I’ve got anger issues. My issue is, I’m never angry.
It’s taken me a long time to realise this is an actual problem.
I did a little exploration. Enter ‘Anger’ in Google and it doesn’t give you any resources to understand how to express more anger, or how to identify with your anger. It tells you how to “control” it as a problem, how to “manage” it like a troublesome child.
Over at Waterstones I asked the assistant “I can’t find the Anger Management Section, where the hell is it?! ARGGHHH” *flings books in face*. Ok no I didn’t do that. But on reflection I did feel incredibly self-conscious, and actually a little bit ashamed asking the question.
But it’s no wonder. All the books on Anger include words in the title such as ‘taming’, ‘cooling’, ‘handling’, ‘controlling’. It’s implicitly a terrifying emotion that is typically only addressed for treatment when it’s being expressed too much.
The impression is that anger is an issue to be resolved in all instances. That people with anger issues are nearly beyond help. That expressing your anger will inevitably lead to bad things: being sacked from your job, broken friendships, failed relationships.
Something needs to be “done” about it. Think about your loved ones, about society! Find some self-control for crying out loud!
In all the dischord, everyone has missed all those people who suffer in silence with the side effects of suppressing anger.
In the same way that you only go to a doctor when you feel pain, not expressing anger pretty much causes you no obvious problems in life.
No one is going to complain that you are softly spoken, never get heated in an argument, constantly let others win in order to avoid any conflict, try to smooth things over by playing the level headed mediator.
Of course not! Either they always get what they want, or your voice goes completely unheard so no-one has a clue about your needs!
Suppressing your anger is a bit like having Chlamydia. Just because you can’t pinpoint any symptoms, doesn’t mean there isn’t something wrong.
In women the oppression of anger is even more pronounced.
As author Rachel Simmons points out, women are taught to define themselves by a very narrow identity that focuses on being ‘A Good Girl”.
Girls shouldn’t show anger. It’s unfeminine. Keep quiet. Shush now, shush. Don’t make waves. Be nice, be polite, be modest, be selfless.
One study has shown that girls are told to be quiet, speak softly, or use a “nicer” voice about three times more often than boys, even though the boys were louder. The reason? Well, for better or worse, boisterousness, and aggressive rough and tumble is simply expected from boys and so they are often given permission by society to “have it out” more in personal conflicts compared to girls.
Women, on the other hand, aren’t given so much freedom. Our inner selves must stand up not only against the general uncivilised label our society gives to anger, but also the perception of the ‘unladylikeness’ of anger. That terrifying, ridiculous and laughable stereotype of being labeled “just another hysterical woman”.
The result of this cultural frown is that we do not give ourselves permission to experience the full range and intensity of our emotions, anger included. We subsequently lose touch with this whole side of our authentic selves into adulthood.
And so our experiences become limited. We adopt the subtle yet prevalent message of modesty and restraint, and put on ourselves under undue pressure to be good and behave perfectly.
It’s damaging, and it’s happening right under our noses.
Over the years, I’ve become so good at suppressing my anger, that people have wondered whether I have any at all.
‘You’re always so cool headed, Jen, I can’t ever imagine you getting angry’.
When I expressed anger as a child led I would be chastised for speaking up, and if I persisted, simply ignored until I calmed down. Anger then became associated with a paralysing fear of the withdrawal of affection, which led to feelings of emptiness, worthlessness and impotence.
As an adult, in true conditioned fashion, I will now do anything to avoid feeling any of those emotions again. I actively disassociate with the feeling of anger because, in essence, feeling anger scares the crap out of me.
I might be waging a battle here with myself, but it’s not one that I can win.
Anger cannot be magically dispel through force. It is energy that cannot be destroyed, it can only be displaced.
I might be able to switch off my awareness on a surface level, but question is where the hell has it gone? And how, when, and where it’s going to reappear?
For example, when I was a kid, one day my mum really pissed me off. I can’t remember what it was now but, man, I was seeing red in a big way.
Due to all the thoughts and feelings I was coming to associate with anger, what did I tell myself?
“No! Don’t be angry! Stop it!”
So I kept quiet and stuffed it down. Hours later, once I’d had a chance to stew for a while, I went and found my Mum’s favourite nightdress, an 80’s look covered all over with sequins. I sat and meticulously picked off every single sequin on that nightdress, and felt a whole lot better afterward. Hello displaced anger.
Over time I realised this passive aggressive approach to the people and circumstances around me wasn’t working very well, so into adulthood I usually remain mute on things that start to anger me for a really, really, long period of time… until I reach an internal breaking point.
