We asked more than 2,400 women to respond to a survey. Here are some of the most typical answers to the part of the survey that involved completing the sentence,
When I get angry, I . . .
• usually keep my anger inside and let it build up until I’m basically fed up.
• don’t immediately express it. I rationalize the situation, or I contemplate the cause and validity of my reaction to the cause.
• get sarcastic and biting in my comments. I fish for someone to ask me what is wrong.
• find it easy to stuff it and get depressed.
• fume inside and snap at people. I do use words to express it, but I become snappy and impatient.
• drive myself crazy.
• get ugly. If I happen to walk by a mirror, I am surprised at how hateful I look. I want to hurt back with words. I want that person to be sorry they hurt me, and then I am sorry at my own selfishness.
• am probably more negative. I tend to clam up, and I know that is wrong.
• yell, then cry.
• feel sad for feeling that way—then I lose my patience.
• feel out of control and lash out—I regret my behavior later. I even hate myself at the time, but I can’t seem to stop.
• either button up for a while, or I rage like a crazy person; or I express myself passionately but in a controlled way.
• hit a wall, throw something, yell, say something I regret, slam a door.
• tend to yell and want to hit someone.
• tend to draw inward with my emotions and then feel very guilty.
• Sometimes walk away and let it simmer underneath. Sometimes I raise my voice and express it. Sometimes I yell. Sometimes I take the person aside and talk calmly about it.
Anger—is a strange and puzzling feeling, isn’t it? It’s not a signal to be ignored, like a postcard sent at a bulk rate. It’s more like a special delivery letter telling you that you’re being hurt, your rights are being trampled, you’re living in fear, you’re frustrated or you’re ignoring something significant in your life. You could be feeling anger because you’re trying too hard to please others and are neglecting yourself; or maybe you’re being doted on too much by others and feeling deprived of the chance to grow and become more independent.
Were you ever taught how to understand anger as you were growing up? Did your mother or father sit down with you and say, “Let me tell you about anger”?
In our survey, we asked the question, Who taught you how to become angry? Here are some of the responses:
• Both parents. My father was slow to anger, but more to be feared when provoked. For my mother, it was a daily, frequent ritual of outbursts.
• Born a sinner—don’t think I needed to be taught.
• Myself, from watching my sister and mother, and sometimes my dad, because he would stuff his feelings (for years) until one day he would explode.
• My family taught me how not to become angry, and I hope God’s Word and His Holy Spirit taught and are teaching me how to become angry.
• I think there was lots of anger stuffed in marriage, a hard marriage. Husband gone all the time and left me with full responsibility. Lots of anger came from him—men in general.
• Some book about two kinds of anger—righteous and unrighteous (after I was an adult).
• No one taught me how to become angry. I think anger is a natural human emotion.
Did anyone teach you that it’s all right to be angry because this can help you improve relationships and correct wrongs in your life? This was probably not the message you heard when you were growing up. If you are like many women, you probably heard, “Don’t rock the boat. Be a peacemaker. Your job is to nurture others. And don’t show a man your anger. It will drive him away.” Studies show that this message is widespread in our culture. “Anger in men is often viewed as ‘masculine’—it is seen as ‘manly’ when men engage in fistfights or act their anger out physically. But for girls, acting out is not encouraged. Women usually get the message that anger is unpleasant and unfeminine.”1
There have been so many restrictions against women feeling and expressing anger that it is difficult for many women even to know they are angry. I’ve heard the phrase “She’s just irrational” used many times when a woman was expressing her anger, as though a label could explain it away. Over the past decades, when women became angry they were looked on as unfeminine and were usually described in uncomplimentary language. Women are called “witches,” “nags” or “man-haters,” to name just a few. “These are words for an angry woman: bitch, shrew, nag. . . . Deborah Cox quotes one conversation in Women’s Anger, a book she co-authored, ‘a researcher asks a group of girls: “What do you look like when you’re angry?” “Ugly,” the girls reply.’”2
Traditionally, women have expressed their anger in indirect ways. Those could take the form of acting hurt, being wounded or sulking—all of which fit the image of being “nice.” But being a placater and overriding one’s true feelings, hopes, desires and dreams lead to an accumulation of anger. I’ve talked to a number of women in counseling over the years who have had this experience. They say, “I really don’t do too well getting angry, but I’m quite adept at feeling guilty. At least then I’m the only one that gets hurt.” But that isn’t really true either, for that guilt leads to anger—and one way or another, anger is going to find an outlet, whether one wants it to or not.
