Some Truth About Anger, Boundary Setting, and Declarations of Freedom
“Bitterness is like cancer. It eats upon the host. But anger is like fire. It burns it all clean.”
— Maya Angelou
I have a long, ugly history with anger. From my earliest memories and up through my teen years, I was told that no one wanted to see my anger. I was even accused of using it as emotional manipulation. I was taught, as many of us are, and especially women, that anger is unnuanced and negative, that it is unproductive and immature, that it can only make situations worse, not better.
I am here to tell you that this is 100% wrong.
Anger is not a blunt instrument. Anger is a tool that can be refined and directed with accuracy.
Anger comes in an entire spectrum of flavours and behaviours. It can be a thrumming undercurrent of electricity that keeps your creativity alert, and it can be a savage, thundering explosion of violence. It can fertilize and irrigate your ideas and actions, and it can destroy what lies before it. It can be wild and erratic or tamed and purposeful.
But for decades, I thought anger was only an ugly and brutish thing. It’s easy to get this idea, even if no one tells you this directly. Just go look up quotes about anger. It’s paired with animal violence, sadness, intolerance, ignorance, and fear. With the millennia we’ve been investigating and interrogating love and grief and hope, you’d think we would have deeper things to teach ourselves about the beautiful, fearsome power of anger. Instead, we’ve buried it. We’ve bought the lie that it is more important to be appealing than to declare our agency.
Anger is one of the most nuanced tools we have outside of love to define our boundaries and tell us when we need to set things right.
When we’re groped in public, our anger keeps us safe by invigorating us to shove, leave, yell. When an employer refuses to raise our wages even though men in our department have had increases on top of their already higher salaries, we feel it in the heat on our necks that this is not right. When we write stories about revolution, overcoming adversity, and fighting for love, that electric thread runs through it all, firing up our voices. When we say a strong “no” because “yes” will hurt us, it is often one of the many shades of anger that gives us the push to do so.
Yes, anger can be an ugly, negative force if it moves unchecked from a selfish and unexamined place, but so can love.
After decades of squashing my anger down into my gut and denying my heart some of its greatest fire, I’ve been learning to say ENOUGH. If we continue to treat anger as nothing more than a rough, uncivil negative rather than as a truly powerful, intelligent, and informative force, we rob ourselves of our strongest and truest voices.
And what’s even more powerful? Anger + love can give authoritative volume to capital-t Truth.
I honestly believe that we’ve been told anger is bad for so long because it destabilizes privilege. If we are made to police and swallow our own anger, we stay quiet with permeable boundaries. If we stay quiet and compliant, we are promised safety.
I’m rightfully done with all of that bullshit.
Suppressing our anger is not a moral good.
And this leads into an example of what often happens when a (person-perceived-to-be-a-)woman expresses their anger without apology.
An old friend of mine died of cancer in the early hours of New Year’s day yesterday. I knew it was coming but it hit pretty hard. For a variety of reasons, I have been largely absent from her life and the lives of the group of friends we shared for several years, and so my feelings were complicated and difficult to parse. This emotional soup added to my general feelings about the state of the world over the last few months, and it made for a pretty hot stew of anger, which I let it out in a 15-part Twitter thread. Unvented anger has lead to poor mental and physical health for me in the past, so I’m no longer ashamed to show or share anger when it’s appropriate. I figured that a friend’s death on New Year’s was as good a time as any to let my grief show.
My original Twitter thread is first, and the ensuing conversation with someone we’ll call Schartzmugel is second:
And here is my conversation with Schartzmugel:
At this point I muted her, and then she blocked me, and we were well done with each other.
I realize that my original Twitter thread included some strong thoughts about politics, but I didn’t lower myself to name-calling or insults. I was angry, and I let it show while calling out problematic ideas and systems (and socks and a dishwasher), but not everyone is comfortable with anger, even if it’s not pointed at them, so I wasn’t terribly surprised when Schartzmugel showed up. I wouldn’t have minded if she disagreed with my politics or defended the idea of humanity’s moral arc, but she made some basic errors: she added a “but” clause to her statement of sympathy, she treated anger as bad thing that needed scolding, and she couldn’t grok the connection between anger and love:
- It is very bad manners to say “I am sorry for your loss… but”. Do not ever do that. When someone tells you that a person they care about has died (especially when it’s as recent as that morning), do not add to the same damn sentence that the person is performing their grief incorrectly. Express your sympathies, maybe some empathy if you have it, and then stop. Anger comes with grief, and if it makes you uncomfortable, that’s your problem and your problem only. It is not the grieving person’s responsibility to be something you find more appealing.
- Anger is not an unnuanced emotion that makes the world worse. Anger can make the world worse, especially if it visits violence upon others, but I would argue that it doesn’t always make things worse, and I would even argue that it doesn’t make things worse most of the time. Anger is important, and to tell another human being that they should put it away is what truly makes the world a more terrible place. It makes for silent, isolated, disconnected human beings, and that’s terrible. THANKS, SCHARTZMUGEL.
- Anger and love often move hand in hand. Schartzmugel balked at my commingling of love and anger, but those two are truly the chocolate and peanut butter confection of our emotional lives. Anger rarely happens where there is not love and its offspring, nurturance. We are angry when someone hurts us or someone else we love, we are angry when our community’s safety or freedom is challenged, and I am angry precisely because of these things.
When you’re angry, and especially so if you’re a woman or brown or black or disabled, someone will almost invariably tell you in one way or another to shut up. Don’t do it.
Unless you are out of control, which you most likely aren’t, your anger is a tool to which you can give shape and direction. It’s an instrument for change, and that makes other people uncomfortable, because change is destabilizing, and you know what? Destabilization is fantastic. It’s uncomfortable as hell and can be quite frightening, but it’s also what shakes up the systems that make us angry. RAWR.
People will tell you to shut up when you give voice to your anger, because it makes them pay attention, and that attention means you have power.
A certain unnamed ex of mine, Schartzmugel, and everyone else who ever told me to bury my anger can get well and truly bent. I’m not really mad at Schartzmugel in particular for it, because she just acted on what she’s been taught, which is what most of us have been taught. This doesn’t mean, though, that we shouldn’t push back and say Nope, not today bitch. It’s not good for them bury our anger, let alone their own. Be the change you want to see in the world, and if that world includes healthy expressions of anger, demonstrate it.
(Although I don’t suggest passive-aggressively calling your particular Schartzmugel a bitch like I did. It lacks creativity, and my added stress doesn’t really excuse it.)
Pushing back against being told to shut up isn’t negative: it’s an important setting of boundaries and a declaration of freedom.
Hiding all my anger away literally nearly killed me. I suffered suicidal depression and breakdowns, I got cancer, I was an alcoholic for over twenty years, and I stayed within situations and relationships that were devastating for me. It’s only when I started allowing myself to feel my anger, to see where it stemmed from and how it moved, that I began to figure out better boundaries and declare that freedom for myself.
I can be an angry bitch, and I am (mostly) unashamed. (It’s hard to walk away from decades of social education.)
There are Schartzmugels all over the damn place ready to fire off warning shots if you get a bit too powerfully loud, but that’s okay. The Schartzmugels are either the destabilized privileged (pay their discomfort no mind) or those still buying the lie that suppressed anger is a moral good (wish them well on their travels).
We have work to do and the fire to tend it. We have voices to sharpen and energy to spend. Our voices do not have to be pretty or appealing for others’ comfort when the job requires a different kind of tool. We’re goddamned fireworks. The wagging fingers of the Schartzmugels of the world haven’t got anything on us.
Originally published at elanmorgan.com.