Photo: Alisha Vargas via Flickr
Anger gets a bad rap, especially if it’s expressed by women, studies show, but like all emotions it has a vital place and purpose in our lives. Two new books, Rebecca Traister’s Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger and Soraya Chemaly’s Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger, focus on the transformative possibilities of anger. Traister, who’s written two books on women and politics, looks at the way anger has been harnessed to galvanize social movements from Black Lives Matter to #MeToo. Chemaly, a writer and activist who writes on gender, examines the way women are socialized from early childhood through every stage of their developments to suppress anger — and how that negatively affects their health.
Both books come at a pivotal time in our nation’s history, when millions of women across the country are grappling with how to inhabit this charged emotion without letting it overrun their lives. Chemaly and psychologist Deborah Rozman, Ph.D., the CEO of HeartMath and co-author of Transforming Anger: The Heartmath Solution for Letting Go of Rage, Frustration, and Irritation, offered these effective tips on how to make your anger work for you:
Acknowledge and name it
Chemaly says a lot of women can’t actually vocalize the words “I am angry.” Instead, they say things like “I’m stressed” or “I’m tired” because, she explains, “We’re socialized to minimize our anger and put others at ease.” Anger-denialists, though, are wreaking havoc on their own mental well-being. Chemaly encourages women to name their feeling, a practice called “affect labeling,” which “helps disrupt patterns of rumination that make us sad and depressed.” Dr. Rozman agrees, emphasizing the importance of withholding negative judgements on your anger: “It’s not an issue of good or bad. Don’t enter a war with it.” Instead, neutrally recognize: “Here’s the feeling. Now what do I do with it?”
Get centered and think of the bigger picture
Once you reconcile with the fact that you’re angry, try breathing your way to tranquility. “Bring it back to your heart with a technique we call ‘quick coherence,’ Rozman says. The practice involves a series of deep breaths that focus on inhaling and exhaling from the center of your heart, while finding a place in your mind that brings you calm — maybe it’s your pet, or child, or memories of a favorite vacation spot. When anger furiously courses through your veins, the stress hormone cortisol surges, which puts your body into survival mode, a “fight, flight or freeze” zone that impairs your ability to think clearly and with perspective. Intentional breathing lassoed to a soothing thought will enable you to access a bigger picture, so you can respond in a productive way, says Rozman.
Identify why you’re angry
Now that you’ve entered a state of calm, start asking yourself critical questions to figure out why you’re angry. Did someone mistreat or disrespect you? Were you treated unfairly? Did you witness something that rattled your sense of justice? Make sure you’re not weaponizing your anger against yourself. Eighteenth-century English poet Alexander Pope once wrote: “To be angry is to revenge the faults of others on ourselves.” Dig deep to make sure your perceived wrong, filtered through your history of experience, isn’t a potential misperception triggered by an old, lingering wound. Feminist historian Joan Wallach Scott wrote an essay called “The Evidence of Experience,” about the dangers of filtering every experience in your life through your own personal history without a critical self-interrogation. For example, if I get angry over a perceived slight that I think is because I’m gay, rather than considering other possible reasons for the slight, I’ll stay in a repetitive narrative that’s painful to me. To avoid that, go full-blown archeologist and excavate the deepest origins of your anger. Then you’ll be prepared to figure out what to do about it.
Turn your anger into meaningful change
“Hold people accountable,” says Chemaly, “whether it’s interpersonally, professionally or politically.” As Traister documents, millions of women the world over have done just that, collectively harnessing their fury to affect positive social change — from Pantsuit Nation to the Women’s March. Outside the realm of mass social movements, addressing your anger in a fruitful way may feel more challenging, but it is still possible. In a professional setting, Chemaly notes that it can be tough to navigate injustice head-on because women who express anger aren’t perceived the same way that men are. In fact, studies indicate they are perceived poorly. “When a man expresses anger — “is pugnacious, contemptuous and indignant” Chemaly says — it confirms our ideas about masculinity. “When a woman does, it’s transgressive, so in order to be heard we really learn to perform femininity.” In the meantime, she advises women to seek allies who will advocate for them, and find or create networks or communities at work with like-minded people to work toward collective action. “Metrics show that better organized, more successful organizations are those in which employees feel connected and empowered,” Chemaly says, adding, “When you can posit that your anger is a form of information, it is important and valuable and can help you.”
“Always remember,” adds Rozman, “anger is meant to be a warning sign. It’s an alert. And it’s ultimately meant for us to do something productive with it.”