My predominant emotion related to the war on Ukraine is anger. Which then begs a few questions:
What am I to do with the anger I feel? Where do I direct it? How do I express it? DO I express it at all?
Ukraine aside (which I only mean grammatically, not literally: that conflict and Ukraine’s people deserve to be front and center in our minds, hearts, and voices), we struggle with these questions all of the time — uniquely and painfully as women.
We are on the fence about our anger. We feel it, but are pretty sure we can’t let it out. At the very least, we just don’t know how.
There is a reason for this. Lots of reasons, actually.
We are not fluent in expressing our anger, we are afraid that we’ll be seen as too emotional, we feel it in our body but rarely let it be expressed through our words or our actions.
How many times does a woman say, “I’m so tired,” because she cannot say, “I am so angry!” How many times is women’s anger deliberately miscast as exhaustion? ~ Soraya Chemaly, Rage Becomes Her
It is rarely a question of whether or not we’re angry; rather, whether or not we express it; whether or not we feel like we can. Because, of course, the pressure to NOT do so is visceral and fierce.
It’s possible that in learning to express our anger as women — about Ukraine, about injustices, about the fact that we apparently aren’t allowed to express our anger in the first place — that we will be the ones who usher in the desperately needed change…in our own lives, our own worlds, and the world as a whole.
There was a day — well, decades really — in which any “unacceptable” emotion, especially anger, would have taken me straight to certainty. The certainty that I was at fault, I was doing something wrong, I needed to get myself fixed/right/in line if I was feeling anything that was disallowed or would not be handled well by those in my world. Sheesh. It exhausts (and angers) me to even acknowledge this.
Thankfully, this is no longer my default — at least most of the time. I can see, with perspective (and the aforementioned decades), that I have moved from certainty to curiosity — and with it, into far more grace.
Now, I start with curiosity — about my experience(s), my thoughts, my spontaneous responses and emotions. No self-contempt. No “right or wrong” language. Complete permission to look closely, to wonder, to consider more, more, and more still. I ask myself questions and, without judgment, let myself answer — whatever comes, allowing all of it — allowing all of me!
Letting ourselves be curious about ourselves is one of the kindest, most compelling, and ultimately transformative things we can possibly do. It is what walks us ever-closer to healing and wholeness, to authenticity and integrity, and yes, to honestly and boldly expressing our anger.
How might we apply this in light of Ukraine?
- What do I feel about what I’m reading and seeing? What words describe my response and mood?
- When have I felt these things before? How did I respond? What did I do or say? What did I NOT do or say?
- Where do I see a lack of righteous and justified anger in my world? How does that make me feel?
- Where IS righteous and justified anger being displayed? How does that make me feel?
- If I were to express my anger at this situation, what would that sound like and consist of? Where might I do that? And if I can’t/won’t, what new data does that give me to be curious about?
The value in curiosity around what we feel, what we don’t feel, what we express, what we don’t express allows us to stay in conversation with ourselves instead of dissociating or shutting down out of frustration, fear, or feelings of helplessness.
Next, I dig deeper. I research and reach out. I want to hear the voices of other women. I am hungry to sit with more than *just* my own thinking and experience. I dive into anything I can find that helps me understand my anger better — through the lenses of culture, scholarship, history, psychology — all that will remind me that a) I’m not to blame; and b) I’m not alone.
[A note: because I am talking about anger, specifically, it is important that we NOT take the blame for our inability to express it, our fears, our confusion. As we continue, you will see that this is a socially conditioned response for women. You are NOT to blame!]
Recently, that digging returned me to the book mentioned above: Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger by Soraya Chamaly.
Hear her voice:
Even the incipient suggestion of anger — in themselves or in other women — makes some women profoundly uncomfortable. In an effort to not seem angry, we ruminate. We go out of our way to look “rational” and “calm.” We minimize our anger, calling it frustration, impatience, exasperation, or irritation; words that don’t convey the intrinsic social and public demand that anger does. We learn to contain our selves: our voices, hair, clothes, and most importantly, speech. Anger is usually about saying “no” in a world where women are conditioned to say almost anything but “no.”
That last sentence makes me angrier still: Anger is usually about saying “no” in a world where women are conditioned to say almost anything but “no.”