The anger is there for a number of reasons. It could be caused by a woman’s feeling that she must live up to male expectations that she be fragile, dependent, helpless and willing to follow a man’s dictates.3 It may be caused by her not being taken seriously in meetings when she voices her opinion, or by her being asked to take notes or get the coffee in the meeting because she is a woman. It could be caused by her having to put up with male behavior that is rude and rejecting toward women in general. I have also observed similar behavior many times in phone conversations and even at my office; a man will be rude to one of my secretaries, whereas he wouldn’t think of talking to me in the same manner. On occasions when I confront a caller about this issue, his attitude toward my secretary the next time he calls is amazingly different. The discrepancy in the way men and women are treated can also be seen when a man voices a complaint and gets more response to it than a woman would if she were to make the same complaint.
The labels men apply to women are another source of anger. “She’s just hysterical; she’ll calm down,” a man might say. Another put-down: “Here comes the PMS again. It’s time to avoid her for a few days.”
Many women feel powerless to do much about their situation. They engage in blame, and whenever blame is alive it leads to anger. Fear is another major cause of anger; consequently, as our society becomes increasingly unsafe for women, we see their anger on the increase. I have a friend whose daughter was almost raped. My wife and grown daughter both carry a protective spray whenever they are out, and there are certain places my wife will not go in the evening. I have worked with assault victims and have seen the fear and rage they experience over what has happened to them.
We see more anger at home and at work. Within the home much of the anger stems from the division of the workload. Women who work outside the home must spend many additional hours in housework each week compared to men, and both men and women are angry at the lack of appreciation they receive from their partner.4 At work, women continue to be frustrated by the fact that, in certain professions, they earn less than their male counterparts. (Fortunately, however, there are a number of professions in which one’s gender does not matter).
But it is not just these various forms of social injustice that are causing women to respond in anger. In our national survey, we asked women: What are some of the factors which increase your vulnerability to anger? The respondents were given four spaces in which to list their answers (not in order of importance).
In a sampling of 722 surveys in which this question was answered, we discovered the following:
• 48 percent identified fatigue or being tired.
• 28 percent mentioned stress.
• 20 percent said injustice.
• 14 percent mentioned children.
• 13 percent said PMS.
• 11 percent said pain or illness.
• 9 percent stated feeling out of control or helplessness.
• 8 percent identified frustration.
• 7 percent said communication with their husbands.
• 7 percent said it was a spiritual problem.
Passive-Aggressive Expression of Anger
Despite the fact that it is becoming more socially acceptable for women to express their feelings, many women still go underground with their anger. One particularly unhealthy approach is to express anger by being passive-aggressive—being angry but expressing it in a disguised way. Some people are clever at this. They may or may not be conscious that they are angry, but whatever their level of awareness, they convey their anger unmistakably—and indirectly. They may release it under the guise of critical comments, or they may harbor well-camouflaged resentment. If confronted, they proclaim their innocence. Their response is similar to the description in Proverbs 26:18-19: “As a madman who casts firebrands, arrows and death, so is the man who deceives his neighbor and then says, Was I not joking?” (AMP).
What particular responses might you adopt if you’re a passive-aggressive?
Letting out your anger by procrastinating is one tactic.5 Putting off responsibilities or delaying doing something for someone else is another disguised way to vent your anger. It’s not obvious and so it feels safe because it’s difficult for others to label the action as anger. You’re more comfortable being called “irresponsible” or “lazy” than be labeled “angry.”
Subtle stubbornness is another expression of anger. So is forgetting or avoidance. These behaviors usually reflect anger that you wouldn’t dare express openly.
Forgetting is another handy way to express anger, because the responsibility can be turned back against the other person. “Are you sure you asked me?” Or, “Are you sure that was the time we agreed upon?” “I’m so sorry you had to wait in the rain. But I was sure you said to pick you up at 10:30 and not at 10. Well, anyway, you can get some dry clothes at home.” When passive-aggressives say things like this, others begin to doubt themselves. They end up feeling responsible. But the truth is they have been set up.