This just makes sense. Your emotions, all of them, are energy. They are the means by which you propel your physical being as informed by your beliefs to create action in the world around you.
Suppressing anger for years, decades means your insides become like a pressure cooker with a backlog of hot bottled up energy. Your body is smart, it needs to let off steam to remain in balance.
Suddenly anger that could have been dispelled perfectly naturally at its appropriate time in a mildly aggressive assertion of your sense of rights, explodes outwardly onto others into passive relational aggression, overt behavioural aggression, or even violence.
Or it finds an alternate outlets into other undesired – unexpected – parts of your life because its natural route has been blocked, manifesting for example as illness, critical thoughts, self-sabotaging behaviour, and disproportionate reactions to minor irritations.
You find yourself flying off the handle because the radio is on too loud, crying because the bus is late, or the dishes are still dirty at 10pm, screaming at your partner or flatmate for forgetting some cheese from the corner shop on their way home.
As so many parts of your emotional experience could be very closely involved with the suppression of your anger, it may have only just dawned on you that you might be affected. But that’s ok, and to be expected.
If you take some time to reflect back on your life story for patterns in your environment and your reactions, you’ll start to make sense out of how you arrived at this point.
Contrary to wider belief, the aggressive manifestation of anger is not necessarily a prerequisite to violence, in fact it is quite the opposite.
The expression of anger serves to communicate a sense of personal injustice to others as a method to prevent the escalation of a perceived wrongdoing into violence.
When harnessed appropriately, anger is an empowering emotion. It has just as much validity as your other emotions.
As women are so out of touch with anger as a tool for healing a relationship in conflict, you are more likely to catastrophise circumstances when you feel a sense of anger, which brings the whole relationship into question. Essentially anger means conflict, which to you could result in loss.
Instead of saying to yourself ‘hmmm I’m feeling angry with so and so about such and such, I should raise that with them to find a resolution”, it swiftly short circuits to ‘OH MY GOD, I CAN’T BELIEVE that has HAPPENED, how can this BE!?? That’s it I’m going to have to avoid that person/situation FOREVER!!!”. Ruminate, suppress, ruminate, suppress, panic, avoid, avoid, avoid.
Without a connection with your anger you could have a murky understanding of your own personal boundaries and how to communicate them with those around you. This potentially invites others to take advantage of you, welcoming problems, or even dangers, into your life.
Remember that ex-boyfriend who broke up with you two years ago but still manages to maintain contact and weasel his way into your bed every now and then only to disappear again for months on end? Yep that’s a breach of a personal boundary that may be due to your not being well aligned with your anger.
You could be deliberately lowering or distorting your expectations to avoid dealing with the discomfort or fear you feel when anger starts to bubble. The results are self-sabotaging thoughts and behaviours that act to prevent you from achieving a higher goal, or quieten your voice on something that could be truly important to your happiness and wellbeing.
Even if you become a master suppressor of anger and others never witness it, the accumulation of unexpressed anger within you becomes toxic and if you look hard enough you will see where it’s finding outlet to your detriment.
It’s time to reframe the stigma attached to anger, particularly in women.
Its perpetual association with all-things-bad has made us feel intimidated by it.
We feel ashamed, guilty, terrified, and out of control when it bubbles up.
Blinded by the ancillary emotions toward it, we become panicked and embroiled in the struggle to contain it. We then miss important signals it is trying to communicate with us so we can adapt our outlook and behaviour appropriately.
I’m not suggesting a purple card for mindless venting your aggression as and when you feel wronged.
I’m suggesting the acknowledgement of anger as an emotion with true value and importance. It is an emotion that needs to be listened to compassionately.
When you start to feel anger hot under you skin, there’s no need to dismiss it, there’s no need to push it away.
Try to maintain an objective awareness of this feeling of anger, listen to it to understand why that feeling has arisen.
With this understanding your can learn the limits of your personal boundaries, and re-enforce them against bad influences in your life.
Harness it to express yourself authentically and respectfully as disappointment in your expectations of others’ behaviour toward you.
Use it to set appropriate expectations for your own outlook and behaviour with others, and within your surroundings.
Anger is a tool that can be used to facilitate positive changes in your life, either by reframing your beliefs and expectations of the world around you, or by adjusting the circumstances that causes the anger to arise in the first place.
So maybe, in reality, I am feeling angry. Really angry. So are you. And that’s OK.
Anger is not to be feared, it is not your enemy, it’s your ally, and it has been muzzled for years.
It’s time to open your ears and listen to what it has to say.