In 2015, at the White House Correspondents' Dinner something hilarious transpired. President Obama invited Luther, his anger translator, on the stage with him and the Comedian Keegan-Michael Key obliged. The tongue in cheek display of Obama’s true frustrations expressed through “Luther” was not only ironic but brilliant reminding us how we all need an anger handler.
On this episode author, researcher and associate dean, Ryan Martin, Ph.D., discusses what anger is, why we get angry, and how it also serves a purpose and has benefits. A predictable response to stress and obstacles in learning is slowly escalating frustration; which tends to manifest itself as irritation or annoyance at first but more of an anger or even rage down the road. Those who are interested in Executive Function can gain insight from this discussion to learn to manage anger and related negative behaviors which often gets undue attention more so than the underlying learning obstacles.
About Dr. Ryan Martin
Dr. Ryan Martin researches and writes on healthy and unhealthy expressions of anger. His book, Why We Get Mad: How to Use Your Anger for Positive Change, explores why people become angry, some of the common consequences of anger, and how people can use their anger in productive ways. Ryan also hosts the popular psychology podcast, Psychology and Stuff. He was trained as a counseling psychologist at the University of Southern Mississippi where he first started studying anger after earning his undergraduate degree in Psychology with a minor in Criminal Justice from the University of St. Thomas. He has worked with clients- angry and otherwise- in a variety of settings including community mental health centers, college counseling centers, and a VA Hospital.
He is a Professor of Psychology and an Associate Dean for the College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. His work has been featured in the New York Times, NPR’s Invisibilia podcast, BBC Radio’s Digital Human, TED.com, and elsewhere. When he’s not thinking about feelings, he runs and spends time with his family.
About Host, Sucheta Kamath
Sucheta Kamath, is an award-winning speech-language pathologist, a TEDx speaker, a celebrated community leader, and the founder and CEO of ExQ®. As an EdTech entrepreneur, Sucheta has designed ExQ's personalized digital learning curriculum/tool that empowers middle and high school students to develop self-awareness and strategic thinking skills through the mastery of Executive Function and social-emotional competence.
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Sucheta Kamath: Welcome to Full PreFrontal exposing the mysteries of executive function. We are going to talk about executive function and anger. And our special guest is Dr. Ryan Martin. But before we get started, I just wanted to kind of set the stage about why anger and why anger in with respect to executive function is an important topic for us to talk about. In 2015, at the White House Correspondents Dinner, something hilarious transpired, President Obama invited Luther, his anger translator on the stage with him, and the comedian Keegan Michael Key obliged. The tongue in cheek display of Obama's true frustrations expressed through Luthor was not only ironic, but brilliant, reminding us all, that we all need an anger handler so to speak. So let me ask you this. Have you ever woken up in the morning with a foul mood, or gotten mad or even lost your mind? The good news is that you're neither unique nor abnormal. The secret to managing anger is to know that to get angry is human, but to not react to the anger state is sublime. So today, it's my pleasure and honor to invite Dr. Ryan Martin. He's a researcher and one who writes on healthy and unhealthy expression of anger. His book, Why We Get Mad: How to use your anger for positive change, explores why people become angry, some of the common consequences of anger, and how people can use their anger in productive ways. Ryan is also host of a popular psychology podcast called Psychology and Stuff. Absolutely Fabulous. You must listen. He was trained as a counseling psychologist at the University of Southern Mississippi where he first started studying anger after earning his undergraduate degree in psychology with a minor in criminal justice from the University of St. Thomas. He has worked with clients, angry and otherwise, I love that description when he says that in variety of settings, including community mental health centers, college counseling centers, and VA hospitals. Finally, he is a professor of psychology and an associate dean at College of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Wisconsin Green Bay. So with that he has lots of wonderful contributions in many platforms. And one of the coolest things about him, which I don't see very often with many psychologists is he's on Tiktok, and it's absolutely worth listening to. Welcome. Welcome to the podcast. Ryan, how are you?
Dr. Ryan Martin: I'm doing well. Thank you so much for having me. And thanks for the really warm and kind introduction.
Sucheta Kamath: Absolutely, since we're going to talk about executive function and frustration and emotional negative emotions, let's first begin and set the stage for anger. So after reading your book, I had an epiphany. Anger needs a reputation management. There are so many myths about anger, that need clarification. So for starters, do you mind telling us a little bit about how you define anger as an emotion? And why do we get angry?
Dr. Ryan Martin: Yeah, so I think you're absolutely right. I think anger has a really terrible reputation. And I think part of the reason it has such a bad reputation is because people have confused it with some related concepts. And I think the most notable is aggression. people confuse anger, the emotion with aggression, that behavior. And so I'm actually going to start there and say aggression is a behavior. It can be verbal or physical, where you have the intent to hurt someone else. And that's very different from the emotion of anger, which is basically the emotional desire to lash out it's an emotional response to injustice, to having your goals blocked to unfair or unkind treatment. And the emotion is, is not only normal, if it's healthy, it makes sense that we would become angry. In fact, it even makes sense that we might become angry relatively often, depending on our circumstances. If we are routinely exposed to unfair treatment, if we're routinely exposed to unfair barriers, it would make sense to become angry. But as you said in your introduction, and what I really, really liked, it's normal to feel that way. But how we manage it, what we do it do with it, how we express it, that is a very different story. And when we express it in aggressive ways, we oftentimes do ourselves and do others around us a disservice.
