There’s an interesting trend across a number of conversations I’ve been having lately, predominantly (though not exclusively) with women, or with male clients generally under the age of 30. When they come in to see someone like me because of relationship challenges, or dealing with common personal issues like depression and anxiety, there are often significant factors in their respective backstories that provoke an increasingly common question from me as an outside observer: “How are you not ANGRY about this situation?”
I don’t think I’m super-sensitive but when the one thing I would, personally or professionally, expect to see as a reaction to certain types of situations is notably absent, I’m going to wonder why. And honestly, the situations that will drive someone to seek therapy are OFTEN going to be exactly the types of situations in which it would seem perfectly normal to be angry, even if we’re just angry at circumstances rather than angry at people, including ourselves. Yet when I ask my clients, bluntly, about that absence, sometimes they squirm uncomfortably, and sometimes they return words to me that acknowledge there is negative feeling present, but they use words like “frustration”, or “disappointment”. Okay. It’s not my job to own or correct a client on their experience — their feelings are theirs, not mine — but I will open the door to an “And Also?” kind of exploration that explores whether there’s possibly more going on under the hood, as it were, and also considers whether the feeling label is entirely accurate.
The presence of anger makes a lot of people uncomfortable, so sometimes before we go directly inviting it into conversation, we have to explore more generally at what “anger” as an experience means to the client. Most of us have a reasonable grasp on what outward anger looks like: aggression, hostility, violence. For some people with very low tolerance for emotional experiences, ANY intense emotional expression will read like anger, especially when they believe it to be directed at them personally. And most of us will have some sense of what happens when anger turns inward: self-esteem issues, self-loathing, shame. Unsurprisingly, very few people admit to being comfortable, let alone adept with managing, any of these anger-associated experiences, so culturally we have adopted an unspoken policy around suppressing or denying anger, then being surprised when it refuses to stay quietly in the box, leaks out around the edges, and inevitably comes back to bite us in our collective arses on everything from the interpersonal to the society-wide, endemic tide of hate.
And we, collectively and individually, are left without adequate tools to manage that anger regardless of whether it’s our own or someone else’s.
“You’ll never guess quite how furious the women around you are, until you ask them. Some of the angriest women I know are also the sweetest, the kindest, the most personable and generous. Inside, they might be seething with rage they have been taught never to express, anger they can barely acknowledge even to themselves. They’d probably be surprised to find out how common that feeling is. They have learned that showing their anger is an invitation to mockery, shame, or shunning, so they displace their anger, try to smother it into silence, because they’ve learned that nice girls don’t get cross. Nice girls don’t speak out or stand up for themselves. It’s unladylike. It’s unbecoming. Worst of all, it’s threatening to men. Case in point: period jokes. How many times have you heard people dismiss and belittle a woman who dares to express emotion by telling her she’s probably menstruating? How many times have men in power — including Donald Trump — tried to push back and put down women who criticize them by implying that our opinions are nothing more than a mess of dirty, bloody hormones, none of it rational, none of it real? These jokes are never just jokes. They’re a control strategy.
The patriarchy is so scared of women’s anger that eventually we learn to fear it, too. We walk around as if we were bombs about to go off, worried about admitting how livid we really are, even to ourselves. There are real social consequences for coming across as an “angry woman” — especially if you’re not also white, straight, and cisgender.” — Laurie Penny, writing for Teen Vogue, Aug 2, 2017
One of the reasons my second marriage failed is because I was my own best example of how a failure to acknowledge anger became the corrosive factor undermining safe, intimate connection. My mother, an excellent example of her generation, raised by a mentally-ill mother who was an excellent example of HER generation, instilled in me a set of gender-biased, role-defining values that devalued my own experiences for the sake of care-taking another’s, without any ability to acknowledge that I even had my own needs, let alone a voice to address them adequately, and so as I tried to eat my needs, I got angrier and angrier at the costs of suppression and denial, and would periodically explode in uncontrolled rage at my bewildered (and unfortunately, very conflict-averse) partner. It took a long time to break down that pattern and recognize where most of it was coming from, and how I had become “complicit in my own subjugation” by being at first unable, and then later unwilling, to be more clear about what I was feeling and why, and what needs or expectations were attached, and why. My models did NOT prepare me in the least to be okay with being angry, so the only outlet it had was the explosive, all-eclipsing supernova once the fury was too big to contain.
