I consider myself a healthy person when it comes to my emotions.
I let myself cry when I’m sad. I rest when I’m overwhelmed. I am acutely aware of even the slightest tug of my heart.
Being the emotional “expert” that I am, I also believed that my tight reign over anger was an example of just how emotionally balanced I was. Even when rage was burning within me, I could squelch those feelings and remain composed and serene on the outside.
This response to anger, however, is not the one I was taught.
I grew up in a household where yelling was par for the course. When my mother was angry, finding serenity was the last thing on her mind. I can still remember watching her come completely unglued through tear-filled eyes, certain that everyone within a three-mile radius knew I had done something to make her mad. When this sort of thing happened, my immediate response was to shut down. I couldn’t listen, I couldn’t respond, I was in complete defense-mode until the wave of anger had subsided.
Based on those experiences, I thought that allowing yourself to feel anger meant a complete loss of self-control. It was ugly and hurtful, and it was one emotion I would not allow myself to feel.
I thought that allowing yourself to feel anger meant a complete loss of self-control. It was ugly and hurtful, and it was one emotion I would not allow myself to feel.
Suppressing anger was something I became especially skilled at over time. I stayed mute if someone jumped ahead of my in the grocery line. I apologized when other people bumped into me on the street. “Totally fine!” and “No worries!” were my immediate response to every cancelled plan or subtle insult.
Over time I learned that my refusal to express anger was turning me into a doormat, and it took a little heartbreak to finally realize that.
Long story short: after a series of months, I came to the startling realization that I was being led on by a guy who gave every indication that he was interested in me (we’re talking late-night drinks and sunset walks here). Thinking the worst of him, he liked that fact that I was into him more than he actually liked me. Thinking the best of him, he was genuinely unaware that the way he behaved towards me was more than just friendly. While the reality is probably found somewhere in between those two, this I know for sure: he was reckless with my feelings, I was wronged, and I had a right to be angry.
But, in so many ways, I was afraid to be. I was afraid of how I might come off. I think a lot of women might feel the same way about anger. More often than not, women who express their frustration are passed off as “shrill” or “hormonal”.
On another level, I think I was afraid to show that I was angry because I just wanted everything to be OK.
As I sat in a coffee shop with the guy while he explained that he didn’t realize I was interested in him, he just found me intellectually engaging, funny, creative, and personally challenging (I hope your eyes are rolling with me), my knee jerk reaction was a flippant, “Oh! Haha, OK!”
The conversation was a bit more three-dimensional than that, but all in all, I just wanted the conversation to round out nicely with no one being upset, no one being hurt, and everything going back to how it was before. It ended with small talk, completely unceremoniously.
In reflection, I realize now that not allowing myself to express that I was angry was an unconscious attempt to control the situation. If I could keep myself in check, if I could strong-arm my emotions past the anger stage into the reconciled stage, I could ensure that everything was OK — because I felt OK.
Allowing myself to feel anger and expressing that out loud would mean that I had to bring attention to the ways I had been hurt, making it all the more real.
Like I said before, I’m quite attuned to my emotions, and as you may have guessed, suppressing this magnitude of pain couldn’t last long. That first conversation was on a Friday and by Sunday, every feeling bubbling up inside of me became more than I could bear.
I had a decision to make: I could keep lying to myself, keep trying to keep the peace and disregard my feelings, or I could risk expressing my anger and opening a door when I wasn’t quite sure what was behind it.
Painstaking as it was, I asked to talk again, this time determined to make myself understood.
I wish I could tell you it was a miraculous triumph for scorned women everywhere, that I was poised and confident and righteous, but that isn’t the case. Emotions of any kind are messy, and anger is no exception.
When I finally got around to bringing my anger to the light, I wasn’t composed in the least. I was stuttering and crying, trying to spit out sentences through cracked speech. Half of the time I was lost for words.
But I was honest.
I was vulnerable.
And I’ve never felt braver.
In that way, maybe this was a triumph for scorned women of the world. It was for me anyway. By brushing off my own anger, I was telling him that the way he behaved was no big deal, when it absolutely was. Finally expressing my anger meant that the person who had hurt me had to face what he had done.
Don’t get me wrong, anger can be abused, certainly. I don’t think engaging in screaming matches or lashing out unfairly is a healthy way to handle conflict. But I do think that the passive approach that I had (and that I think many of us have) only serves to invalidate genuine pain and it permits people to keep walking all over us.
Finally expressing my anger meant that the person who had hurt me had to face what he had done.
Learning to let myself be angry hasn’t been simple.
I’ve had to face the fact that passivity is much more comfortable, and many people would prefer that I stay silent. But I’ve also learned the strength that comes with listening to my emotions when I’m feeling upset and learning how to tactfully express those feelings. So while I don’t think that anger is the primary emotion I want to operate under, I’ve certainly embraced the power of listening to anger.
I’ve learned to stiffen my spine, speak up louder, and stop apologizing for no reason. Lately, expressing when I am hurt or angry allows me to be much more genuine with my friends, coworkers, and family. While it’s always a bit uncomfortable, being angry is important because it’s a part of being fully human with a full spectrum of emotions.
And I think we all could benefit from that — being a bit less comfortable and a lot more real.