Sucheta Kamath: And thank you for setting the stage because I think it's so important as you mentioned, people are so hyper focused on the way anger is exhibited. And but that aggression, physical or emotional or, you know, in verbose ways is actually an acting on that anger. Can you quickly talk about because my perception before I read and I do a lot of, you know, training that where we talk about fairness as you know, genuine human need to be treated fairly and to be perceived to be worthy of that fair treatment. And the goal blocking was an interesting component that you talked about. So that poor treatment and fairness and gold block. So some of the, how can you give our audience an example of all three? How would they manifest in everyday experience?
Dr. Ryan Martin: Yeah, and I'm glad you asked, because I think we can look at these categories that I've just described these types of provocations that I just described. And we can actually kind of break them up into... Well, well, there's a lot of categories there, I might actually put them into two primary categories. So there's the unfair treatment and injustice, and there's that category. And then the other side is what I would call that that goal blocking category. And these two things actually, can feel very different from one another. So the unfair treatment, the injustice, and, you know, the thing I like about talking about this is that they can be sort of big, significant experiences, I mean, you know, racism, sexism, bullying, these are big issues of unfair treatment of injustice that people can be responding to. But it can also be, you know, smaller things, it can be the kid who picks on the other kid at camp, it can be these other examples that we deal with day in and day out, that might not be tied to some of these larger systemic problems. And the same is true with something like goal blocking, goal, blocking can be anything from, you know, my career is not progressing as I want it to, to, I can't find my car keys this morning. And so it's this, this thing of I want to accomplish something and something is in my way, I have a goal and, and something is, is interfering. And when we face those types of provocations, big or small, or either category, we we end up becoming angry as a result. But it's not just those and one of the things you know, I talked about in my book is that it's not just the being exposed to these things, or encountering these types of provocations. It's also our mood at the time that we experienced or encounter those provocations. It's how we interpret them how we think about those provocations, what they mean to us, in our lives. And those three things essentially interact, and give rise to those angry feelings.
Sucheta Kamath: So I guess confession time, I can tell, I think I really, I'm really, I get my knickers get tied in a knot, when I see injustice in for in others, you know, other people being treated with unfairness, I'm doing better job, to be honest with you, poor treatment of me, I'm able to let it kind of, you know, roll over my shoulder. But I'm really get upset when there's a goal blockage, you know, and it's a funny thing as you have you have lots of wonderful examples. But I think simple thing is standing in line, and then somebody decides to pull out their checkbook, you're like, come on, or somebody comes to the checkout line, and they don't find their wallet in the, you know, in their massive purse. Those are the kinds of things I can see getting really irritated. So one thing, one of the very interesting thing recently, I've been pondering over, you know, the work that neuroscientists Lisa Feldman Barrett did, and I was just wondering what your thoughts are, you know, she in her research says that emotions are really guesses that your brain constructs in the moment, and you have more control over those guesses than you might imagine to do. But they these guesses are projections about what you are anticipating. So does that apply to, which is a very different way of thinking about emotions because you think you are reacting to something that happened. So do you see that framework applying to anger?
Dr. Ryan Martin: Absolutely, I think it's a really a really important point, you know, that. It's one of the things psychologists sometimes discuss and I think back to my background is that when I was learning, when I was training to be a counseling psychologist, I had a one of my professors was a constructivist, that was his theoretical orientation, which means that, you know, we interpret our own realities as we're going through the day. And one of the things we often talk about is well, but is there an objective reality? Like, there's a thing that happens, right, a thing that we are experiencing that happened in the world? And, you know, my take on this is yes, there is there's an objective thing that happened. But we also interpret that thing through a particular lens, and we bring to any of any situation that we're in we we bring into it a bunch of expectations, based on past experience, about how other people are going to behave, why they're behaving that way, what they're going to do what they did, and then we interpret that and we make a decision about what it means to us. And I do think that the idea that, you know, essentially, our emotions are the result of us guessing what things mean is accurate. And, and I also think it's worth noting that some people are probably better guessers than others. Yes. And so, you know, you, you might be right about what that that thing means. So I should say, to me, your your example about goal blocking, I think, is a great one, I it's one that I experienced all the time, too, is that it part of it is because who I am and what I value, I, I do put a high priority on my time, I'm a busy person, I try to get a lot done. And it's important to me that I can be as efficient as possible. And so when I am slowed down, and it's not real, it's unexpected, I'm more likely to get angry. And so all these little things that happen in our day, and anything from the example you gave to my computer, you know, not starting as fast as I want it to or like I said, difficulty finding my car keys, or my kids taking too long to get a car. All of those are, are examples of things that you know, and and it's what's particularly funny about it is if I really stop myself and think about it, and realize, you know, it that only that only costs me about 30 seconds, right? That's not going to that's not going to break my day, that's not going to be the reason I don't get something done. But it's really easy in that moment, to sort of lose control of our thoughts and and think, Oh, no, I've got it, this is going to ruin everything, right? Because of this, I'm going to be behind on this. And I really need to get to this. And now now this has happened, right? And it all escalates. And we catastrophize the outcome of that, to the point that we become angrier than we probably should.
