“Why do I get so upset? I shouldn’t get so angry.”
“I can’t be so angry at work. I need to not let things get to me… just let things roll off my back.”
These are just a sample of similar sentiments I’ve heard from women clients lately. It seems like many of us believe that anger is an emotion we’d all rather just skip.
I get it – anger doesn’t feel good. It can make us feel uneasy, out of control, at the mercy of other people or circumstances. And, anger can be toxic, especially if it starts to take up too much of our precious mental real estate, or if it leads us to behave in ways that we’re not proud of.
But, anger is a normal emotion. Anger is considered a basic human emotion (along with happy, surprised, fear, disgusted, and sad – although some scientists group angry/disgusted and afraid/surprised together). And yet, as kids grow, many parents struggle with their kids’ anger, sending them to their rooms, punishing them for angry outbursts, etc. We receive very specific messages about the value (or lack thereof) of anger from our families, society, and culture.
Once we grow into adults, we are supposed to have improved our ability to regulate our emotions, and somehow this translates into the belief that anger is a feeling we shouldn’t have, a feeling we should be able to control, get rid of, feel less of, deny, or tamp down. For women, the consequences for being angry are even greater. From an early age, we’re taught that anger isn’t an acceptable emotion to express. We’re taught to swallow it, apologize for it, minimize it. What are little girls made of? Sugar and spice and everything nice, of course. And anger, we’ve too often been taught, isn’t “nice.” (For more on this, check out Soraya Chemaly’s TED talk on the subject)
We also know that women are held to different standards of acceptability when it comes to expressing anger. I won’t even go into all of the times that women athletes, or politicians are labeled as unstable, or worse, when they show a hint of getting upset or showing emotion, whereas men are admired for being passionate, purposeful, or driven, or that their anger is justified (note: yes, I am focusing on gendered expectations of anger expression, but it’s important to also recognize that harmful stereotypes around anger are driven by race, as well, e.g., Black women being labeled as loud, threatening, or “sassy”, Latinas being perceived or labeled as “spicy”, and certainly there are stereotypes for Black men expressing anger.
Where does this leave us? Many women have internalized the message that anger is “BAD.” And then, when someone at work does something that’s genuinely aggravating, they blame themselves for feeling angry and for not “being able to control” it better. This is when women come to therapy or coaching, wanting to know the secret to controlling their feelings, how to hide their feelings, how to stop thinking about what made them angry in the first place, or just not feeling at all.
So, what to do?
- Anger is a reaction to something that happened to you. Anger is a signal emotion – a signal that something else, like shame, embarrassment, self-doubt or stress is lurking underneath. Check out this blogpost from the Gottman Institute. It’s written partly to understand a partner’s anger, but the concepts can largely be applied within work relationships, friendships, etc. Once you get a better understanding of what’s really fueling your anger, you’re in a better place to address it and problem-solve it more effectively.
- Allow yourself to feel angry. Therapists are neither capable of plucking emotions out of your head, nor turning you into a robot. The more you try to suppress it, the more you’ve got it. Ever been told to calm down when you’re angry? Right. It accomplishes the exact opposite. The more you tell yourself to stop being angry (or impose any number of other judgments on the merits of being angry), the more you’re trying not to be angry, the more angry you become. And on that note…
- Be mindful. One of the many purposes of mindfulness practice is to train your brain to observe thoughts and feelings without judgment. Notice that your mind is angry, notice the thoughts that are coming up, and gently, without judgment, return your attention to what’s important to you. If you don’t already have a favorite mindfulness app, take a bit of time to explore and find an app that works for you. There are great paid options out there, or you can find free resources on YouTube, in the app store, etc. It doesn’t even need to be a mindfulness exercise specific to anger. The important part is acknowledging the feelings you’re having, and not judging them. Allow yourself to feel.
- Talk it out. Anger is a part of life. And the less we fight it, the sooner we’ll be able to work through, understand it, and even potentially benefit from it. Next time you’re feeling angry, try talking to a trusted friend, and simply owning, “I’m angry!” Owning your anger can be incredibly powerful and validating. Friends, therapists, or trusted colleagues may be able to help you figure out what other emotions are beneath the anger, and how to more effectively deal with it.
Know when it’s time to get help. Sometimes we can feel stuck with anger. It can keep us up at night, impact our productivity, and even compromise relationships. A therapist can help you not only gain additional understanding of your anger, but also help you move through it more efficiently, and teach you mindfulness techniques to allow yourself to break free of the struggle with difficult feelings.