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Illustration: Karolina Burdon

OPINION

As women, we must connect to our anger – even when we’re told not to

Collective female anger is finding its voice but people-pleaser Poorna Bell explores how individual women still repress their rage

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By Poorna Bell on

Female anger – if you will pardon the horrible pun – is all the rage.

Rage Becomes Her by Soraya Chemaly and Good And Mad: The Revolutionary Power Of Women’s Anger by Rebecca Traister are two new books that chart the rise of female fury and how it is being harnessed and wielded to challenge and dismantle the patriarchal world order, from politics to the entertainment industry.

Anyone who took part in the women’s march, championed equal pay, said #MeToo, signed petitions to emancipate and empower women, or simply stood up to defend another woman in a public space, knows that giving that anger voice and agency matters, because female anger is not legitimised.

In the same way that men get a “boys don’t cry” rhetoric ingrained in them from day dot – with catastrophic consequences – women get told that anger is not an attractive or valued emotion. While male anger is glorified and encouraged, female anger is often framed as proof that a woman has lost control, and therefore forfeited the right to be heard. It is a primary weapon in the gaslighter’s arsenal.

“Anger is an emotion of control, and we associate control with masculinity,” Soraya Chemaly told the journalist Pandora Sykes. “We associate girls with sadness, which is passive. That division follows us into adulthood.”

But while collective female anger is a beautiful, powerful thing – and there is no stuffing it back into a box no matter how much internet trolls and Donald Trump would like us to – there is still an incredible amount of work that needs to go into unpicking the hidden anger and rage we hold within ourselves on a daily basis.

Don’t get me wrong, I can get steam-coming-out-of-my-ears angry on the behalf of someone else – from a mate’s crappy boyfriend to a badly treated colleague. But when it comes to myself, my anger is rarely aggressive, or fully understood.

I got so good at saying: “I’m fine” that it ended up completely disconnecting me from my anger, and more importantly, from properly addressing it

When Gloria Steinem spoke about it, she could have been speaking for any of us. “I…cried when I got angry,” she wrote, “then became unable to explain why I was angry in the first place. Later I would discover this was endemic among female human beings. Anger is supposed to be ‘unfeminine’ so we suppress it – until it overflows.”

Anger is not something I was ever taught to express as a child. It wasn’t really tolerated and was generally viewed as a manifestation of being disrespectful and selfish. Growing up and going into an industry like journalism, despite being surrounded sometimes by very angry people, I learned that to be taken seriously, I couldn’t be a visibly angry person.

Like many women, I learned to suppress the things that most upset me. The hardest period was probably when my late husband Rob was dealing with clinical depression, and then revealed he was a heroin addict. I spent all my energy trying to help get him better, but I knew I couldn’t direct my anger at him, and so I internalised it.

I got so good at saying “I’m fine” that it ended up completely disconnecting me from my anger, and more importantly, from properly addressing it. I remember Rob once saying: “Are you ever going to get properly angry at me about all of this?” And I remember thinking, “I wouldn’t even know how.”  

During this time, I also developed tendinitis in my right foot. Tendinitis is something that is supposed to last a possible three months at maximum, but mine persisted for nine months. After a lot of physiotherapy where I was told I’d never run long distance again, investing money buying the world’s ugliest comfy shoes and feeling hopeless, I came across the writings of a man named Dr Sarno, who was the first to connect body to mind, and espoused that as a consequence of repressed emotion your body can develop very real, stress-induced pain.

Anger, of course, is a huge generator of that. For women, it is a double whammy. Not only do we hold anger within ourselves, but we are taught to suppress it, which can have unbelievably limiting consequences that most of us aren’t even aware of. Once I became aware of it, and addressed it by uncovering why I was angry, my tendinitis disappeared and I ran 10km without any pain. Georgie Oldfield, the leading physiotherapist and chronic-pain specialist who helped me work out what was wrong, says: “If a symptom is persistent or recurring and anything more serious has been ruled out, then it is likely to be stress-induced because it’s a manifestation of unresolved emotion. It’s a learned response which triggers neural pathways. Why does pain become persistent, not acute? Studies have found that it wasn’t to do with whether someone was sitting too long at a desk, it was more to do with whether they had past trauma, depression at the time of the injury and if they had negative beliefs about pain.”

And repressed anger can manifest in many ways beyond tendinitis. Sheri Jacobson is a clinical director of Harley Therapy and believes that it can lead to psychosomatic expressions from skin conditions like psoriasis and eczema to intestinal problems, and musculoskeletal problems like back pain and tendinitis. For her, “the body will tell the story of the emotion that is being carried… When people deny they have anger in them, I ask them to re-examine and take a look at where that anger or unexpressed emotion might be being channeled,” she says.

Reactive anger is a lot easier to identify – like when someone has done something that makes your face turn hot or when you’re in the middle of an argument. But that slow burn of hidden anger can be insidiously harmful because most of us aren’t aware of it. If you find yourself snapping at people (a key sign for me) or feeling run down, or suffering headaches or body pain, that could be a sign that something isn't right.