Sucheta Kamath: Yeah. And I think the part that I also like really spoke to me was the goal pursuit, you know, the idea that, you know, I talk a lot in my work about collaborative goal pursuit. So as I have, I'm in pursuit of my goals, if I begin to pause and take a perspective at the other end recognize you two are in goal pursuit. So if I do some introspection, and say, am I coming in the way of you pursuing your goals, and if that perspective, by creating this argument, now, I may be blocking you, because I'm already mad that you blocked my goals, and then now to, you know, to miserable people, so that has really helped me also to kind of allow, kind of allow that moment that it's a temporary blockage, it's not permanent blockage that really helps to, so you have some concepts that you have developed and talk about this diagraming anger. And so which kind of has these parts to anger, stages of anger, I guess, can you talk about that and help us understand because not all goal blockages lead to feeling angry? Some we kind of have acceptance, and we don't?
Dr. Ryan Martin: Right? Yeah. So I think, you know, it really goes back to something you you said at the start, which is, I think a lot of people think that the way to deal with anger is to is part of it having a bad reputation is to sort of manage it through deep breathing, manage it through yoga, or things like that, approaches to relax. And, and of course, those strategies are valuable and can be valuable and are things that we can we can absolutely do when we're feeling when we're feeling angry. But what I like to encourage people to do is sort of back up a little bit and take a look at the situation more broadly. And think about those different elements that I described. So the provocation, what is the thing that is quote unquote, making you mad, you know, what is the thing that's happened and to really sort of break down what type of provocation it is, what it means to you, and so on. I encourage people to think about what I call the pre anger state. That's your mood at the time of that provocation. So, were you fatigued? Were you hungry? Were you already angry about something stressed? and so on? I can tell you one of my examples of this is that, well, I'll come back to in a second, but when I'm when I'm running low on gas, this is a pre anger state. Okay. Then the third element is, is our our appraisal, it's how we interpret that precipitate. What is it or that provocation? What does it mean to us? Is it is this? I guess the worst thing that's ever happened? Are we catastrophizing, are we labeling the people we are interacting with a negative ways are we what we call overgeneralizing? Where we say, Oh, this is the worst thing that's ever I see, where we say, like, Oh, this always happens to me, or things never go my way, that sort of thing. And those give rise to these angry feelings, this, this physiological, psychological, cognitive states that we, where we, we get mad. And then even from that point, we can talk about, well, what do we do when we get mad. And by diagramming an angry incident, what I really am encouraging people to do is to think about all of those elements, and then think about where they can intervene. Because we can choose sometimes what provocations we face, we can choose how we go into those provocations, how we experienced them, we can address some of those pre anger, state things, we can try and avoid some of the mood states that lead to anger, we can certainly think about how we're thinking about things, and so on. And so, you know, for me, an example of this is I'm a relatively relaxed driver. And the reason I'm relatively relaxed is because and by relaxed, I mean, not angry, I'm probably a scared driver, that that's probably true. But I think that when I go, when I'm when I'm driving places, I don't tend to get too angry with people. And part of that is because I, I allow myself lots of time, I don't sort of get myself into situations where I am going to feel frantic or stressed. One mistake I sometimes make, though, is that I let myself get low on gas. And when I do, I become much more sort of frantic, every delay, every, every red light, every slow driver becomes me thinking, Oh, this is going to be the reason why I run out of gas, and then I'm going to be stuck on the side of the road, I'm gonna have to, you know, call AAA or I'm going to have to walk to the gas station, you know, and so all of a sudden, these catastrophic thoughts come out that I have, essentially, you know, created by by letting myself get into this situation by letting myself get into that state. And once I realized that I just stopped ever letting myself get there. I just said, I'm not going to do this anymore. I'm going to always make sure I get gas. And as long as I do, I should be fine.
Sucheta Kamath: I love that example. And I think driving, it's such a, I mean, COVID just gave a little anger break, I feel, no nobody having to drive. But in preparation for this talk, I did a little survey in my friend circle and my, my my children who drive and, and one of the funny things, my son said that he and his girlfriend, one of the issues of contention is the driving quality of each other. So apparently, my son was saying his girlfriend says that he thinks that he drives really poorly, like, aggressively. And she so he turns to me and says and this is a person who has received three tickets for slow driving. So I guess they both the criticism about each other's driving is kind of anger. But I wanted to actually also share another I did this I took your advice and did diagram, the anger in one of the shows or many shows I've been watching or TV or real life and one particular show I was watching was a stateless and this is an air hostess or Air Flight Attendant who comes home and she's about to come home for holidays. And you can see she gets out of the car. And she's already sweating. She's like wiping her brow and she's feeling really tense. So that's the pre anger state. Then the minute she walks in, she gives a hug and kiss to her mom. And of course that proximity mom alludes that I think you should take a shower. So that's the precipitant mom criticizing her and without criticizing, saying that probably she's smell and then the I think she doesn't do appraisal and then I'm fine Mom, you can see the sternness and then that way when it comes to dinnertime, there's explosion, you know, so the angry feelings are simmering, and then there's expression of anger which is like she flings the plate you know, so It's so interesting that I think most people do that interact with other people's anger or your own once it gets expressed, but nobody really takes the time to evaluate the pre anger state. So can you talk a little bit about the conditions that contribute to favorable or unfavorable pre anger states?
