Angry young men

Why are some people SO angry with the world around them? Was their childhood and adolescence SO cruel? Were they really SO misunderstood? Did they really feel SO unloved? And why anger? Is their emotional vocabulary so limited? Do they have no ‘grey’ scale? Is this why angry young men seem to become incredibly young fathers?

The answer, so the psychotherapist in me says, is “yes” to most of those in a way. A parent doesn’t have to be an alcoholic, negligent, cruel, or abusive. The parents don’t have to have had a messy divorce. And the child doesn’t have to have been neglected along the way. What is important is how the child as it grows up perceives its relationship to the world around it.

If they don’t feel that they experienced many different kinds of emotion; if they only witnessed the ‘volatile’ side of their parents’ relationship (and not the loving one) and so on, then it isn’t surprising that they become polarised in their responses.

They know their violence or anger is extreme; they know that other people don’t entirely approve of how they respond; but largely they don’t have the repertoire or the skills to handle a situation that provokes them differently.

We now know that the human brain is still maturing well into the 20s. This explains why Erikson and others recognised a stage of development (still not full adulthood) until a person was well into their 20s.

I was speaking at a leadership conference a few days ago and described the coping strategies that we use in day-to-day life. The other name for these is defence mechanisms. On the one hand they are ways of us protecting our ego from attack. In another, they are ways of stopping ourselves from expressing extreme sexual and aggressive needs in situations that wouldn’t be socially acceptable. Among the most common ones are:

  • Denial – the conscious refusal to accept the reality of our behaviour
  • Repression – pushing unacceptable feelings into our unconscious
  • Projection – attributing our own feelings to other people
  • Displacement – directing responses to others
  • Reaction formation – converting one feeling into another
  • Regression – retreating back to earlier behaviour
  • Rationalisation – inventing reasons
  • Sublimation – converting sexual/aggressive energy into socially valued behaviour

While “angry young men” are an easily identifiable group, these tendencies are to be found among us all, and therefore, of course, in the world of work. I’ll probably post more about this later, but examples include the tendency for some managers to be abrupt with staff, to force excessive targets on individuals, to use performance appraisals as a kind of jousting, to pose sexually with female members of staff, to seek sexual outlets in the workplace, to use agressive/sexual metaphors to describe their work, to make some people redundant when they preserve the roles of others, and so on.

No answers – an evolving stream of reflection, but let’s start by observing what we and others are up to.

Best wishes

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