kaliI had a fight with my son this morning. It was one of those times in the car that leaves both people fuming with tense jaws, bitten tongues, and cold steely eyes starting straight ahead. It was awful.

But that’s not what I’m going to tell you about here because honestly, it’s bigger than my relationship with my son and I value our privacy.

 

This is a post about Anger. More to the point, this is about what happens when a woman expresses her anger.

Here’s the gist of what led up to this morning’s stand off in the car:

For the past month, my husband and I have been jumping through the hoops of refinancing our house. We could have gone with another lender and have been done with all this hoopla by now, but we felt strongly about keeping our business local and giving our existing lender a chance to keep our business. That’s all well and good, but the lender has been dropping the ball internally, dragging their feet in making things happen, and making excuses for what essentially amounts to horrid customer service and communication skills. The final nail in the coffin came this week when the appraisal for our home came back (late) and was far below market value. We looked at each other and scratched our heads, having lived in this home nearly 20 years together and having been through this dog and pony show of refinancing many times.

Upon further inspection of the appraisal, it was clear the guy had left off — or failed to make note of — some key things that would have made a difference, like not including all of our rooms, factoring in all the energy efficient windows we’d put in as well as converting our home heating to gas and investing in a high efficiency on-demand water heater. We also learned that the comp he used for our home was one that was significantly smaller, run down, and located on a major through street (versus ours which is at the end of a dead-end street). In fact, a smaller house up the street from us that has an ancient asbestus boiler system and no garage just sold a couple months ago for much higher than the appraisal had come in for our home.

 

Something wasn’t right. So we spoke up. And asked some questions.

The bank basically said tough shit — it’s good enough for the refinance to go though, so we got what we need. Wait, what?

That’s when I called the loan officer directly and spoke up. This time louder. More clearly. More pointed. I was angry they weren’t valuing their relationship with us, given the fact that we could have taken our business elsewhere. I was angry that they knew they had us over a barrel now that the interest rates were going up. I was angry they weren’t fully comprehending that when one customer is dissatisfied, it impacts about 19 other potential customers because consumers talk to each other. I was angry they were confusing disappointment with downright disagreement. I was angry that the loan officer was resentful of our inquiries and inconvenienced by our calling into question the accuracy of a such an important document that was clearly so subjective.

I was just fucking angry.  I started to hear those common phrases play in my head.. move on, get over it already, suck it up, don’t be a sore loser … and I felt the irritation of my chapped skin and raw scab from November’s election flare up again, reminding me how the popular vote in our “democracy” didn’t matter one iota because of the elector college (WTF!?).

Clearly all this was stewing and churning in me as I got into the car and drove my sons to school this morning. It’s clear my glasses were not rosy, and as is often the case in those situations, I started to notice and feel every irritant more deeply. I got frustrated by the driver that didn’t seem to get how to insert a car into traffic by just creeping the nose out little by little and giving the friendly “mind if I cut in?” wave (isn’t that universal?) to the next car in the slow moving chain. I stood on my horn (did I mention I’m from NJ?) when a driver ran a red light and almost slammed into my car.

My son, experienced driver that he is of 14, commented on my driving. I got defensive. I got angry. And then I shut the fuck up – because isn’t that what we’re trained to do as women when we get angry? Like Elsa in the movie Frozen, we are taught to conceal, don’t feel…don’t let them know! We are taught to fear our anger because it could do damage, wreak havoc, lay waste.

But in my silent front seat stewing I started to think about why it is I felt the need to clam up. Beyond the circumstances of my week or the particulars the conversation with my son, I started to see the arc of our culture’s beliefs about women and anger. More than just a frustrated mother of a typical teenager, I sensed there was something of import to convey about a woman’s experience in a world that is governed by white men…a club to which he belongs whether he is aware of it or not.

 

It’s not okay for a woman to express anger in our society. 

I explained to him that as a woman, I have been shamed, shut down and silenced my entire life any time I have attempted to express my anger. I stated this quite plainly. I also said that this is not okay — and especially hurts when it comes from family. Specifically someone I grew inside me.

That was the end of our conversation that I’ll share, but I will say that it was the beginning of a long conversation with myself about this. I started to think about the specific ways we systematically train anger to go underground in women — pummeling it down with a heavy wooden mallet in a never-ending game of Whack-a-Mole.