Dr. Ryan Martin: Yeah, and I think this is really important, because I do think we we let ourselves by not really taking care of ourselves, the fall into some of these situations and states where we are more likely to become angry. And, of course, I want to be clear, some of it's unavoidable. And I'll also even add, it comes from sort of a privilege place to be able to, to even talk about some of this or think about some of this, because I don't have to deal with food insecurity. And I am, you know, able to sleep in a comfortable space and things like that, but, but I do think there is something to be said, for being aware of what our bodies and minds need throughout our day, to keep us from getting to that point where we are more likely to explode. Because we are hungry, tired, stressed, anxious, already angry, and so on. And so I think that, attending to those, attending to those needs is really, really important. And I also think we can, in many ways, attend to the needs of those around us, those we're interacting with, too. And so, you know, if I know, for instance, that my spouse, there's more likely to get angry, when she's feeling stressed, I can, I can help, I guess, navigate that with her, I can remind her in moments of stress that, you know, I bet you're feeling really anxious right now. And it just those reminders can make a difference. people's eyes when people become aware that that thing is sort of feeding into their interpretation or their experience of emotions, I think they become better able to handle those things. You know, what's so funny about this, to me is that any parent will tell you that their kids were much more difficult when they were hungry or tired. Yet, with adults, we somehow sort of feel like, Well, no, that that went away. That's no longer a problem. But yeah, it's still a problem. We have all sorts of evidence that says that, if we if we don't take care of some of those basic needs, people, people get cranky the same way they used to.
Sucheta Kamath: So what I loved about that, the way to think about in an organized or way, step by step is the pre anger state is that that perception that this situation is not going to go favorably for me, because of my past knowledge or past experiences. I see a lot of kids getting into a difficult subject or with a difficult teacher already bringing an attitude, you know, in quotes, but it's not an attitude. It's an anticipation of failure or anticipation of roadblocks and, and to deal with it. Then more and more difficult, somebody gets more bullet more stricter you get which is exactly opposite of what you want. I'm curious, it wouldn't be good. Like taking that example of my my son who says his girlfriend has tickets for slow driving. And she thinks he drives fast when he thinks he's driving normal. Is there a good way to pre manage that pre anger state with? Like, they get into the car and say, Hey, we're going for a long drive, you know, three and a half hours? I know you feel I drive fast, but I feel you drive slow? How can we handle is there like a good way to tackle that pre anger state right, nipped in the bud?
Dr. Ryan Martin: Yeah, I mean, I think that is what you just described is, can be a really good way, which is to sort of set those expectations ahead of time. And, you know, in a case like that, it might be, you know, both of you sort of agreeing or trying to come up with an agreed upon speed limit, you know, and I don't know how formal people want to make this but if you say like, Hey, are you are you okay? With five over the speed limit? Are you okay? with seven over something like that? And if you can come to that agreement and sort of essentially decide, this is this is what we're good with, then, then you have that to fall back on throughout? You know, because I think that the interesting thing about that example, is it really speaks to one of the reasons why human beings become angry with them with others so often is that we operate in a world with tons and tons and tons of unwritten rules, right that we, you know, even you the example you described before about someone taking out their checkbook and writing a check, you know, that there's an unwritten rule there is, are people supposed to write checks anymore? For things like that is cash, okay? You know, should we always be using credit cards or credit cards slow? Maybe we should be using, you know, our phones to pay for things. And so all of those are these sorts of rules that people have set up or have decided what is or is not appropriate. Much like the speed on the highway, right, which I know there's a written rule, right. I mean, there's a there's a number we're supposed to go, but everybody avoids it. And the question is, how much do we avoid it? And I think those things exist throughout our day, and they become fodder for people to become angry, you know, am I allowed to stop on an escalator? Or should I keep walking, right? that's a that's a rule at the airport that people have is whether or not you're allowed to do that. And if I stop, I've made the people behind me angry. If I keep going, I might make the person standing there ahead of me angry. So what is the what is what are those rules? And I think they exist everywhere you see them and find them thrown in ways you probably didn't? Yes, yes.
Sucheta Kamath: You know, now talking about your contribution to the field, is the scale you develop the angry cognition scale. And it's so remarkable. You talk about five distinct processes, cognitive processes, and you kind of refer to them as you introduce the concept of, you know, the stages of anger. So this is about appraisal. Can we do a little deep dive about the misattribution of causation, catastrophizing, overgeneralizing, demandingness, and inflammatory labeling? So these are really complicated. Do you? Do you mind quickly giving us how we do this and why we need to understand them?
Dr. Ryan Martin: Yeah, so these are five types of thoughts that have been described by anger researchers before me and other than me, as essentially leading to or primary reasons why people become angry as part of that appraisal process. And so there are, of course, others. And frankly, even if you if you look at the literature, you'll find these same thoughts, but with different names. So for example, demandingness is sometimes referred to as other directed shoulds. You know, black and white thing, dichotomous thinking is sometimes referred to as black and white thinking.
Sucheta Kamath: And so, let's say I've had David Burns, who defines 10 cognitive distortions in his work of team based CBT approach. So yeah, I understand what you're saying. Sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt you.
