse whose price is far above rubies, when a man comes home at the end of the day wanting soothing comfort, provides it without metacommunicating that he should man up or stop complaining or, worst of all, take care of the spouse. How can you go from purveying machismo to feeling comfortable with your own dependency needs? Well, you can't do it alone, you rugged individualist, you. You can start by thanking feminism for redefining the role of men. You can date someone who can tolerate your disgust with your desire for physical comfort without construing you as weak for wanting it. You can date someone who knows you well enough to provide this kind of relatedness, and you can facilitate it by revealing yourself to people you want to date. If your first love was someone who genuinely liked you, you are blessed. Last love, too.

Michael Karson, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at the University of Denver.

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