Beth wrapped her arms tightly around a pillow as she began to speak. She appeared pensive and anxious, as she shared the events that had led her to seek my help. She described a weekend visit by her father during which he repeatedly raved about the achievements made by her older sister. While Beth had chosen to work in an advertising firm, her sister had recently graduated from medical school.
“I found myself intensely anxious almost as soon as he left my apartment. I had trouble breathing and it felt like my chest was going to explode.” She experienced a panic attack, but she was eventually able to calm herself, using the same strategies she had learned in therapy as a teenager.
She described a second panic attack that arose following a meeting in which several co-workers took credit for her work, in front of the supervisor. Although anxious and upset, Beth said nothing to her co-workers or supervisor and, subsequently, experienced the onset of a panic attack shortly after the conference ended.
After several sessions Beth proudly declared that she was no longer anxious. She instead reported feelings of depression and sadness–about not getting recognition from her father and about not feeling respected and recognized at work.
Following several more sessions, Beth was excited to report that she was neither anxious nor depressed. Instead, she acknowledged being furious! She then admitted, “I’ve never felt comfortable with anger. I’ve always struggled to avoid it.”
Beth then recalled many early experiences that supported suppression and repression of her anger. She shared a challenge faced by many women, in a culture that doesn’t support the open assertive expression of anger–even when it is expressed in a healthy manner.
It is against this reality that actress Tracee Ellis Ross made her passionate plea to woman as part of her TED talk, in April, at the annual TED Conference in Vancouver, Canada (2018). With powerful conviction she declared:
“Your fury is not something to be afraid of. It holds lifetimes of wisdom. Let it breathe and listen.”
Her talk was a call for women to recognize, accept, and honor anger–as just one of many emotions that help define what it means to be human. Ross poignantly highlighted a history of the objectification of women that has contributed to make this a formidable challenge.
Source: 123rd StockPhoto/bialasiewicz
Her statements echoed research findings that women are all too often prone to self-doubt regarding their reactions of anger. They are quick to believe that they are overreacting or just being too sensitive or unreasonable. Additionally, Ross cited the ingrained tendency women have to feel responsible when they are treated unreasonably or when their boundaries are violated.
During my years of clinical work I’ve observed the powerful impact these tendencies have on women’s emotional well-being. Those who mask, externalize and project their anger are at greater risk for anxiety, nervousness, tension and panic attacks (Cox, 2004). Additionally, they are more likely to experience depression and somatization. Beth’s reactions offer just one example of this outcome.
And while women may experience depression more than men, many men may “be” depressed but experience anger instead. As such, they avoid the feelings associated with depression by embracing anger.
I’ve heard the many ways by which girls develop an internal script that suggests women should not be angry, that anger is not feminine or that it is inappropriate. Unfortunately, adhering to these guidelines culminates inner turmoil, evidenced in self-doubt, emotional avoidance and conflicts with others and with themselves.
Like all messages that encourage denying, minimizing or suppressing our feelings, this script is dehumanizing in its impact. It causes women to experience a dis-connect with their feelings, resulting in a lack of self-awareness that impacts their capacity to more fully recognize their needs and desires. As such, it undermines self-empowerment and the ability to satisfactorily satisfy their core needs and desires.
While women tend to react with anger to the same triggers that cause men to react, they manage it differently. Men are more likely to strike out in anger, with words or physical acts. And while women are increasingly doing the same, they are much more prone to direct their anger inward. Doing so becomes the foundation for a highly self-critical internal dialogue that may inform or become part of depression.
Women are also more likely than men, to divert their anger. Specifically, they may suppress, externalize or project their anger. This was the case with Loren, a twenty-eight-year-old client I worked with who described numerous conflicts in her relationship. She reported being highly sensitive to feeling controlled. Additionally, she often believed that her boyfriend was angry with her. In part, this was due to her frequently withholding her opinions with regard to many decisions-such as how much time to spend time together, how to spend time together and when she desired some alone time.
Loren’s tendency to be conflict avoidant, based on fears of anger, kept her unaware of her own anger. Consequently, she often projected her anger onto her boyfriend. Additionally, she felt he was controlling since he, in fact, made decisions when she did not share her opinions. Over time, by failing to voice her desires, she increasingly lost touch with them.
Rebecca, a thirty-five-year-old with whom I worked, provides another example of the burden women feel in managing anger. She described her heightened self-consciousness at work, especially since being promoted to a managerial position. She quickly recognized that she had confused firmness and assertiveness with anger and that, all too often, she expressed her anger in aggressive ways, more typical of the men with whom she worked.
Unfortunately, many women struggle with this issue in the workplace– the double standard regarding anger. Specifically, men get more leeway in their expression of anger, while women are too often seen as troublemakers when expressing anger.
Another challenge faced by women is that their anger may hold less potential than men may for influencing others with their anger (Salerno & Hagene, 2015). In this study, 210 undergraduate students (2/3 female) read transcripts of jurors who were “hold-out” jurists in a deliberation of a case. Students were given the case and formed their opinions and were then asked to read juror comments. The comments were labeled as expressing anger, fear or were neutral and then labeled as “male” or “female”. Those who read the anger statements were more influenced by the opinion given by a man than by a woman.
The same forces that cause women to suppress anger, lead them to hold onto it longer than men. This makes perfect sense. When we ignore, minimize or deny certain feelings, they don’t just simply disappear. Rather, they demand our attention, especially when they reflect inner suffering.
And while men are more supported in their expressions of anger, even to the degree that it reflects a level of “hyper-masculinity”, they are challenged to sit with and acknowledge inner suffering that fuels their anger. Women, by contrast, due to suppression of anger, are more likely to sit with the suffering rather than recognize their anger.
Tracie Ellis Ross emphasizes that, with regard to their anger, women should: “Give it language. Share it in safe places of identification and in safe ways…” This is the essence of healthy anger. This is an especially difficult challenge for women as long as both men and women minimize or critically evaluate their anger. Likewise, cultivating healthy anger is a difficult challenge for men–as long as men and women acting celebrate acting it out.
We are living in a period of great social change in how women deal with a history of suppressed anger. Both the “Me Too” movement and even those teachers who march for better wages and increased funding for education, are a result of women honoring their anger. This change to the “status quo” can feel very threatening for many individuals. Some may feel a loss of power. Others decry women’s anger and their desire for equality in all areas, as a threat to the distinction between men and women.
Heightened emotional well-being calls for embracing the full range of our emotions, being able to recognize, distinguish and accept them. Additionally, it requires that we can sit with and self-soothe the discomfort aroused by our feelings–rather than impulsively react to them. By contrast, emotional difficulties and conflict arise when we engage in “emotionally avoidance”– by denying, suppressing or minimizing our feelings.
We owe it to our mothers, sisters and daughters to support them in both honoring their anger and cultivating healthy ways to express it. We can do this by increasing our discussions of anger and offering education regarding the range of skills that are a part of healthy anger. We can support and encourage the teaching of these skills in in our schools, to parents, in the workplace, through public policies, in the courts and in the media. Ultimately, we will all benefit when we commit ourselves to providing the skills so that women no longer fear their anger, are able to draw on their wisdom, and “can let it breathe…” .