Dr. Ryan Martin: Yeah. No, it's all right. And that is that's a, there's definitely more especially when we start thinking about other emotions. And one of the things because, you know, one of the things that's not not listed in the, in the anger literature really is something like self directed shifts, right. But that's going to be much more relevant in terms of something like sadness, or something like anxiety, even, or guilt. So when we think about anger, we talk about these five. One of the one of the biggies is what we call missattributing causation. And really what it what it means is that when something happens, you misunderstand the cause, or you attribute the cause to the wrong person, or maybe for the wrong reasons. And so, the example I have for this is a friend of mine, where we're out bowling one night, he goes to pay, and I don't remember the details, but basically, he gave the guy a 20. And the guy gave him a change as though we've given him a 10. And my the interaction went like this, my friend said, Oh, I gave you 20. And the guy said, oh, sorry about that, and gave him $10 back and I thought it was over. And then my friend spent the rest of the night fuming about how this guy tried to rip him off. And so here's the same interaction. My interpretation is honest mistake, his interpretation is no, that guy tried to rip me off right? So one of us is missattributing causation or one of us is misunderstanding what actually happened. Sometimes, you know, so we can we can think things are an accident, we can think things are on when they're really on purpose and vice versa. We can also just attribute causation to the wrong person, we can think that so and so did something when in reality, it wasn't other person altogether, get it? So I suppose the trading causation, missattributing causation. Overgeneralizing is the tendency to sort of label things in really broad global ways. So this always happens to be things never go my way, you know, you hit a red light, and you say, I always hit every red light. That's a really different, you know, type of thought, than I hit more red lights than I'd like. Or even I hit this red light, right, you take, or this is going to slow me down, you take a particular instance, and you blow it up into a pattern. Well, of course, you're going to get more angry about a pattern. So we can think about this in terms of coworkers, right? Coworker doesn't respond to an email, and instead of saying, Oh, I wish they'd respond, if she never responds, right, that that becomes a much bigger, broader problem at that point. Demandingness is the tendency to essentially put your needs over the needs of other people, the tendency to think that other people should sort of serve you in some ways. So we go back to that same email example. You know, you want a response. So therefore, in your mind, that co worker should drop everything they're doing and respond to you, right, and you're forgetting that they might have their own work responsibilities, their own things, they're trying to get done their own need for a vacation event, right, all of those things could also be important, but you've put your own needs over theirs. And we see this a lot with with people and working with getting frustrated with service providers and so on. Inflammatory labeling is the tendency to label people in these really negative ways, right? This is where a lot of foul language comes into into play. It's the tendency to, you know, you're driving down the street, and someone makes a mistake, and you say, Oh, this person is a total idiot, or that person is a total hazard. And you, you might fail to recognize that they could just be a really smart person who made a mistake, or they could be regularly a safe driver who made a mistake. And so you start responding to them at that label instead of as a human, a human being, you know. And then the last one, and I saved this one for last because it's, in some ways, we draw a distinction between what we call primary appraisal and secondary appraisal. Secondary appraisal, is our ability to cope with the things in our lives, the problems that happen. And catastrophizing, this, this fifth type is really about secondary appraisal, it's about your ability to cope with the bad things that happen, because if you if something happens to you, and you say, Oh, that's bad, it's unfair. But it's not that big a deal, you're probably not going to get angry, if you say, Oh, it's bad, it's unfair, and it's the worst thing that's ever happened to me, it's gonna ruin my career, well, then you're going to get angry. And so that tendency to catastrophize is a is really about blowing things out of proportion.
Sucheta Kamath: Wow. And man, I have been victim of and recipient of other people's misinterpretations. You know, what I really like I, I really love the concept of that overdemandingness that you were talking about, I think the you know, the Type A people are high achievers, trying to get their business done. We are so in a rush to serve our goals and and almost expect the world to be serving our needs and respond in a way that's very fast and swift and without any blockage. So really, I think, you know, and if I may interject with this idea that, you know, I see, I'm going through mindfulness meditation teacher training, program myself. But I was born and raised in India and a great background in mindfulness as a culture. And now I see people's quick relationship to these mindfulness practices. Let's just take a breath. And let's just be mindful. But you know, there has to be cultural mindfulness to, you know, you have to have a culture where you allow people to go ahead of you on a stoplight without honking at them, or letting somebody cut a line, you know, like just being more much more generous, and I feel we're not we're just breathing harder, but we are not generous. So the anger is just seeding it's temporarily, you know, kind of hidden, so to speak.
Dr. Ryan Martin: I think that's a really, really great point. I mean, I think what, what is, you know, I think I could, I think most people who know me know this about me that I am really in many ways, as as Type A as it gets, I mean that I have systems for everything I am painfully organized, I'm super competitive, I'm all of these things that should make me as as angry and even aggressive as possible. But I think one of the, the mitigators, there is empathy, that I, I don't necessarily write I, I, when I interact with people, I'm sort of constantly aware of the fact that they have a life too, and that they're trying to go through it to the best that they can. And I think that that's part of what you're saying is, or I hear you saying is that there has to be a recognition of that, as we, as we go through our day, that it's not good enough to just take deep breaths, and to try and relax, we also have to be aware of the human beings around us who are trying to accomplish their own things and trying to trying to accomplish their own goal.
Sucheta Kamath: Lovely. So let's not forget, and it's hard to believe, but anger serves a purpose and does have benefits. Talk to us about these benefits.
