Managing Anger

It’s actually good to be angry.

This is one of the most powerful life lessons I’ve learned, it’s also the one that is the most hard to accept and scariest to admit. For me, this has been a revelation years in the making.

As a naturally optimistic and deeply empathetic person, I still cringe when I think about how other people experience me when I’m angry. An only child, raised by a single mother until I was 13, I was often lonely and felt emotionally abandoned by both my parents. I viewed anger as giving people a reason to push me away. And growing up a Black girl in a world in which white people often surrounded me, I was taught by relatives that being nice, agreeable and “acceptable” was a way to set myself apart; with the hopes that defying stereotypes about sassy, attitudinal Black women would shield me from the racism and sexism that exists in the world.

At a critical point in my adult life, I realized that the expectation to not be angry had become stifling and I felt overwhelmed. Throughout painful and abusive personal relationships, work situations in which I was frustrated by lack of opportunities and not making enough money, and various kinds of loss and struggle, I felt extreme pressure to put on a façade for everyone. This resulted in deeply hidden emotions. The façade wore me out. It made me incredibly unhappy. But still, I refused to speak truth and give voice to my anger. Even when it was righteous and warranted.

The anger only increased as I started to develop a critical consciousness about the world around me. Racism, sexism, homophobia, social injustice… there was so much to be angry about! And when I finally did start to make sense of it, I became incredibly uncomfortable. Most people are generally uncomfortable with anger as an emotion. Anger is messy and pushes our boundaries. It can range from irritation to full blown rage. It does not fit into a pretty little package and can throw individuals, relationships and even society into upheaval.  In a world that emphasizes orderly, pleasant appearances and self-control, and because so many of us place our need for stability, security and order above all else, anger can feel chaotic, dangerous and unmanageable.

As humans, our instinct is to shy away (or even run) from our feelings of anger. Like I did, many of us deal with our anger by suppressing it, lying to ourselves or others about it, or trying to put a happy face on the outside despite feeling very differently on the inside.  Once I was finally able to name my anger, there were many times I shared my feelings with others only to have them respond with comments like “Look on the bright side,” “Don’t be a Debbie Downer,” or “Look at the glass as half full instead of half empty.” It was exhausting.  

The message internalized from this type of response is that there is something inherently wrong with me for being angry. But I found that it wasn’t just me. Society is full of subtle (and not so subtle) messages that reinforce the idea that anger is a negative emotion--something unpleasant, unnecessary, outrageous, better yet, immoral that we should not feel or express.  Feminists boldly proclaiming that women deserve equal pay for equal work—scary and angry. Young Black protestors asserting that Black lives matter—hateful and angry. Activists championing the rights of undocumented immigrants—entitled, unlawful and angry.  

And for women, being vocal about our anger comes at great risk to us both personally and professionally. Shame and shaming often accompany female expressions of anger. As a woman, I’ve been labeled “emotional” “unreasonable” “unprofessional” and “high-strung” when I have expressed my anger at being personally wronged or at injustice, whether it is in the workplace or in the world. And as a woman of color, when I’ve expressed my anger, the stakes have been even higher.  I’ve been called “aggressive” “negative” or “angry” as in the “angry Black woman” more times than I can count.  

The end result was that for years, as both a child and an adult, I tried desperately not to appear angry. Not because I wasn’t, but instead because I feared being judged and labeled. If I was angry, what did that say about me? Is something wrong with me when I feel anger? Am I a bad person because I am angry?   Is it better to pretend to feel pleasant, calm and content rather than to express displeasure, outrage or annoyance? What good could possibly come from being angry?

 With time and reflection, I have learned the answers to these questions and they are relatively simple. What does anger say about me as a person? Only that I’m human. Is something wrong with me when I feel angry? Not at all, anger is a natural emotion. Am I a bad person because I’m angry? No, everyone is entitled to feel their emotions- fully and without shame.  Is it better to pretend to feel pleasant, calm and content rather than to express displeasure, outrage or annoyance? With rare exception, little is achieved by lying to others or myself by pretending to feel something I don’t.

What good could possibly come from being angry?

Actually, a lot. Being in touch with anger is a fundamental part of self-awareness. Acknowledging the feeling of anger and understanding it, allows me to intentionally make choices to change my situation. I find that when I simply sit with the feeling of anger, it provides a bit of clarity and allows for good decision-making. For example, when I get that snarky email from a colleague or boss that evokes anger in me, when I sit for a few minutes and digest those feelings, I no longer have the need to respond in all capitals back. I am able to make the decision to wait and respond after I’ve had time to cool down. Anger can also be a powerful motivator and catalyst that leads to societal change.  Anger about injustice in society led to the Civil Rights Movement, to marriage equality and to equal pay laws. Anger is one of the foundational emotions that has caused humans to mobilize and organize for justice in ways that better humanity. Finally, anger can lead to personal growth and change. Recently on my favorite podcast, I heard someone say, “I demand to be my full self in any space that I am in.” I wholeheartedly agree with that mantra. After years of hiding and suppressing my feelings, I want to live an authentic life--embracing all of my emotions and bringing my full self everywhere. That includes my joy, my curiosity, my anxiety, my intelligence, my passion and, yes, my anger. Anger is a natural part of what I feel along with all the other emotions that humans are gifted with.

So, I embrace anger. I am alive. I am a full human being. I have complex emotions that I or others don’t need to judge- they are what they are. And sometimes it’s good to be angry.