What exactly is anger and why is it such a powerful emotion? The Merriam-Webster dictionary describes anger as a strong feeling of displeasure and usually of antagonism. I've grown to understand that my anger was merely a symptom of something much more powerful, my hurt. As women, we are often the doers, nurturers, and peacemakers. We have long been told that it is our job to please, protect and appease the world. We hold relationships together like it's our job and the most important one we have. The one we will be judged the harshest for. Anger, or the expression of, is deemed unladylike, unfeminine, a sexual turnoff and strident. Even when society is sympathetic to our goals of equality, angry women are often viewed as having "too much masculine energy" and can still be condemned for waging war for our rights.
Say what you want about anger, but if you're not judging it, it's excellent data. Anger is a signal that we aren't addressing an important emotional issue or that our needs and wants aren't being met. We might be feeling disrespected, dismissed, dishonored or maybe our values, beliefs, desires or ambitions are being violated in a relationship. These feelings can be true in any relationship in your life.
Take my client Joy (Ironic…I know). Joy was in her early 30's when she met her husband. She had a great job and was looking forward to her life with him. Joy was a "nice" wife and mother. She learned the family culture and did her best to be a great addition to her new family. She hosted all the holidays, kept close ties with the in-laws, the aunts, the uncles, and cousins. She went to the gym, was on the PTO, was class mom, arranged date night and kept the family's social calendar…you name it; she did it.
Something she said in one of her first sessions struck a chord with me. She said, "when I met my husband, I was just Joy. Then I became his wife. I was Joy, Paul's wife. Then we had our son. I was Joy Michael's mom. Then, my daughter, I was Ava's mom." She went on to explain that with each one of these life events, it required her to become someone new, leaving behind pieces of who she used to be.
Don't get me wrong, she loved her children dearly and often said that she cherished the lessons they taught her, no matter how hard they might've been. But she felt lost in her little family. She had this plan, and then life happened, and it suddenly didn't look anything like what she envisioned for herself.
In her mid 40's, Joy suffered a series of tragic life events in a small window of time. Looking back, she describes how she was "white knuckling things" for years. Joy suffered from anxiety and depression that went untreated. She said, "I was raging. First with grief, then with hurt & disappointment and finally with the deepest sadness I'd ever known. I was raging at the lack of control I felt I had over it all and pissed off because I couldn't un-know what I knew. Which was that I was more than just unhappy and it was time to face it." Joy spent so much time catering to everyone else's wants and needs that she lost her sense of self, her thoughts, her feelings, her wants and her deepest desires for her own life. She stopped expressing them because it seemed like everyone else's stuff had always trumped hers - so, she figured, why bother?
Eventually, she and Paul began to argue more often. He, like most people, missed the signs that anger offers and became defensive. Paul wasn't able to hear her. Therefore, he wasn't able to address her concerns. Part of the problem was, for years, Joy was afraid to risk the exposure of a "real problem" in fear she might have to deal with it. So, she stuck it back down or ignored it. I often refer to this as the game of whack-a-mole. It's where the problem surfaces and we wack it back down so we don't have to deal with it. Joy wasn't directly expressing essential issues, and she avoided her anger. Because she did this for so long, resentment and anger reached a tipping point. This magic elixir can be lethal to any relationship when it's not dealt with. She was raging, he was defensive, and so the vicious cycle began as did the descent of their marriage.
Through coaching, Joy did the hard work to be able to sort this all out not just for herself, but for Paul. In time, she was also able to help him understand why she was so angry. Joy learned that there was a process of unpacking it all. First, she would need to get clear about things herself. This first step would require her not only to be honest but brave. Joy discovered that she gave up too much of herself and that everyone else's needs trumping hers left her feeling unloved, undervalued and unfulfilled. She also found that she was not experiencing love the way she wanted to in her marriage. Despite years of couple's therapy, Paul wasn't capable of giving her what she needed, and it was unkind to keep expecting it from him. Now the tough part - telling Paul. After countless late-night conversations, endless tears, lots of hugging it out, Paul, too, agreed they should separate.
Two years later, Joy and her family are all peacefully on the other side of things. I'm pleased to report that they were able to navigate the end of the marriage with dignity, grace and a genuine love and appreciation for one another. Joy went back to school, opened her own business and is taking some time to rediscover herself. Paul lives close by, is dating, spends a lot of time with the kids and has remained close friends with Joy. The children have back their happy parents and would describe their new life as "the best of both worlds." My heart is full of happiness for them as this was no easy feat.
When I asked Joy for permission to share her story, I also offered her the opportunity to share something with my readers, and this is what she had to say:
"My anger was my first indication that something was seriously wrong." For a long time, I denied it and for so many reasons. The first being, if I acknowledged it, I'd have to deal with it. It was so much easier to pretend there wasn't a big pink elephant in the room. One of the other main reasons was I knew Paul and I had some fundamental differences in our marriage, and once I expressed what I was thinking and feeling, divorce would be the only available avenue for us. Divorce is hard and messy and can take a good deal of time to conclude, even under the best of circumstances. But in the end, my anger was my gift because it gave me permission to say "no" to the things that were out of alignment for me and "yes" to more of the things I wanted to attract into my life. As hard as it was, I wouldn't take back a minute of it."
If you listen carefully to yourself, anger offers evidence for the necessity to change. However, change can often be anxiety-arousing and difficult business for everyone, including those of us pushing for it. Change can also be very complicated. Consider Joy's story. She went through stages of her anger before she arrived at her understanding and eventual decision. Think of it this way, if we are guilty, depressed, or self-doubting, we stay stuck, but when we get angry, we take action. When we are mad, we are no longer avoiding the big pink elephant in the room. On the contrary, we have officially waged war with it.
I feel it's critical at this stage to point out that anger is a symptom of something much bigger and it's counter-productive to set up camp there. You see, anger is like the water behind a dam. It's logical to think that the dam was built to tolerate the pressure of the water, but even a dam has a breaking point and when it does there is only destruction in its path. If you ignore the signs, it can take a devastating toll on your life and the lives of all the people you choose to drag into it, willingly or not. So, as unpopular as anger may seem, embrace and heed its warning.
It's important to recognize that change of any significant magnitude can neither be made quickly nor easily. So, it is always wise to get calm, steady yourself, set your compass to understanding then get help putting together a well-devised plan for real, sustainable change. Women today are worthy partners and pioneers in the process of personal and social change. Whether we are facing a marital battle or the escalating debate around gun control, we need to understand patterns of behavior rather than placing blame. Doing so is neither efficient nor productive. The real opportunity exists when we listen to our anger, understand what's driving it and begin taking steps to effect the change we want to see.
Look around in your own life. Are you angry about something? What is it in particular that has you so angry? What is your anger telling you? Is it time to look at an important issue in your life? If you've said yes to any of these questions, maybe it's time to seek some help getting clear.