Boston Women’s Journal - April/May 2008
Anger Management - A Woman’s How-To Guide
When I was seven, my three year old brother took my favorite stuffed animal, Pink Fluff, an amazing stuffed dog with real fur ears, and tore off one of her ears in a fit of younger sibling pique. I was furious! In fact I was so furious that I wanted to slap his cute little face and rip the plastic ears off Mr. Muggs, his stuffed monkey. On my way to do so, shaking with anger and holding the violated Fluff in one small reddened fist, I was met by my mother who told me it was “unladylike” to get angry. I felt like all the air had been let out of the room. My brother was “cute” when he got mad or was “acting like a boy”, I was unladylike. I stopped dead in my tracks. What could I do if I couldn’t get even? I remember that as the first time I cried “unfair” in the gender wars. Be a lady or redress a wrong? Not much of a choice. Now mom was just trying to socialize me and make me better able to cope with all the future times I would be expected to stuff my anger and act like a lady. I decided then and there that anger was a lower and baser emotion and I was above it. I proceeded to spend the next twenty years burying my anger. I don’t think I need to tell you that strategy was neither emotionally satisfying nor terribly effective. Girls need to get angry too.
We are put on the path away from anger and to other channels very early. “Think how badly they must feel to have done such an awful thing.” We are encouraged to be empathetic, loving caregivers. We rhapsodize about our higher natures. We forgive and forget. Or much worse we believe we caused the anger by our actions - if we just tried a bit harder we could have “not made him so mad” - or just plain feel it is our fault. The extreme of this is of course abused women who are told “you made me hit you” and believe it.
Men are encouraged to feel and express anger. Stand up for yourself, hit the bully back, etc. It is reinforced and seen as normal behavior. “Don’t cry, only girls cry. Get even”. In fact I would argue that boys who didn’t get angry were shunned. Well, we don’t want to get to the place where we are always in rage, but maybe we could use a refresher course in getting angry. What the boys do isn’t always the best strategy either. Maybe we can do it our way. Try these steps: 1. Take a deep breath. I really believe in the “sleep on it rule”. If I get mad enough that I feel like punching or screaming or doing something that might bounce back to me later, I sleep on it. If in the morning I still feel the same way I will probably be able to express myself more articulately anyway. 2. Say it! If you still feel mad tell the person. You may not be yelling after your night’s sleep but you can map out point-by-point how you feel and why. Quiet anger is very powerful. Think of the Godfather. Make them an offer they can’t refuse. 3. If someone isn’t worth fighting with, don’t. We all know people who are just impossible to reason with. Don’t try. Don’t waste your breath. Get out of the situation. They are bullies. Let them bully someone else. You can’t reason with someone who won’t listen. 4. Feel it! You may not be able to scream in the moment, but go home and punch a pillow, or a punching bag. Or try my personal favorite, screaming in the car. The car is the best screaming room. No one can hear you and it sounds really loud and satisfying. I do it a lot. So if you see me on the highway give a wave! 5. Use your anger to get out of impossible situations rather than tolerate them. If your boss is always making you go home steaming take that steam and get a new resume together. Use that to get yourself out and look for another job. Righteous indignation is great engine fuel.
Know that you can learn to work with anger. I do training for women needing to learn how to channel and use anger. I work with individuals and groups all the time. We are all having a problem with anger. We need to be retrained in one of the basic emotions. And like most things maybe we can do it better than men.
On a personal note, I became quite able to be mad at my brother. He became a yeller and I became a fencer. I like to think that I won most of the arguments. If nothing else I worked with a sharper and more evolved tool.