Even on the lowest heat setting, a pot will eventually boil itself dry and set itself on fire.
So where does this silence come from as a mask for anger?
Largely, it comes from a pervasive cultural message, one especially damaging to women, that anger is a thing to be feared, that it is never anything but inappropriate, that it brings shame on us (for women in particular, anger is seen as a denial of our programmed nurturance and care-giver roles, so we are shamed on many levels for daring to stand up against expectations, for example, or assert our own needs against those of others). Children are often punished from the outset for their anger, though it’s tolerated more in boys than in girls.
Harriet Lerner, author of “The Dance of Anger, introduces anger this way, however:
“Anger is a signal, and one worth listening to. Our anger may be a message that we are being hurt, that our rights are being violated, that our needs or wants are not being adequately met, or simply that something is not right. Our anger may tell us that we are not addressing important emotional issues in our lives, or that too much of our self–our beliefs, values, desires, or ambitions–is being compromised in a relationship. Our anger may be a signal that we are doing more and giving more than we can comfortably o or give. Or our anger may warn us that others are doing too much for us, at the expense of our own competence and growth. Just as physical pain tells us to take our hand off the hot stove, the pain of our anger preserves the very integrity of our self. Our anger can motivate us to say “no” to the ways in which we are defined by others and “yes” to the dictates of our inner self.” — Harriet Lerner, “The Dance of Anger”
Unfortunately, she goes on to describe the cost of anger that many women understand all too well:
“Women who openly express anger at me are especially suspect. even when society is sympathetic to our goals of equality, we all know that “those angry women” turn everyone off. …The taboos against our feeling and expressing anger are so powerful that even knowing when we are angry is not a simple matter. When a woman shows her anger, she is likely dismissed as irrational or worse. …Because the very real possibility that we are angry meets with rejection and disapproval from others, it is no wonder that it is hard for us to know, let alone admit, that we are angry. …Thus, we too learn to fear our own anger, not only because it brings the disapproval of others, but because it signals the necessity for change. [The resulting] questions can be excellent ways of silencing ourselves and shutting off our anger.”
Many of my women clients describe a common scenario: they get angry about something a partner has done, but when they raise the issue with the partner, especially if they are still angry when they do so, the partner dismisses them with some variant of, “You’re crazy.” Setting aside for a moment the entire issue of gaslighting, the sheer commonality of this dismissive response to a partner’s emotional state and area of concern tells me that there is, as of yet, no safe place in relationships for anger. We’re often taught first as children that anger is not allowed unless it abides by specific rules, if it’s allowed at all; we commonly learn about conflict and intensity management or avoidance as patterns of behaviour modeled within our families of origin. We’re taught by partners with differing tolerances for emotional intensity that it may not be tolerated at all in intimate relationships. We’re taught by employers and workplace environments that anger is completely inappropriate in professional settings.
Ergo, we (all genders) learn to suppress or misdirect the emotional intensity. We downplay it, until someone flags the use of descriptive labels that seem out of step with the nonverbal indicators, or simply wonders where the plain anger is. We dismiss it, and pretend we’re not angry even though nonverbally we may be broadcasting rage to the world, or having it leak out like toxic waste through the cracks in our facades. There’s probably not a person reading this who hasn’t had the experience of someone saying to them, “I’m FINE” in tones that clearly convey the speaker is anything BUT. (This one was always my personal downfall.) For many people, suppressed anger leads to depression and anxiety; for others, it leads to toxic and damaging behaviours covering a spectrum from emotional withdrawal to domestic violence. We– many of us–would rather talk about being strained, frustrated, disappointed than admit to outright anger.
The most-oft-repeating thread in the counselling is that people are afraid of “what happens when I get angry”. In short, it’s less about the feeling itself and more about the thoughts or the actions provoked by those thoughts. But we don’t differentiate well between feelings, thoughts, and actions, so the messy association paints all three components with the same brush. If I fear what I might *DO*, then I should also fear the feeling that drives the action… right?? Well, no… not really.