She talks powerfully (and painfully) about how these lessons are internalized by young girls — preschool and even earlier. She has endless research on how a girl or woman’s anger shows up in depression, self-harm, eating disorders, sexual exploitation, and endless other manifestations. And the topic itself becomes even more complex when she adds in the necessary distinctions of gender fluidity and race.
This looking beyond myself, taking in the wisdom and work of others, especially other women, pulls me upward to a new level of understanding. It helps me take a deep breath and recenter myself. I can see my own behavior in light of a larger world. This doesn’t make it easier. It isn’t a fix or a solve — even an excuse. It’s a reminder that the story I live in is profoundly influenced by a much, much larger one. I need to be reading that story and understanding the way in which it’s shaping my own.
How might we apply this in light of Ukraine?
We remain informed. We research. We read articles written by people who are articulating fair and just critique. We broaden our perspective and understanding. And we pay close attention to any ways in which we can (and must) let our anger be expressed — through action, through generosity, through money, through time, through our vote…
Perhaps most significant of all, we “dig deep” within ourselves and choose to feel everything: all the sadness, all the angst, all the frustration, all the rage, all the anger, and all the heartbreak. Curiosity serves me — an endless inquiry into my own beliefs, behaviors, defaults, fears, and hopes. Digging deeper lets me pan out, understand better, even rage more because it places my experience into a context with far bigger and more systemic issues. The dilemma, of course, is what to do with all the information I glean from my self-inquiry process and from studying and soaking up the perspective of others.
I turn my attention toward “how.” More is required. Which usually leads me to even more questions: How do I express the things that make me nearly insane with rage? How do I do so in ways that I’ll be heard, in ways that matter, in ways that are anything other than a rant? (And is a rant a bad thing? Maybe it’s exactly what’s needed, called for, and appropriate in this moment!)
The list of “what” we’re angry about is long. And the longer it gets, the more we feel the weight of it all and the equally weighty demand to keep it all in check. Which makes us angrier still!
We must find “how’s” that moves us from the watered down, edited, censored version of ourselves (the version we’ve become fluent in) to women who are potent, honest, and unrestrained.
Chamaly finishes up her chapter on “how” with these sentences:
The more you know, the better equipped you are. The better equipped you are, the more efficacy and uptake your anger will have. Contrary to the idea that anger clouds thinking, properly understood, it is an astoundingly clarifying emotion.
Any how’s, no matter how “small,” become the catalysts that usher us into how’s that are yet to come. Difficult conversations. A defiant blog post. Taking a stand. Deleting “friends” from Facebook whose content makes us insane. Speaking up. Standing firm. Saying “no.”
I’m resisting the temptation to delete or downplay my smallest of “how’s,” my smallest of efforts. I know better. Hardly reserved for big moments like what’s happening in the world right now, it’s our micro-work, the day-in-day-out commitment to our own real-and-legitimate emotions and their expression that has the capacity to change our individual world — and the world. I’m sure of it.
We have been led to believe that others can’t handle our anger, that it’s too disruptive, that we will be misunderstood and misperceived, that we are too much, that the damage we’ll cause will be irreparable and probably isn’t worth it anyway.
THIS IS JUST. NOT. TRUE.
Here’s what IS true:
This is the real danger of our anger; it makes it clear that we take ourselves seriously.
I love this. Reframed, it could be stated like this: My anger makes it clear that I take myself seriously.
That’s worth a meme or two, an index card on our bathroom mirror, a tattoo, and an on-repeat mantra that we actually come to believe.
At the end of the day, our work is to learn to see our anger as gift instead of something we furtively work to control or hide. Because it is. But don’t take my word for it. I must finish things up with one more quote from Soraya Chamaly:
Ask yourself, why would a society deny girls and women, from cradle to grave, the right to feel, express, and leverage anger and be respected when we do? Anger has a bad rap, but it is actually one of the most hopeful and forward thinking of all our emotions. It begets transformation, manifesting our passion and keeping us invested in the world. It is a rational and emotional response to trespass, violation, and moral disorder. It bridges the divide between what “is” and what “ought” to be, between a difficult past and an improved possibility.
May it be so. May it be so. May it be so.