Gender culture has shifted quite a lot over the last millennia. Not so long ago, women were considered the property of either their fathers or their husbands. They were not allowed to work, not allowed to go to school, not allowed to vote, and still do not receive the same pay rate as their male co-workers. For a long time, the cultural motto for women was “Be seen and not heard”. This has slowly changed, particularly in America, over the last several decades. However, there is still a stigma around women who express their opinions, women who go against cultural “norms”, and women who come across as angry.
I grew up in the deep South and learned from a very young age that women are supposed to act, talk, and behave in a certain way. I could cry if it were not too messy. I could ask questions, but only if the timing and context were appropriate. However, I cannot think of a single circumstance when it was acceptable to be angry. Angry women are normally labeled and called names; ones I will not repeat here on this blog. You know the names and labels, though.
Many women come into my office with horrific stories of trauma, abuse, inequality, and injustice. They express emotions of “frustration” or “sadness”, but never anger. I stopped asking people if they were angry because I have realized that most women are not comfortable admitting to anger. I have begun to self-disclose and say, “You know, if I had been in that situation, I think I would be really angry,” and while it may take some time to connect to that emotion, they tend to agree.
Anger can be scary, though, especially for women. The word anger conjures up images of red faces, yelling voices, fists in walls, and rampage. Dr. Harriet Lehrner writes in Psychology Today, “As women, we may learn to fear our own anger, not only because it brings about the disapproval of others, but also because it signals the necessity for change.”
Anger, like the light on your car dashboard, is not the problem itself. It is an indicator that something is not right and a change needs to be made. Many women are not comfortable with the emotion of anger because they have never been given the freedom to be angry in the first place. Many women are told, “Keep it together”, “Don’t rock the boat”, “Watch your tone”, and similar chastisements. While unbridled anger can be scary, it does not have to be that way. There are healthy ways to feel and express anger.
In therapy sessions, I explain that anger is a secondary emotion, meaning there is always something underneath anger. If you say or do something to offend me, it is far easier for me to get mad or yell at you than to look at you and say, “That really hurt me.” Telling someone that they have hurt, offended, or scared us requires an incredible amount of vulnerability. If someone has harmed, betrayed, offended, or abused you, it is perfectly natural – and even healthy – to be angry. What we do with anger is the real challenge.
We stand at an interesting crossroads in history. The question of angry women is not new. The suffragette movement, which lasted from the late 1800s to 1920, amplified the anger of women who just wanted the right to vote in their own country. In the early to mid-1900s, women were angry and fought for the ability to work in various sectors, to serve in the military, and to make their own legal decisions. In the 1960s and 1970s, women wanted better health care and more decision-making power in regards to their own bodies. For the last few decades, women have fought for equal pay, sexual equality, and the ability to not be judged if they speak out about rape or abuse.
This may seem like an article promoting women’s rights, and in some ways it is. But at the core, it is an introduction to the conversation about women and anger, and how we can deal with this anger in a healthy way. In therapy, I give women and men a safe place to be angry. I tell them they can say, think, and feel whatever they need to say, think, or feel without judgment. Sometimes we throw things. Sometimes we burn things. Sometimes we use a little art or music therapy to draw out emotions. And then I remind them that their words are private, known only to me, and that I will hold them and keep them private until our next session.
I have found that when people, especially women, have the freedom to be angry, they are generally able to move through that anger and get to the other side of it. On the other side of anger is the true emotion – grief, shame, betrayal, deep hurt, fear – and when we give voice to those, we find healing and freedom. We do not have to be angry anymore because we begin to address the root issue and treat that as needed.