Female Anger

One of my favorite moments as a psychologist is when I can help a woman access and express her anger. It’s no surprise that the character of the Incredible Hulk holds a soft spot in my heart (Yes, the scientist-action hero who mutates into a rageful green monster when angry - to the initial apprehension of my husband when we first met!). Conventional, gendered prescriptions for women include traits like “relational”, “sweet”, or “maternal” - characteristics that not only limit the socially acceptable roles for women, but also label “anger” as an undesirable and unfeminine quality. (The permissible exception, of course, is an angry mother who protects her children from harm!).  But in spite of the societal repression of women’s anger, as therapists we remain curious about anger and view it - and the full range of emotions - as important data.

Let’s challenge some maladaptive  assumptions about anger we see most often in therapy:

1. Anger is a bad (i.e., unhealthy, irrational, selfish) emotion.

Anger is a valid emotion - similar to sadness or fear - that can communicate relevant information about our experience and interpretation of events. Just as sadness helps us appreciate loss or fear signals possible threat, feeling anger helps us recognize that something has gone awry. Whether we feel hurt, invalidated, disrespected, or deceived this is always valuable data for us to reflect upon. Ignoring the clues that anger leaves us often results in more harm in the long run, such as increased stress from stifling our feelings, somatic complaints, social withdrawal, mood lability, and poor self esteem. Just as it is crucial not to ignore an unexpected physical pain in your body since pain functions as our body’s “first responder” to a site of injury, anger serves an important function - to draw our attention to something deserving attention.

2. Anger is destructive and always leads to negative or unwanted consequences.

This can be partially true. Since anger is an activating emotion, we may react when angered in ways that are exaggerated, hostile, or short-sighted because we want to quickly resolve feeling uncomfortable or discontent. However, this does not need to be the outcome of our anger. It is also important to distinguish between angry actions (i.e., behaving out of control) and taking action when angry (i.e., creating boundaries with a disrespectful co-worker). First of all, if we accept that anger is a legitimate feeling for women and that it is often informative, we can pause to treat it with the respect it deserves, and consider the long view instead of reacting in the moment. At its core, anger signals that some type of change may be warranted and it mobilizes us towards constructive action. therapy, Our goal as cognitive-behavioral psychologists is to help women be agentic whenever possible. While it is helpful to consider your goal when expressing anger and regain a reasonable amount of control before responding - these steps serve as ways to help women affect positive change with their anger - not repress or react to it.

3. “Getting angry won’t change things so I should just ignore it”.

It’s true that sometimes being angry does not lead to the specific outcomes that we want, and sometimes we may choose to let go of being angry, especially when perseverating on it harms us. Also, it is important to acknowledge that sometimes the cultural, political, or familial expectations for a woman make it extraordinarily difficult to convey anger, no matter how warranted her feeling may be. Here, we can remember that while the outward expression of anger may be discouraged in certain contexts, anger can still be acknowledged by the individual in other ways that preserve her experience and sense of self.  Again, since anger is informative, even if actionable steps may not be immediately realistic, anger can point us in a helpful direction. So even if anger needs to be redirected through alternative activities or relationships (e.g., journaling, providing anonymous feedback when given opportunity, discharging anger through exercise, attending a protest, sharing with a therapist), acknowledging and honoring our anger - as part of a full and healthy range of emotion - is an integral step in maintaining our mental health.