Anger is one of the most powerful human emotions, along with fear and love, that is available to us.
The issue of anger and its management is an element in recent discussions examining the behavior of Mr. Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin case and is likely an example of anger powering actions that result in tragedy.
Anger can also be a driving force for the good — powering the drive to fight the attitudinal social injustice that infers malice to a minority person wearing a particular piece of clothing. Anger can also be channeled to drive ambition, and to serve self-protection both physically and emotionally. Unfortunately, most women, to their detriment, have been taught to squelch this emotion.
"Scratch a woman and you find rage," wrote author Virginia Woolf.
Woolf's words are compelling not just in their main point — that women, usually thought of as happy and nurturing peacemakers, are filled with anger — but in the more subtle sense that women's anger boils, volcano-like, below a calm surface.
Anger is, in fact, the ultimate female taboo, the one emotion women are discouraged from expressing. While men's anger is often considered appropriate and even manly, angry women are called "witches" or worse, and portrayed as villains, fools or psychotics in books, movies and TV shows.
The prohibition against female anger is rooted in our culture. Women have traditionally been raised to be passive and obliging partners for men.
Trained as children to be "nice, good girls," women learn quickly — without necessarily being told — that anger is an unattractive and undesirable female behavior.
In the workplace, if women assert themselves by disagreeing or by outperforming their male peers they are often ostracized or become political liabilities in their departments. At home, the male/female power struggle is often an underlying source of conflicts and at its most extreme can be emotionally and physically dangerous to women.
Women suffer by not being allowed to express their anger because anger is a natural and vital human emotion, a valid and appropriate reaction to many life events. Unacknowledged, unexpressed anger may cause physical problems such as severe headaches, stomach disorders, body pains and fatigue.
Relative to their emotional health, when anger is not expressed, other unexpressed emotions — guilt, resentment, hurt — are suppressed so women deny those feelings as well.
Often they will then withdraw emotionally from their relationships or act out their anger in unhealthy ways taking it out on themselves by under or over eating, becoming shopaholics or substance abusers. Men, on the other hand, often take their anger out on those around them: wives, children or co-workers, often in addition to their own self-abuse.
Women — as well as men — often never learn to distinguish assertive behavior from dysfunctional, aggressive or violent behavior.
Assertive behavior finds solutions that benefit everyone involved. Aggressive behavior results in someone being hurt or humiliated because aggressive behavior requires that someone be "wrong" or "lose."
The "right" one or "winner" may come away feeling powerful, but at the expense of the feelings of their friend or spouse. This dysfunctional expression of anger erodes and can ultimately destroy even the most loving relationships.
How can women deal with their anger in healthy ways?
AWARENESS: By asking yourself, "What am I feeling now — hurt, angry, afraid?" and "What is making me feel this way?" you can learn to get in touch with your feelings.
ACKNOWLEDGMENT: By learning to say to yourself and others "I am angry (or irritated, annoyed, frustrated) about ... ."
Then by learning to accept responsibility for your own feelings: "When you do (x), I feel (y)."
In this way you acknowledge ownership of your reactions without attacking the other person. Then you can ask if the other would consider doing, or saying something in a different way.
RESOLUTION: Follow acknowledgment by seeking positive, healthy solutions to the situations that are the source of your anger. "I would appreciate it if you would do (x) instead of (y). Would that work for you? Does that seem fair? Let's work this out so that both of us feel comfortable.
ACCEPTANCE: By realizing that anger is a natural human emotion and that your feelings are not "right" or "wrong." They are your feelings and you are entitled to experience, acknowledge, identify, honor, and with practice, express them constructively.
Based in Rockport, Life and Relationship Coach Susan Britt, M.Ed., a psychotherapist and former university director of career and counseling services, teaches individuals, couples and families to resolve relationship conflicts, identify and achieve life and career goals, and accelerate personal growth. Questions and comments may be addressed to her at email@example.com or by telephone.