Dr. Ryan Martin: Yeah, so when it comes to studying anger, or any emotion, I, I really approached the existence of emotions from an evolutionary perspective. So I think about sort of why do these exist. And, you know, in some cases, it's really obvious something like fear is very obvious fear is one of the ways that our brain alerts us to the presence of danger and encourages us to avoid that danger. with anger, it's actually very similar. It's one of the ways that our brain alerts us to injustice. And it encourages us to confront that injustice or that unfair treatment. And so it basically says, it's one of the ways where our brain says, hey, you've been wronged. And here's a whole bunch of energy to fight back. And that's when our sympathetic nervous system kicks in a heart rate increase, or heart rate increases, we start breathing heavier, and that's all sort of preparation to respond. And when it comes to sort of what is the the upside there because one is, or the positive one is just that it's it's giving us this energy to fight back. The problem, of course, and the thing I don't typically advocate for is actual literal fighting back that I think that we can channel that energy into more positive pro social ways of responding. And so this is where I think you see that you can channel your anger into protests, you can channel your anger into political activity, other political activities, you can channel it into art or literature or music. You can have assertive and sometimes uncomfortable conversations with people that serve to sort of work through a frustrating situation. But there's all sorts of positive pro social ways that you can channel that anger. And that's really when it comes back to the diagramming of an angry incident. Part of what I encourage people to do is to think about that, that final piece, which is okay, now that I'm angry, and maybe I've determined through this process, that I'm angry for a good reason that it's that it's a healthy anger is a healthy response to the situation. What do I do with it? What do I do next? What How can I use this? How can I respond? Is it is it smart for me to suppress it? Usually not that there might be times where that's maybe the best thing to do given the circumstances? Usually, I think the the answer is going to be to channel that anger into something valuable.
Sucheta Kamath: I think this just reminded me of story. And I don't know if it's a legend or a real story, but I think the if I hope it's correct, but you know, there was a founders of Stanford University, I think, had gone to Harvard. And they refused to, I forget that they wanted to donate money, or they wanted to create some specific program. And so they just went and started their own university, you know, so. So yes, I think sometimes, a rejection can be channeled in a way which leads to something more productive and maybe, you know, enduring. So does anger look different in children? And does anger change with age? Is this simply a process of match ration or can get worse. And lastly, in the same vein, does anger look different in different genders?
Dr. Ryan Martin: Yeah, all really, really good questions. And so I love I really love to think about emotions from that developmental perspective. Because we do see anger, this is one of the reasons we know, or one of the reasons I don't necessarily like to talk about anger as a quote unquote, secondary emotion. And that's because we see it very early on in life, we see very, very young children, you know, experiencing anger, yeah, they can't get to something they want, right? What usually when their goals are blocked, and one of the ways to actually study this, there's, Yep, exactly. So probably, they don't necessarily have the concept of injustice yet, or unfairness, but there is a sense of this thing that I want is out of my reach. And one of the ways to actually study that is by putting things that infants want or children want out of their reach and seeing how they react. And so as the child's cognitions develop, their their thought processes develop, they are they become more able to recognize injustice, become aware of unfair treatment. And their anger response becomes, I think, more nuanced and more thoughtful. While at the same time, though, they become more able to do to, to express it, and we see that happening, because one, as they become more sort of their verbal skills improve, also, because some of their physical abilities increase, right, and so they can do things now that they couldn't do when they're little, they can make a fist, they can, they can hit someone or push someone. And so those lashing out behaviors have changed to over time. And so much of this depends on kind of development, and not just development, but learning. You know, what people become angry about changes, and we start to see more nuance there is as kids develop, we also see kind of the appropriate the appropriate pneus of different expressions becoming developed. And that, you know, my kids know, it's not okay to hit, they know, it's not okay to push. And they know, it's not okay to say cruel things to people. But there are other kids who learn something very different from their caregivers who were literally taught. No, it is okay. And that is a way you handle these situations, or maybe they weren't taught that explicitly, but it was modeled for them. And so they learn that. And so all of that is linked to sort of how anger can can grow and look differently in different people over time. to your question about gender, which I think is a really, really interesting one, the data we have would tell us that that men and women and all the genders don't necessarily experience anger at different rates. And what I mean by that is different or different intensities. What I mean by that is that we don't really see gender differences in how often people become angry. What we do see is some expression differences. So we see men are more likely to express it by yelling, or physically, we see women are more likely to suppress their anger. And that really has a lot to do with learning and with what we see is rewarded versus punished. Men are tip, a lot of the research shows us that men are typically rewarded for their anger, whereas women are much more likely to be punished for their anger, they're more in by punishment, have their opinions minimized and, and to be thought of as lower class and lower status.
Sucheta Kamath: I think it's interesting that you have a dedicated section who gets to be angry, and it's such a powerful read, and I'm sorry, we don't have a lot of time to go through it. But one thing that I'm so glad you clarified this, a myth that you know, anger in women is different quality than that of men or, or women are rather depression is in women is a sign of anger turned towards themselves, which is not true. And a lot of studies talk about that clinically depressed women have higher levels of anger than non depressed women. Right. And so I think it also, to me leads to poor treatment like treatment outcome, because you're not going to address it if you don't even consider this is an issue. So it's such a myth that we need to really tackle as a society as we tackle mental illnesses in general.
