We are not comfortable with anger. We are particularly not comfortable with female anger. Angry women are dismissed and criticised as shrill, or a nag, or unreasonable, too emotional, or simply told to “calm down” or admonished to “be kind.”But we miss out on developing our own emotional understanding when we force women and girls to suppress anger and frustrations.
If at the first sign of anger, women are told to calm down, how can we ever learn to recognise whether our anger is fear or humiliation, jealousy or resentment, irritation or righteous fury? When every strand of anger is squashed equally and swiftly, how are we to recognise if we have over-reacted or whether it is justified fury?
A key weapon in gaslighting women is suggesting we have over-reacted and that our anger is wrong and we have no barometer of previous learning to help us navigate this.
And how are we to understand that fury, that rage, that anger, is not only a legitimate response to oppression, injustice and provocation, but that it is also a powerful instrument for change?
I knew that I wanted my daughter’s to learn to be more comfortable with anger than I am. I wanted them to know that anger can be a reasonable response, healthy and very often necessary. I grit my teeth listening to them arguing, trying not to intervene, to allow them the space to fight for their own causes, their own boundaries, and to practice expressing their anger and negotiating what happens next.
It is a legitimate action to say when you feel wronged, when you feel pushed aside, marginalised or misunderstood, and to stand up and say that it is not OK to be treated badly. It is important to express when your space has been invaded, your property destroyed, your emotions belittled. And it is a distinctly natural response to sometimes blow up when you are feeling fragile, or overwhelmed, everything has become too much and the straw that breaks the camel’s back has just broken yours.
These occasions all happen regularly, from a young age. Being told to calm down or be kind in the face of any one of these is likely to cause more frustration or upset. Having emotions diminished can make us feel out of control.
And we never learn to communicate which of these things we are feeling, which means that as a result we do not get a chance to solve the issue, or negotiate, or to stand up for ourselves, or to understand the situation from another point of view and apologise. Each situation too fraught with internalized outrage to allow space for anything else.
Because expressing anger is not just a case of shouting or roaring, although those can be hugely cathartic. It is a necessity that we learn to communicate the issue and sometimes the solution.
I am horribly aware of the fact that my daughters may become excellent at expressing anger at home, only to have it squashed at school. I am aware that they may become comfortable with anger, and then be around other people who are not. They must also become aware that it is awful to be on the receiving end of anger, and that they may shock those around them and hurt their feelings.
I am aware that while they learn to deal with their anger (and each other’s), they must also learn to deal with other people’s likely responses to anger, and that as they grow up they may be called shrill, or a nag, or repeatedly, patronisingly told to calm down and that it would be remiss of me not to prepare them for this as well.
But how do you teach diplomatic fury? Reasonable rage? Empathetic anger?
It is constant juggling, and balancing to teach them that their emotions are important and to help them understand why they had them, to name them, and to understand whether they were the ones in the wrong or the ones in the right, and to understand why other people had the emotions and reactions that they did.
Most often we find that they are both right and both wrong at the same time. Much to their irritation. They are building up an ability to understand other people’s point of view. Slowly they are building up the confidence to express their anger and the skills to talk about what happened and to move on.
Maybe if I get it right, they can teach me to be more comfortable with anger too.