How else might you express anger indirectly? Using your spouse’s car and leaving it a mess, and with an empty gas tank, works well. Paying a bill but conveniently forgetting to mail it can bring your spouse an unpleasant call from the gas company. You can take the money out of your partner’s wallet and fail to let him know about it. You can be passive-aggressive by walking over to the TV as someone is viewing his favorite program and turning the channel to something you want to watch.
Sarcasm is another “nice” way to be angry. Two messages are given at one time, a compliment and a put-down. “You look so young I didn’t recognize you.” “Your new suit is radical, but I like it.”
I’ve seen passive-aggressives act as though they didn’t understand the simplest instructions. Though there might be a slight smile or give-away smirk on their faces, confronting them usually doesn’t work. They play innocent; and if you ever suggest that they might be angry, you’re likely to get a “Who me? I’m not angry at all!” response. You’ll end up wondering if you’re the one with the problem.
Many women think, If I become angry, won’t I become aggressive too? I don’t think so. For many years we connected anger and aggression. But there is actually not as much connection between anger and aggression as there is between anger and blame. We don’t tend to become as angry when we understand the what and why of another person’s response. That is especially important in significant relationships. When you lack an object of blame, do you become angry? Not usually.
Another often-overlooked characteristic of anger could be operating in your life at this time. Anger acts as a protector and a defense. When the hormonal changes of anger kicks in, you will find that you can defend yourself better. Why?
Your anger gives you a feeling of empowerment. The doubts that you had about yourself are disappearing. You now have sufficient energy to cope. Your anger is a newfound source of strength to mobilize yourself.
Your anger helps you to block out fear and guilt. Anger tends to drive away any feeling that might inhibit you. Unless you turn your anger back against yourself, it will push you ahead to attack.
Your anger helps you to focus on your own needs rather than the other person’s. Your pain and needs are the focus, not the other person’s. You are convinced that you are right, and your anger strengthens this belief. (This is why some men and women become addicted to anger, for at no other time do they have these feelings.)
Perhaps the best way to illustrate how we use our anger as a defense is by giving examples.
• We use anger to alleviate the pain of guilt. Are you familiar with guilt? If so, you know how uncomfortable it is. To alleviate the pain of guilt and defend ourselves against it, we can become angry against what another person is making us feel guilty about. This works for a while but doesn’t resolve the problem.
• We use anger to defend against hurt. That hurt might stem from an unkind remark, a rejection or an injustice. In lashing out we cover the pain of hurt.
• We use anger to defend against a loss. I’ve seen people react with anger when a son or daughter goes off to college or to work in another part of the country, or when a friend moves away. Anger often arises when we lose a loved one in death. We find something to blame in the person and focus on the hurt we are experiencing instead of on the delight he or she may be experiencing.
• We use anger as a defense against the feeling of being trapped or helpless. You may be working overtime to pay for your children’s braces. You didn’t realize how long it would take or how expensive it would be, and now you’re stuck on a treadmill for the next two years. You don’t have any alternative but to stick it out, so you begin to think, They don’t even appreciate what they’re getting, and you focus on your exhaustion and lack of time for yourself. So it’s no wonder that quarrels between you and your children have increased as you find more and more to become angry about. They see you as being overly critical, which you may be, but it’s your outlet against being trapped.
• We use anger as a defense against fear. You’ve probably seen this in others or have experienced it yourself. A child runs into the street, and fear propels the mother into the street to grab her child in front of a car. She yells and spanks the child in anger, which covers her feelings of fear.
Using anger to defend against painful feelings is normal. The problem arises when we make anger a habit, or when the frequency and intensity of our anger begin to affect us and our relationships.
Anger can become an addiction. Anger addicts have used anger as a defense for so long that they know no other way to respond; they feel empty without the rush of anger. That is the down side of anger. People who use anger as a defense over a period of time have a hard time letting go of it—especially if they find it easier to feel anger than to feel fear, hurt, guilt or emptiness.
All addictions feel good for the moment, but they don’t help us to resolve the problems we face. A response of anger may be appropriate and helpful in situations where we face a direct threat. But the habitual, addictive type of anger will probably direct us a way from whatever appropriate action would help resolve the problem.
If anger has the capacity to help block out painful feelings, why should we deal with the original pain and its cause? We should do so because confronting the original pain and its cause is essential if we are to become whole.
