After my blog ran on The Huffington Post last week, "The Morality Gap: Are Men Moral Bums?," I got a text from a male friend (along with about a thousand other similar comments) in this vein --"Read the piece. Do you think it came from a place of anger?" Cruising around the watermelons at Trader Joe's, I nearly threw the phone. "Well sure. I feel a range of emotions, anger is just one," I managed to text back defensively as that familiar flush of shame coursed through me -- the one that made me stuff my anger to begin with.
Yes, I had to admit, the piece did come from a place of anger. But it also came from a place of fear -- fear that expressing my anger would be the death knell of the companionship from a boyfriend of three years.
It's not just me. Let's take up the issue of anger for a minute. Dr. Stephen A. Diamond, a licensed clinical and forensic psychologist at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology in Los Angeles and author of the book Anger, Madness, and the Daimonic (SUNY Press, 1996) believes that anger is the primary mental health issue of our time. Who can quarrel with that? One need look no further than the recent acts of violence sweeping our country to see that people everywhere are at their breaking points. And this says nothing of the violent acts that are at the foundation of an entire cable TV network, Investigation Discovery (ID), a channel billing itself as dedicated to "Hollywood crimes, murder and forensic investigations." Full disclosure, it's my favorite channel. Clearly we are obsessed with anger -- ours and every one else's.
But Diamond explains that the issue isn't the anger itself. The problem lies in how we perceive it. "It's considered purely a negative and destructive emotion, so we tend to deny or repress it. We teach kids from the get-go that it's not ok to feel angry. And we repress it in adults." That was the case with me. When I tried to express my feelings to my boyfriend, I was analyzed, lectured and ultimately, abandoned. I'd get the cold shoulder for days, sometimes weeks if I dared cast him a jaundiced eye when he sauntered in at 12 a.m. I'm not likely to wind up on ID. On the other hand, I am tired of being sick and tired.
I know. I should have walked away before three years had passed. But I had stuffed my feelings so completely they had morphed into something unrecognizable. "Women are somewhat more likely to stifle the emotion which can manifest in mania, depression, anxiety and a host of physical ailments," says Diamond. I am, after all, a product of our culture. I was taught that anger isn't feminine and it's definitely not hot. And in a culture where femininity is still defined as demure and beauty is a woman's prime currency, I knew I needed to check my anger at the door.
After the grocery store, I was in the car with a friend at a red light in Hollywood. A car raced up and into the crosswalk, nearly smashing into a woman with a stroller. She went off. "What are you doing?" She yelled, stamping her feet and putting her hands on her hips. The driver cast her a disgusted look and called out, "Crazy bitch."
I've heard that label a lot lately. We've got this dichotomy going. On the one hand, angry women strictly need not apply. On the other, there's Sarah Palin, who single-handedly harnessed a nation of angry people and gave that anger voice and ultimately she was so adored, she overshadowed McCain's campaign. We are seething from sea to shining sea. But ultimately, beyond the bitterness, she has not been able to get to the next level. That's the dilemma. For us as a nation. And for me as an individual.
Well for one thing, in this piece, I've come out of the closet. I am owning my entire self -- the shadow as well as the light. I don't intend to hide anymore, especially from myself or my feelings about how I am treated.
So how can women use rage for good? "Harnessing the immense strength and power of anger for use in constructive activities is a key to anger management in general," says Diamond. "So is using one's anger to tenaciously persevere in the pursuit of personal and career goals against all obstacles. Finally, consciously channeling anger into creative pursuits like writing, painting, music or acting can be a therapeutic way of dealing productively with anger."
But the other thing I am going to do is notice it when that thing in my stomach flares like hot acid. I am going to listen. Maybe it's telling me something important. Maybe it's feedback from my higher self, telling me I am in a situation that's harmful -- and maybe that anger is a friend. One I should cultivate and embrace. Not in an indulgent or harmful way, but I won't ignore it, either.