McKay, Davis, and Fanning, authors of the CBT textbook, “Thoughts and Feelings”, break things down this way:
“Thoughts cause feelings. This is the essential insight of cognitive therapy. All of the cognitive techniques that have been developed and refined in the last half of the twentieth century flow out of this one simple idea: that thoughts cause feelings, and many emotions you feel are preceded and caused by a thought, however abbreviated, fleeting, or unnoticed that thought may be. In other words, events themselves have no emotional content. It is your impression of an event that causes your emotions.”
They go on to describe a feedback loop that we all experience, consciously or otherwise, in which an event triggers a thought that incites an emotional response that triggers another layer of thought process that might trigger further layers of emotional reaction.
In the case of anger, a narrative we hear a lot from our clients is that something happens in the relationship, the triggering event, and in between the trigger and the emotional state, there is an assessment or interpretation that occurs. I sometimes refer to this as “the interpretive dance”, in which we receive the trigger and assign motive or value to it, and then we react to the interpretation, rather than to the original event. And THEN we tell ourselves stories about our reactions, either justifying our stance, or judging ourselves for it, and then we react emotionally to THAT level of thinking. And at some point in that mess, we might find ourselves acting–acting OUT, acting in DEFENCE, etc. It’s often more of a REACTION than a response, a default pattern of behaviour carved over time into a path of least resistance. And this is where communications often break down as the emotional intensity gets stuck in defaulting loops of interpretation and REACTIVE action.
Anger is a notoriously problematic emotion in this context because the default loop is often one of retaliation or punitive measures: we often react in anger when we’ve been hurt and so, reactively, we want the source of our pain to feel what we feel. But on the thinking level, we recognize that “hurting other people is bad”, so we suppress the tendency (or think we suppress the behaviour) by trying to suppress the emotional content completely. “I don’t want to be a bad person who hurts others” is a common cultural narrative, one especially laden with caretaking overtones for women. So we associate “bad” with both the action and the feeling, and accept training that creates aversion to both action and emotion.
So… what the hell do we do with all of that in the therapy office?
CBT provides some very excellent tools for separating out layers of thoughts from emotional reactions, so there are a lot of well-proven avenues for breaking out the components for the reactive feedback loops. Mindfulness and acceptance therapy introduces some very useful language around internal self-reflection and noticing the narratives as distinct from emotional states. But specifically when working with anger and women, I find one of the most important pieces of work we do is simply providing space and permission to name the emotion for what it is. We normalize the impact of the cultural suppression process, but we also allow for exploring the impact of what that suppression has taught us about disavowing and disallowing our own emotional experiences. We work to separate out the feelings from the choices we make about resulting actions, and we create space for clients to learn, as Pema Chodron calls it, to “sit in the fire of our own discomfort” WITHOUT impulsively committing to ACTION. We feel, we process (we learn to think differently), and then at some point we make different, conscious choices about ensuing actions. We create mindful responses, rather than knee-jerk reactions. In allowing clients to learn to sit with the anger and see that simply allowing it to be present without provoking reactive behaviours, we can allow space for the feeling without fear, or at least hopefully reducing the fear of what we might do BECAUSE we’re angry. (I have recognized three stages of angry communication patterns that help with this part of the process when I’m working with high-conflict couples, but I think I need to save that for a future post.)
There has to be space in relationship for each of us to be authentic in our emotional experiences, but because we’re afraid of our emotional expressions, we’re not generally very good at sharing those experiences. We’re afraid of the intense emotions for a variety of reasons, but predominantly because they make us feel unsafe, regardless of whether we’re the ones presenting or receiving the emotional content. We don’t know what to do with it, and at the more intense ends of the spectrum, it can feel like violence to those with low(er) tolerances. So we need to find balance, but we can’t find balance until we allow that everyone has a voice, and has to have space to exercise that voice. Anger is a damnably difficult thing to give voice to, but a hugely important indicator of relational and individual health and attachment. Learning to be present with anger is some of the most challenging work I will do, not just as a therapist, but as a woman, and it is so very necessary.