Anger Keeps Us from Confronting the Source of Our Fear
Anger will keep you from distinguishing between actual threats and distortions that create fear. It will keep you from confronting negative messages you say to yourself—things that you may have learned from poor experiences with your parents or other significant individuals in your life. You may be using anger to silence and override this self-critical voice that goes of inside your head from time to time. But will anger help you confront that critic and evict it from your life? Not usually.
Anger Keeps Guilt Alive
When you use anger as a defense, you will never come to the place where you deal with the source of your guilt. Your guilt may arise from false beliefs, or it may result from your giving priority to fulfilling your needs rather than living by your value system. You become angry at yourself when you know you are violating your values, but that doesn’t stop you from doing it again and again.
Anger Keeps Grief Alive
Many times I have seen grief kept alive by anger over a major loss in someone’s life. Anger can keep a person from saying good-bye to whatever has been lost. It can push them to keep reliving the hurts, harsh words and wrongs of the relationship—which just reinforces the pain, guilt and intensity of the loss.
Anger Closes Off Communication
I’ve rarely met an angry person who is able to talk about what pains him or her when angry. Yet if you are unable to talk about what is hurting you when you are angry, how can other people know what is bothering you? How can they change their response to you if you don’t let them know how you felt wounded by what they said or did?
Anger Keeps Us Feeling Like Victims.
You feel helpless in spite of the strength of your anger because your anger doesn’t let you fix what’s wrong. When you blame or defend, your energy is diverted from resolving the original problem.
All of this is not to say that you should never become angry. Quite the contrary. It’s when anger becomes your main line of defense that it becomes a difficulty. Every concern and issue has a solution, but anger doesn’t usually lead you to that solution.6
Anger within a woman that goes unrecognized, unadmitted and untouched becomes an unwanted resident that soon affects the totality of her life. Silent Pain, the title of a 1992 book for women, refers to the submerged sadness or deep ache that results and that is always there just underneath the surface, taking the edge off life. That pain could reflect deep unfulfilled longings, disappointments in relationships or lingering unhealed hurts.7
There are many reasons for silent pain. It could be a residual grief from the past that has never been resolved. Years ago I learned to ask my counselees the question, What is there in your life that you’ve never fully grieved over? In time most identify some loss—and with each loss there is usually a residue of anger.
It could be pain over a current situation that reminds you of a similar past heartache, but you don’t feel free to talk about it. You’re angry that it still exists, but you can’t talk about the anger either.
It could be connected to a sense of shame over a past or present sin, real or imagined. You believe that what you did was so wrong you cannot be forgiven, so you live with your pain. Underneath may be a residual anger over the unfairness of the continuation of that pain.
When you bury any emotion, there is a loss. When you bury your sorrow and don’t allow yourself to feel your sadness, you don’t realize your need for comfort and consolation. When you bury your anger, you ignore what it’s trying to tell you. In so doing you may create another nemesis more common to women than to men—depression.
Some women take a long time to feel angry after an unpleasant event has occurred. But the fuel for the anger is there. The ingredients, the shape, the structure and the energy are all there, whether ignored or not. What happens to all that energy? Where does it go?
In many cases that anger results in depression.
Why is it that women experience depression more than men? Why is it that one in every four women will suffer a serious clinical depression at some time in her life, whereas only one in eight men will? According to a 1990 study by the American Psychological Association, it is not because women are more willing to share their feelings, to complain or go for counseling. It is instead because women have not been culturally conditioned to combat depression.8 A chain reaction toward depression is involved. Women’s vulnerability to depression may be connected to their tendency toward passivity and dependency, which they confuse with being feminine. This leads to a hesitation to admit, face and resolve their anger. Men are given permission by society to be angry, whereas women are not, which in turn leads many women to feel it necessary to suppress their anger. Since anger that is suppressed does not just go away, suppressing anger makes women more prone to anger. That in turn leads to depression, for suppressed anger is often channeled into depression.9 In a later chapter depression will be dealt with in detail.
Unfortunately, many women learn this pattern as young children. Growing up in a dysfunctional family retards emotional expression, whether the dysfunction is divorce, alcoholism, abuse or perfectionism. What happens between a woman and her father is a key factor. Any type of abandonment is damaging, whether it be by emotional withdrawal, death or divorce.
