Dishes were piling up.
I was working on an important project, while my boyfriend was playing on his phone. There was no more space in the sink, and I became distracted from my work looking at the huge pile.
So, I started washing dishes – again. Washing loudly and angrily, because I don’t know how else to show my frustration.
I could have asked him, “can you please do the dishes, because it bugs me to see the sink full of dirty plates, and I have a tonne of work to do.”
But I didn’t. Because it’s easier to play the passive-aggressive card than to admit that there’s something wrong you would like to change.
This situation is probably familiar to many women. And it’s only a tiny example of how women aren’t taught how to express anger.
Anger is a normal emotion for every human being, but like any other emotion, you need to learn how to express it, and release it.
But instead, we are told as women that being angry isn’t ladylike. When a woman expresses anger, she automatically becomes a threat. She detaches from the fundamental woman’s role, because women and anger are seen as two incompatible things.
If a woman becomes angry or displays assertiveness, people will often demonise, or belittle her feelings, or call her bitchy, bossy, or controlling.
The paradox is that women have many things to be angry about.
We still do most of the household chores and child-raising, we have to deal with sexual harassment at work, on the streets, and ignorance when no one believes us.
Instead of receiving a woman’s anger and addressing it, people often downplay it by using a stereotypical image of a woman who always complains and nags.
Why are women afraid of their anger?
When little girls are told that they should be submissive, kind, and forgiving, we put their well-being at risk. All these qualities we praise are about other people, and how they see women. And as a result, women lose touch with themselves and their needs.
We begin to see our worth through the lens of relationships we’re in. When little girls grow into women, they still measure their value on others’ opinions. So women’s anger takes a backseat, and is replaced with low self-esteem and confidence.
Have you ever felt after expressing anger, that instead of feeling empowered, you feel sad or guilty?
I have felt like that too many times. And I guess it comes from the fact that my parents would never allow me to be angry. Their anger was valid, and mine was just whining.
In my family, and many other Eastern European or more conservative families, emotions and feelings are seen as embarrassing or shameful.
“Shh, what will people think?” they say.
The need to be strong and perfect in front of others is deeply rooted in my culture. And anger makes you flawed, because it shows vulnerability.
Just because I’ve never been taught how to show my frustration, it doesn’t mean I don’t get angry. I do. I would say even more often than others, because I have a lot of pent up, crippling rage inside me.
When my father left our family for another woman, I didn’t show my disappointment. I tried to stay cool, even though I was only nine years old. All the times he kept continually criticising my brother and I, making us feel inadequate, I didn’t say anything.
When I grew up, I dared to confront him by expressing my frustration with his behaviour. But he didn’t pay attention to a word I said. Instead, he laughed in my face and said, “since when did you become so sensitive? Perhaps not eating meat has this effect on you’” (I was vegetarian at that time).
I couldn’t stop my tears from falling. All over again, like in early childhood, I was being stripped from my power. Stripped from my right to be angry.
I would blame myself for being too sensitive to deal with this world. But it’s not my fault. It’s because my anger, like any other woman’s, is blamed on PMS, rather than the expression of her wishes and needs.
We need to unlearn emotional suppression
There are many ways to approach women and our anger. In her book, The Dance of Anger, Harriet Lerner explains that women who weren’t taught to express their anger through themselves, either turn into nice ladies or bitchy women. The former keeps all her negative feelings inside until she explodes; and the latter can’t stop nagging and complaining.
But as Lerner says, both types are about the same thing – about losing yourself in others.
Traditional gender roles keep women from their anger
A study by Ann M. Kring, shows that men’s anger is more normalised than women’s. When a man gets angry, it’s seen as a part of leadership, ambition, and passion. While women are more likely to be punished for their anger, to feel embarrassed after expressing dissatisfaction, or even crying.
The way women and their anger are seen is a cultural construct. From the moment a girl is born, she’s taught to be kind, quiet, helpful, and not to talk back. Being polite is seen as a virtue, but it comes at the price of your own well-being.
Women ignore their own needs to accommodate others. We experience sexual harassment and assaults. But if we get angry about it, or say something, we risk being further hurt or humiliated.
We have to pretend we didn’t hear that guy catcalling at us across the street, or a sexist joke at work. We have to hide that we have kids, or don’t want to have them. And women do that because we are told that our wants and needs don’t come first.
Anger isn’t a dangerous emotion if it’s expressed right.
It’s a natural emotion, and women like all human beings, feel it. And because we’ve repressed it for so long, our anger is spilling over the edge. But we are learning to use it in the right way.
More women are reporting sexual harassment and assaults. They are leaving their abusive partners. And they are ditching passive-aggressive behaviour, in favour of addressing their own needs.
I’m also working on finding peace with my anger.
It’s a long journey to unlearn destructive patterns, but acknowledging your right to be angry is the first step.
I still don’t feel strong enough to deal with my father and confront him, but I don’t feel like I need his approval anymore.
And I finally told my boyfriend how the dirty dishes piling up in the sink make me feel. He was more than supportive. We’re also planning to buy a dishwasher. Because some things aren’t just worth getting angry about.
If your anger paralyses you, please don’t feel bad about it. Freeing yourself from emotional suppression takes time.
Instead, try to get comfortable with your feelings, and see your anger as any other emotion. Because anger is powerful, and if used right, it can liberate you.
By reclaiming our right to be angry, women can heal and change their lives.