Dr. Ryan Martin: Right? Well, I think it'd also be fair to acknowledge that women in the United States oftentimes have a lot more to be angry about, right when we think about injustice is facing different groups. And we see all sorts of we see wage disparities, and we see other social pressures and so on. That is the notion that, that men would be angrier than women seems actually kind of far fetched to me. But I do fully recognize that the expression of of anger, if we use the books, very different or have been different for a long time.
Sucheta Kamath: And if we use the anger framework where lack of fairness, poor treatment, and goal blocking, fundamentally, people who are oppressed are likely to have more reasons to be angry, but then people who are doing the pressing, have less reason to acknowledge it. And so this power dynamics that is uneven, further creates a acceptance of who gets to be angry. Right. And you write beautifully about that.
Dr. Ryan Martin: Yes. That was beautifully sad what you just said I, that is exactly right. So we've created a society where we have a marginalized groups given lots to be angry about the ban, their anger is essentially used as a rationale to minimize their position and minimize their experience. And this is in so it's, it is a anger is a valuable experience that energizes people to confront injustice. But at the same time, the society we currently live in does not like it when people confront those in justices. And, and so then there ends up being consequences to the angry person. And so it's ultimately a, it's just more systemic unfairness as built into our system. And ultimately, one of the things that I've shared a fair amount of on TikTok is how we have used emotionality, not just anger, but emotionality in general as another tool of oppression.
Sucheta Kamath: Absolutlely and that's a real big, brilliant like giving attention, because, you know, last year, as we talked about George Floyd's death and riots, there was so much, you know, protest calmly, that was like, a very big movement or don't cause property damage, you know, like there was there's a, there is a way to achieve the goals you have no, those goals have not been achieved, because they they have not been heard. So as we talk about the the real meat of this substance here, which is are they effective tools to manage anger, and our anger management programs effective for controlling anger?
Sucheta Kamath: Oh, yes, please.
Dr. Ryan Martin: Yeah, real quick, I want to comment on what you just said about George Floyd too is that that that those protests, which I was proud to be involved in, were a lot of the motivation for, for writing that chapter. I was working on the book last summer. And in the midst of all that, I watched the way these this this was, things were unfolding and was was saddened and angry and mortified and all sorts of things and felt inclined to add a chapter and so reached out to my my editor to ask for some more time to get that, and I'm so thankful I did not just because I think it's a good chapter, but more importantly, because I learned so much in in writing, and more importantly to me, as far as your question about, you know, tools to manage anger. I do think I think that programs, those programs work when they're when they're good programs. You know, I think that that is a key caveat. And that there there are going to be differences and in success rates because of how those programs are developed and what they focus on. I think when when programs focus on the types of thoughts people have, when they focus on anger, frankly, the way I think anger should be focused on I think they can be really valuable. I do think a caveat one of the things that One of the one of the issues we have with anger that we don't necessarily have with other emotions is a person's willingness to engage in therapy. Most people who are sad, don't want to be sad anymore. Most people who are scared, don't want to or anxious don't want to be anxious anymore. And that's true for some people with anger. But for a lot of people with anger, they don't necessarily want to let go of it, they don't necessarily see it as their problem. And we want so so working with them to get through that what we've called a pre contemplation or contemplation stage, and into an action stage of wanting to do something about it is an important part of the therapeutic process.
Sucheta Kamath: I'm not i'm not sure if I'm right about this, but I do think that, you know, keeping anger, anger is a showcase of power, you know, and you get to look powerful, and it's a way to really keep people away. So I can see that tool. Very, feels very viable, you know, feels very useful. And also you get to appear superior, because the minute somebody is angry, you everybody becomes more timid, because nobody wants escalation, you know?
Dr. Ryan Martin: Right. Many, many people who are angry are angry, because it has worked for them for a long time, you know, people, especially people who tend to be angry in that outward, aggressive way, you know, it is and when I sort of put work in quotes, because I don't think it's actually working for them. But it's, it accomplishes a short term goal often enough that it feels like it's working for, right, so the angry boss has employees that don't make mistakes, or don't cross them. Because they don't want to deal with their anger that the angry parent has kids that stay away from them or, or, you know, because they're scared of them, ultimately. And so that power piece really, really plays itself out there. But ultimately, it also means kids that are in kids that are scared of your kids that aren't necessarily Healthy Kids, right? employees who are scared of you, that's not a great work environment and a lot of other ways. And so, you know, we definitely think it's linked to power. And that's part of the reason why it's hard for people to give it up.
Sucheta Kamath: As we end I do want to talk about role of forgiveness in anger. You know, one of the colleagues you write about Nathaniel Wade, he says that forgiveness intervention seemed to be very effective at helping people not only cope with anger, and work through those negative feelings, but also move the person to a better place of acceptance and even human flourishing. Can you talk a little bit about that? What are your thoughts about forgiveness? Can people learn to truly forgive?