As well as belonging to a gender that is expected to swallow anger and smile afterwards, belonging to a culture that places a premium on demureness makes matters even worse

Things become even more complicated when you consider intersectionality. Puja McClymont, a life and business coach and NLP practitioner, is South Asian, like me, and I ask whether belonging to a BAME community can compound the anger issue. “AGREE,” she wrote back in capitals.

As well as belonging to a gender that is expected to swallow anger and smile afterwards, belonging to a culture that places a premium on demureness makes matters even worse. Anger simply has no place in a society where marriageability is considered to be everything; a good South Asian bride, for instance, is meant to be obedient. And obedient women don’t rock the boat – they just allow it to slowly eat away at them internally so that everyone else has a happy life.

And McClymont has seen what happens to people who continually suppress their anger: “Women are also stigmatised as being ‘emotional’. When women voice an opinion, it is usually shut down or disregarded especially if it’s a passionate opinion – be it in work or relationships. Over time, this way of being treated adds up and creates rage, which is harmful to our mental health as we are not addressing the root causes and managing ourselves better.”

She continues: “A lot of this stems from how we were raised, what our female role models (usually our mothers) did, and we carry that through to our adult selves – not always serving us well.” Steinem, for instance, refers to watching her own mother having to stuff down her emotions.

While Oldfield says that repressing emotions is normal and we learn it from childhood, it becomes a big problem for people-pleasers – a club I belong to – who worry about what other people think, are very self-critical and conscientious. Never being able to express their anger for fear of being disliked means that they generate a huge amount of self-induced stress.

“If you are always putting other people first, deep inside there is that ‘what about me?’ If we are people-pleasing we want people to like us, but we also want them to reciprocate and be nice to us,” Oldfield says.

A point of tension is of course, when this doesn’t happen, and you begin to stack up all the sacrifices you made to be a nice person at the expense of your own happiness. Marianne Power, who wrote Help Me!, a brilliant book in which she tries 12 methods of self-help, said in relation to her anger: “I am a people-pleaser to my core – as many women have been brought up to be – and I am quite sure it makes me physically sick, not to mention depressed. When I am with people I will bend over backwards to be nice, to listen, to be ‘a good person.’ This is not something that they ask me to do, it's just the only way I know how to behave in relationships. But it exhausts me and I become resentful. I then withdraw and isolate and stew over all the ways that people take more than they give but it is not that other people take too much, it's that I give stuff I don't have to give and I am, actually, quite dishonest in relationships. People ask me what's wrong and if I'm OK and I say ‘nothing’ and ‘I'm fine’ when neither is true.”

There is an idea in self-improvement circles that we should be all “love and light” but that is bull – anger is a valid emotion and it’s one that often comes when a boundary has been crossed

Anger is not necessarily an emotion that is given much space, especially in self-help circles. “There is an idea in self-improvement circles that we should be all ‘love and light’,” Power says, “but that is bull – anger is a valid emotion and it's one that often comes when a boundary has been crossed. Anger is helpful and as much a part of being human as love and joy and all the ‘nice’ emotions.”

In her book, she writes about a therapy week called The Hoffman Process where she had to bash a cushion with a bat and scream, and realised that she had never shouted out loud in her entire life. While it was really uncomfortable, she said: “To discover so much anger was a shock but also a liberation. Anger can feel energising and actually there is a kind of power in owning it.”

Similarly to Marianne, I only realised that I had never screamed out loud when I was driving down the M25 shortly after Rob passed away, when I was sad and angry – but mostly angry. So I screamed for a good few minutes -– somewhere between Junction 7 and 8. I’m sure other drivers thought I was singing a power ballad but it was mostly screaming. It was also incredibly cleansing.

Everyone is different in regards to how they want to identify and work through their anger. Some like therapy; some don’t. A simple, therapy-free way is to write down everything – literally everything – that you can think of that might be pissing you off. That can include your colleague’s smelly broccoli, your mate who never texts back, the person who broke your heart.

After I did it, I felt properly connected to my anger, and realised I had no clue how much was simmering beneath the surface. I also did CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) because it involved more practical methods of dealing with anger than unravelling my childhood.

If your anger is aimed at a person, Jacobson and Oldfield both recommend “the unsent letter” where you pour an uncensored dump of your emotions. It acts as a release but also gives you a sense of perspective of how the other person is feeling. The biggest thing, says McClymont, is understanding where your anger comes from because that helps you to identify and recognise it. But also not being afraid to directly look at it. Anger may seem scarier than all the other emotions, but it is just that: an emotion. When it becomes out of control or messy, that is simply the result of ignoring it. Because like any emotion, it exists for a reason.

In the same way that our collective female anger exists because it is there to fight injustice, your own anger is there to send you a message that requires a response. I, for one, am done with tidying it away.

@poornabell

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Illustration: Karolina Burdon
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