Why Are People Mean?


“Friggin jerk!” Cecily screamed. Even though her two young sons were in the car, she raged on, “What are you, a moron?! Where did you learn to drive?! I hope you rot!!”

Cecily wanted help controlling her reactions. She knew instinctively her temper was damaging to her children and contributed to her high blood pressure. When Cecily described her road rage to me, she described herself as being angry with the man in the Blue Volvo. “Of course you were,” I validated, “After all, the driver scared you to death.” But then, I explained to Cecily how she acted out that anger by yelling.

Cecily grew up in a family with lots of shouting and sometimes some hitting. Cecily naturally thought yelling and hitting WAS anger. I clarified for Cecily, “From an emotion science standpoint, ‘anger’ refers only to an internal experience. Anger is a core emotion that biologically alerts us. When your parents yelled, said mean things, or hit you, they were acting out their anger, which is very different from experiencing it.” The distinction between experiencing anger and acting out is an important one for us all to understand. Most people fear anger because they equate it with hurtful, scary and destructive actions. It’s an easy mistake to make. Anger happens so fast that the internal experience and the actions that follow appear to be one and the same.

We feel it! We act!

With a little (or a lot) of practice, we can slow down the whole experience of being angry into the two steps it actually is. By slowing down just a little bit, we gain awareness of what the anger is doing to us, giving us time and space to think BEFORE acting out. But, if we don’t actively slow down, the fuel inherent in our anger will speed us up and we will react almost immediately after the emotion is triggered in our middle brain.

I suggested to Cecily, “Let’s break down what happens into two steps. Step 1 is your internal experience; and Step 2 is how you express that anger."

Step 1: What does it mean to experience anger?

First, it means we notice and validate that we are angry. You may sense your anger in your face or jaw, as a jolt to your body, as a rush of energy from your core, or in other ways. Eventually, when you get angry, you will notice it immediately and be able to think to yourself:

“I notice I am angry because the clerk just helped someone else even though I was next in line.”

Or, "I am furious that my husband just left his socks on the floor."

Or, "My child's disrespectful tone of voice is really irritating me."