Dr. Ryan Martin: Right? Yeah, I think I think, you know, we started out talking about how anger has a bad reputation. I think forgiveness also has a bad reputation. And that's not to say that I think everyone needs to be able to forgive. I don't know that that's true. And I've certainly talked to many people, especially over the last six months, who I think have undergone things that would be awfully hard to forgive people for. But that said, I think one of the ways that forgiveness is misunderstood is that forgiveness isn't for the offending party, it's for the offended party, it's good for them. And so if you're wronged, and the reason you should forgive is not because it'll be good for the person who wronged you, but because it'll help you recover. And so I think some of that comes from people not necessarily understanding what forgiveness is that it doesn't mean you're reconnecting or rekindling a relationship with someone. You never have to see that person again. Still, it simply means you're replacing your negative hostile thoughts and feelings about that person with more positive thoughts about that person. I think it's really hard to do. I think for some people, it might feel impossible or something they don't want to do. But I think for people who can embrace it, it has a really positive psychological outcome for them.
Sucheta Kamath: That brings me to my last question, which is about spirituality. You know, Amma. She's Mata Amritanandamayi. She is one of the enlightened spiritual masters from India. And in one of the recent messages who has dedicated her life to service and love And she preaches the message of, you know, become the person who has nothing but love in your heart. And, and, you know, so I'm wondering what do you think about the pursuit of spiritual enlightenment, which makes a noble person out of you. And that requires, of course, a lot of self work. But recently one of her quotes in she, in which she says, Our problem is that we identify with all the moods of the mind. When we are angry, we become angry, it is the same with fear, excitement, anxiety, sorrow and happiness, we become one with that emotion, whether it is positive or negative, we identify with the mask, but not the reality, none of these modes are really you, you true, your true nature is bliss.
Dr. Ryan Martin: That is, uh, so I will, I will, I'm gonna approach this from both my sort of scientific analytical side and my, my, I don't know, my softer side, I guess my softer side. So that's a beautiful quote, and I like it a lot. My, my more analytical side wonders, and often asks myself and others, what is our true self? How do we know who we are? And? And, and I honestly, I don't have a great answer to that, you know, I say that because and part of the reason I think of this, as much as I do is, I will hear people say, Oh, I didn't mean that I was just really angry. And I think to myself, but you said it, right? It has to, it has to have been in there somewhere. And maybe maybe the anger turned off your filter, maybe you did mean it or you meant to version of it, you just normally wouldn't have set it. And so all of that is to get to the point that I do think that sometimes sometimes when we are afraid or scared or sad, it does turn off a filter, and actually can reveal who we really are in some ways. That said, you know, started this out by saying you wanted to ask me about enlightenment at the end. And so I've been had that in the back of my mind this entire time, we've been talking and I think in some ways, for me, enlightenment is about what does it mean? It means being in touch with what we are feeling, and why we are feeling that way. And having those things be as closely rooted to, to reality as possible, having those things really be connected to, to a true version of what's going on in the world or true awareness or as true a version as we can identify.
Sucheta Kamath: I love that coming from a scientist, and I'm so so grateful, you reveal some of your softer side to, you know, my take, if you indulge me for a second is, I think the part which where she says we become one with that emotion, whether it's positive or negative. So I think if you you know, many strategies you have talked about and the work that I have done, and also many other people I've read, if we do engage in self distancing, and recognize I am not my emotions, and to me, the true your true nature is bliss is that that inner, gentle self that can be and is able to free themselves from the miserable thoughts that are and feelings that are generated. And coming back to this initial framework that you shared with us. fairness, poor treatment and gold block the true self in that sense. fairness is a two way street, a poor treatment is two way street and gold blocking is true is straight. So enlightenment to me, is to really become aware of others desire for the same things. And we're in places where you're failing them. And so that to me is enlightenment.
Dr. Ryan Martin: Mm hmm. I love that. That's really really interesting. Yeah, thank you.
Sucheta Kamath: Well, thank you for your generosity and your beautiful mind. And the way it's really it's been one of your most influential books, and I will share with, with our audience, the link to your podcast and to your book. As we end. I'm always interested in this beautiful mind of yours, to see what influences you what has shaped your thought processes. And what do you recommend that our listeners really follow up with that? Do you have any book recommendations for us?
Dr. Ryan Martin: You know, um, let me think for a second. I have been, you know, the person that because of my heart, the thing that I am even more than an anger researcher is that I am intensely curious. And so I want to know about everything. And so I would say my my greatest influence from when it comes to nonfiction is Mary Roach, who has written a lot of she wrote the book Stiff, Spook, Packing for Mars, Bark, Grunt, and I think there's one called Gulp that I haven't read yet. And she is a she is hilarious, she is brilliant. She's all sorts of things. And I have learned so so much from her. And so it isn't, it isn't specific to anger. But it is, frankly, the kind of thing that by reading one of our books, you learn a lot about that subject but you learn a lot about other subjects as well. So I think that's the thing I would encourage people to read.
Sucheta Kamath: I love that. I think I might have to have you come back and talk about curiosity, because that's such an interesting topic to me, and I love it. And every opportunity I get, I feel this is one of the emotions that we are our state of being that we have not nurtured, or we don't encourage enough in our children. So really appreciate those recommendations. So that brings us to the end of this interview. Thank you so much, Ryan, for being here with us today and sharing your wisdom. To all the listeners thank you for joining me and if you love what you're listening to please share. Be sure to comment Be sure to subscribe to our newsletter. And be sure to really introspect and keep an anger general journal or or diagram your anger. I think that has helped me tremendously. So thanks again for being here with me today.
Dr. Ryan Martin: Thanks so much for having me. This has been a lot of fun, anytime.