This learned repression of emotions is what keeps a woman stuck in her pain. Some believe that emotional distress is caused not so much by the painful events of life, but by silence about those events and the feelings underneath them. I’ve seen this tragedy in the counseling office with women in their 30s and 40s, who for the first time in their lives are taking the cap off their repressed emotions and beginning to face them. It is interesting to see the transformation that occurs. As they let their feelings out, especially anger, they discover a newfound source of energy.
What can you do about anger? First of all, accept it. Break out of the repressive mode. Anger has a message for you. It’s there for a reason.
So discover the reason for your anger. What is the real cause in each situation? As you look at each situation or encounter in which you are angry, ask yourself, “What is bothering me, and what would I like to change?” Then ask, “What can I do to change?”
You may find that sometimes your anger response is different with different individuals. You may argue with one individual, yell at another, use silent withdrawal from another, push intensely toward another and distance yourself physically and emotionally from someone else. Which do you do with whom, and why? Who sees you as angry? Who never sees your anger? Which persons do you want to know about your anger?
You can learn the difference between expressing your anger aggressively and expressing it assertively. You can learn when you are using anger to defend and when you are using it to blame. Once you are able to express your anger without yelling, blaming or attacking, you will feel better about what you are saying, and others will hear you more clearly. Later in this book you will learn the steps involved in the process.
When you express your hurt and disappointment in honest, controlled, and constructive ways, other people will be freed to be just as honest with you. Then growth in your relationships can occur. Relationships can survive and even improve when disagreements are handled properly. When you express anger properly, it will have the effect of exposing you to the criticism and challenges of others. It will force you to stop blaming other people and consider your own responsibilities for a change. If you suppress anger or explode, it won’t provide the advantage of constructive expression that opens you up to an evaluation of your own behavior. Suppression and constant defensive anger are ineffective ways of dealing with anger.
Don’t apologize for your anger. If it’s there, accept it. It’s yours. Use it for change. As a woman, you need not be uncomfortable with the anger you feel. Instead, see it as a messenger telling you about the cause. Then, with God’s love and help, tackle the cause.
Here is a survey on anger beliefs that well over 1,000 women completed. Before going on to the next chapter, please take a few minutes and complete it for yourself. You’ll find it helpful in applying the rest of the information in this book.
Please read through the following list of anger beliefs.
If, at any time in your life, you have either outwardly agreed to a particular belief or, by your actions, have functioned according to it, circle the number that most accurately expresses the degree of your agreement with that belief.
1 = Strongly Agree
2 = Moderately Agree
3 = Neutral
4 = Moderately Disagree
5 = Strongly Disagree
1. God is love and anger is the opposite of love. Therefore, God is against anger. Whenever we allow ourselves to be anger, we are sinning.
1 2 3 4 5
2. If a person never looks or sounds angry, she doesn’t have a problem with anger.
1 2 3 4 5
3. Anger always leads to some form of violence and, therefore, it is never good to be angry.
1 2 3 4 5
4. If you express anger to someone you love, it will destroy the relationship. Anger and love don’t mix.
1 2 3 4 5
5. The best way to deal with anger is to ignore it. If you ignore it, it will go away.
1 2 3 4 5
6. The best way to deal with anger is to snuff it. Expressing anger breeds even more anger and leads to loss of control.
1 2 3 4 5
7. The best way to deal with anger is to dump it, just get all of that anger out of your system. You and everyone else will feel better when you express it.
1 2 3 4 5
8. Nice people don’t get angry.
1 2 3 4 5
Please answer the following questions true or false.
9. T F It is more acceptable for men to express anger than women.
10. T F I often feel guilty about my anger.
11. T F I don’t know how to express my anger appropriately.
12. T F I wish I weren’t such an angry person.
13. T F I’m afraid that if I get in touch with my anger I will lose control.
14. T F It’s hard for me to know when I’m angry.
Please answer the following questions.
15. What are some of the factors that increase your vulnerability to anger?
16. When you hear the word “anger,” do you tend to have a positive or negative response to that word?
17. From your point of view, is anger primarily a positive or a negative emotion?
18. When I get angry I . . .
19. When someone around me gets angry, I . . .
20. When I was a child, the primary times in which I saw anger expressed were:
21. The ways in which I saw anger expressed were:
22. Who taught you how to become angry?
23. Who taught you how to express anger?
24. If there is any one question that I could have answered about anger it would be: