Both at work and at home, anger is discouraged –– especially for women. When we do signal anger, women are disparaged, labeled a “ball buster” or a “bitch” or a “shrew.” But anger is a human emotion and it deserves our attention.
In her book The Dance of Anger, Harriet Lerner writes:
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 an important emotional issue 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 do 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.
I have worked hard to be kind to myself when I’m angry. My anger catches me off guard, the intensity of it, the heat of it. Sometimes I’m embarrassed by this intensity. But I’m learning to let myself be angry until I can reflect on what it’s trying to tell me.
Recently, I was with my mom and her partner, who were in the middle of a kitchen remodel. They were bickering with one another as many of us do when the heat is turned up and our comfortable routines are disrupted. She was critical of him. He was defensive. Around and around it went. I felt angry about my mom’s impatience and dismissiveness with her partner.
But, I was nice, which is what I tend to do when I’m angry. I smile through pursed lips even as the knot in my stomach grips. But niceness has a way of stoking the fire. As Lerner cautions:
“When we are “nice,” we accumulate unspoken anger and rage. Anger is inevitable when our lives consist of giving in and going along; when we assume responsibility for other people’s feelings and reactions; when we relinquish our primary responsibility to proceed with our own growth and ensure the quality of our own lives; when we behave as if having a relationship is more important than having a self.“
When I got home, I vented my anger with my husband as I relayed the story. I ranted, he listened. Yet, it was clear that venting wouldn’t change anything. “If feeling angry signals a problem, venting anger doesn’t solve it,” Lerner notes. “Venting anger may serve to maintain, and even rigidify, the old rules and patterns in a relationship, thus ensuring that change does not occur. Those of us who are locked into ineffective expressions of anger suffer as deeply as those of us who dare not get angry at all.”
Later, I wondered about my anger. What was I so upset about? I took out my journal and began to explore. I tried to bring self-compassion to the process and asked my harsh inner critic to remain quiet. I was curious.
You can do this too when you are angry.
- What am I really angry about?
- What is the problem, and whose problem is it?
- How can I sort out who is responsible for what?
- How can I communicate my anger in a way that won’t leave me feeling helpless and powerless?
- When I’m angry, how can I clearly communicate my position without being defensive or attacking?
- What risks and losses might I face if I become clearer and more assertive?
- If getting angry is not working for me, what can I do differently?
The exploration helped me gain clarity about why I was angry and what I could do about it. My mom’s criticism of her partner mirrored my childhood, where nothing I did seemed good enough. Back then, I was powerless. I was a child. But now I am grown and I have options. I can walk away. I can share that the complaining and defensiveness makes me uncomfortable. I can limit my time with them. Their bickering is not my problem to solve. I can’t make them treat each other better.
Naturally, I risk alienating my mom if I communicate all of this. But that’s a risk I’m willing to take. My anger tells me that I need to take better care of myself in the face of bickering and criticism.
Listening to your anger means turning down the volume on venting and turning up the volume on what’s underneath it. Sometimes you have to swim through sadness or unmet expectations. The payoff is clarity and a kind of restoration of sanity. You are not crazy. You are not a battle-axe or a harpy or whatever other derogatory label someone wants to put on it. You are angry. What is that anger trying to tell you?