What messages did you get about anger when you were growing up? I bet you heard statements like these:
- Girls shouldn’t get so mad.
- Don’t curse. It isn’t very ladylike.
- Guys don’t like angry, bitter women.
- Calm down. You’re being so dramatic..
The people who instilled this kind of thinking in us weren’t doing us any favors. Misconceptions about anger and a lack of healthy strategies for dealing with anger can damage your relationship. So, let’s get a fresh perspective on this intense emotion that you might fear and avoid.
When Anger Goes Wrong
Far too many women think anger is telling them something negative about themselves. Thanks to what they learned from their families of origin and our culture, they fear deep down that anger means they’re a bad, aggressive person. They believe that if they could just be “better” somehow that they wouldn’t get angry.
These beliefs lead to …
- Tolerating behavior that makes you feel disrespected (for example, your husband habitually runs late) or even behavior that harms your family (like overspending).
- Avoiding conflict at all costs. Never having an argument doesn’t improve your marriage. In fact, the opposite can happen if you are sweeping issues under the rug.
- Seething silently in resentment. In many marriages, women build up resentments around housework and emotional labor.
- Withdrawing and becoming depressed. This happens when you lose any hope of getting your needs met.
- Complaining. Complaints do give voice to your anger, but in a way that’s unlikely to get your husband to change what’s making you angry.
- Mean-spirited venting with friends. Again, this might feel like you’re doing something with your anger. But you’re actually just cultivating contempt for your husband while avoiding the real issues.
- We all have a breaking point. If you suppress anger long enough, you’re likely to lash out. When that happens, your words will be a lot more hurtful than the ones you would have chosen if you’d addressed your anger earlier.
How Anger Can Help You
You may not realize that anger doesn’t have to result in screaming and wounded feelings. It can actually help you improve your relationship. Anger also isn’t some indication of your character, or lack thereof.
The very wise psychologist and author Harriet Lerner recommends viewing anger as a warning signal. It reliably tells you when something is wrong and you need to take action to protect yourself.
To use anger in a positive way, first notice how you react when you notice angry feelings surfacing. If you tend to judge yourself (“Ugh, I shouldn’t be such a bitch”) or push your anger down (“No time to feel that now!), see if you can just let yourself feel the emotion without trying to judge it or squash it.
Instead of recoiling from your own anger, tune in and ask yourself what your anger is trying to communicate to you. Some common messages behind anger include:
- Your needs aren’t being met.
- You are being disrespected.
- You are doing too much.
- Someone has crossed a line with you.
When you have a handle on what’s causing your anger, you can act on it in a more effective way and use your anger as catalyst for positive change. For example, you can establish or affirm healthy boundaries around what you will do, how much you will give and what you will tolerate. You can lovingly but firmly stand up for what you need and what you expect.
Read More About Women and Anger
I won’t lie to you: While embracing your anger is liberating, it can also be an uncomfortable journey. All of those early messages are deeply ingrained in our minds, and our society still has some deeply messed-up attitudes about women and anger. To aid you in this work, I recommend Lerner’s book The Dance of Anger, as well as my own book, Strong Women, Strong Love.