Here’s the series of escalating steps that formed inside my head:

— We tell women they are over-reacting, being too sensitive, making a big deal out of nothing. Somewhere in there we suggest they calm down, relax, and be more patient, compassionate, grateful it’s not worse (I believe we used to call them hysterical and take out their uteruses…)

— If that doesn’t work, we patronize them, patting women on the head, using terms like humoring, tolerating, and allowing her to vent, rant, or blow off some steam.

— If that doesn’t work, then we resort to shaming, suggesting (or outright saying) women are stupid, uninformed, hormonal, or not capable of understanding something complex.

— If that doesn’t work, we try name calling and labeling women as a means to vilify, ostracize, and humiliate them: bitch, shrew, cunt, witch, man-hater.

— If that doesn’t work, we make them invisible, disassociating, physically or mentally shutting them down and cutting them off.

 

So yea, you can see why women hesitate to express anger or are quick to shut it down in others.

I bring this up because from where I sit, the topic of anger among women is swirling all around us these days. Last week on stage at SheSpeaks, several of the speakers made reference to it in their stories, one of them even asking herself (in front of the audience), “What do I do with all this anger I’m feeling?” My individual clients talk about the anger they are feeling these days — at work, at home, in the world — and my women’s circle dances with it as well.

My most recent thought about it is this: if we don’t heal our internal relationship to anger as women, we’re in for many long, dark nights of the soul (there’s a reason heart disease is the number one killer of women…) But moreover, if we don’t make space in our society for women to express their anger externally, we’re in for a long slow road to change in this world.

There is a fundamental difference between anger and violence, but so often they are interpreted as synonymous, and our fear of one keeps us from expressing the other openly.

“I think anger is one of the most misunderstood emotions we have because it spends so little time in the light of day. It’s shunned and left to fend for itself in its dark cave, mumbling and scuffing up the dirt in frustration like a petulant child. I don’t blame it – I’d be a bit ornery, too, if I were that devalued and misunderstood. Because at its essence, anger is just really another form of energy. It’s an emotion with Tabasco sauce splashed on top. And it generally has something for us to hear. Something that’s coming from a deep and meaningful place.” – Unscripted, pg 135

We are taught that anger is toxic to our bodies, and I agree, but I want to clarify and expand upon that notion. Anger is a natural human emotion that can be a catalyst for incredible change, even a source of power in that it can fuel and drive us forward. But if it remains unexpressed and silenced or stuffed, it can sour and ferment inside us, setting us on the path to one of two outcomes: outward violence (verbal, mental, physical abuse that disconnects us from others and does harm) or inward violence (self-loathing, shame, sickness and dis-ease that disconnects us from ourselves and does harm).

The good news is that we are all capable of making our own choice with how we want to be with anger — our own and others.

We can get out our hammers, participate in our own shame, and do our best to erase the truth inside the anger with a sorry. Or we can increase our capacity to be with it — which means being willing to get messy, be uncomfortable, ruffle feathers, or even offend. But there is one thing that is undeniable in all this:

 

Anger is here, like it or not. It’s the mole that refuses to be whacked.

So what do I plan to do about it?

That experience this morning got me thinking about all the ways I have experienced my plain truth of anger as a woman, and also all the ways I have contributed to whacking it down. While I can’t control how other’s experience me, I can control my own relationship to anger and how I allow — or don’t allow — myself to express it. I can control how I dance — or don’t — with other people’s expressions of anger. I can also control how I give voice to it as a means for bringing it into the light of day — giving space for it to exist, be safe, have merit. Ergo this post.

When I think about it in the light of day, Anger isn’t something that needs to be “managed” or even tolerated, it needs to be actively practiced — so we can get better at expressing it. Look what happened to Elsa in Frozen when she finally took off the gloves and assumed ownership for something that flowed naturally from her. Sure, the village experienced a momentary freak freeze (ever heard of the Hindu goddess Kali?) and perhaps some people got startled or scared, but ultimately, she lead the kingdom and leveraged her gift to create colorful beauty from cold ice.

And sure, you could make a case for that simply being a kid’s movie…but isn’t that we’re all just doing here anyway? Playing our parts, hitting our marks, and following the scripts that were written for us?

I don’t know about you, but I’m auditioning to do the voice-over for Anger. I think I’d make a badass advocate for that character.