Why do we so rarely learn how to be angry?
Like most of us, I learned about anger in a vacuum of information by watching the people around me: what they did with their anger, how they responded to other people when they were mad. I don’t remember my parents or other adults ever talking to me about anger directly. Sadness, yes. Envy, anxiety, guilt, check, check, check. But not anger. It turns out that, for girls, this is par for the course. While parents talk to girls about emotions more than they do to boys, anger is excluded. Reflect with me for a moment: How did you first learn to think about emotions, and anger in particular? Can you remember having any conversations with authority figures or role models about how to think about your anger or what to do with it? If you are a woman, chances are the answer is no.
As girls, we are not taught to acknowledge or manage our anger so much as to fear, ignore, hide, and transform it.
As far as my own early understanding of anger, the plate-throwing incident said it all. My mother may have been livid, but she gave every appearance of being cheerful and happy. By staying silent and choosing this particular outlet for her feelings, she communicated a trove of information: for example, that anger was experienced in isolation and was not worth sharing verbally with others. That furious feelings are best kept to oneself. That when they do inevitably come out, the results can be scary, shocking, and destructive.
My mother was acting in a way that remains typical for many women: She was getting her anger “out,” but in a way that explicitly separated it from her relationships. Most women report feeling the angriest in private and interpersonal settings. They also prioritize their relationships — at home, work, and even in political contexts — in determining, consciously or not, if and how to express negative emotions.
While we experience anger internally, it is mediated culturally and externally by other people’s expectations and social prohibitions. Roles and responsibilities, power and privilege, are the framers of our anger. Relationships, culture, social status, exposure to discrimination, poverty, and access to power all factor into how we think about, experience, and utilize anger. Different countries, regions — even neighboring communities in the same state — have been shown to have anger profiles, exhibiting different patterns of behavior and social dynamics. So, for example, in some cultures anger is a way to vent frustration, but in others it is more for exerting authority. In the United States, anger in white men is often portrayed as justifiable and patriotic, but in black men as criminality, and in black women as threat. In the Western world, anger in women has been widely associated with “madness.”
Of course, everyone feels anger. Studies show that differences between men’s and women’s experiences of feeling angry are virtually nonexistent. But while women and men feel anger similarly, there are stark differences in how we respond to those feelings and how they are received by the people around us. At home, children still learn quickly that for boys and men, anger reinforces traditional gender expectations, but that for girls and women, anger confounds them. It’s as children that most of us learn to regard anger as unfeminine, unattractive, and selfish. Many of us are taught that our anger will be an imposition on others, making us irksome and unlikeable. That it will alienate our loved ones or put off people we want to attract. That it will twist our faces, make us ugly. This is true even for those of us who have to use anger to defend ourselves in charged and dangerous situations. As girls, we are not taught to acknowledge or manage our anger so much as fear, ignore, hide, and transform it.
There is not a woman alive who does not understand that women’s anger is openly reviled. We don’t need books, studies, theories, or specialists to tell us this. Over the past several years, I’ve spoken to thousands of girls and women at schools, conferences, and corporations. Without fail, afterward they come up to me to say the same two things: They want to know how to stand up for themselves “without sounding angry or bitter,” and they want to share stories about how, when they do express anger about issues specifically relevant to their lives as women, people respond with doubt and often aggression.
Women experience discrimination differently, but we share the experience — in anger or when simply speaking assertively — of being told we are “crazy,” “irrational,” even “demonic.” If we are worried and, as studies show, compelled to repackage, ignore, divert, or trivialize our anger, it is because we well understand the costs of displaying it. Our society is infinitely creative in finding ways to dismiss and pathologize women’s rage. I have always understood that being seen as an “angry woman” — sometimes simply for sharing my thoughts out loud — would cast me as overemotional, irrational, “passionate,” maybe hysterical, and certainly a “not objective” and fuzzy thinker.
When a woman shows anger in institutional, political, and professional settings, she automatically violates gender norms. She is met with aversion, perceived as more hostile, irritable, less competent, and unlikable — the kiss of death for a class of people expected to maintain social connections. The same people who might opt to work for an angry-sounding, aggressive man are likely to be less tolerant of the same behavior if the boss were a woman. When a man becomes angry in an argument or debate, people are more likely to abandon their own positions and defer to his. But when a woman acts the same way, she’s likely to elicit the opposite response. For some of us, considered angry by nature and default, the risks of asserting ourselves, defending ourselves, or speaking out in support of issues that are important to us can be significant. Black girls and women, for example, routinely silenced by “angry black woman” stereotypes, have to contend with abiding dangers of institutionalized violence that might result from their expressing justifiable rage. It makes sense that men, as studies find, consider anger to be power enhancing in a way that women don’t. For men, anger is far more likely to be power enhancing.