As a culture, we have not made up our minds about anger and it’s pretty well destroying us. Men are permitted to be angry — mostly only if they’re white, even to the point of taking guns into every public place imaginable and murdering innocent people there; women are harshly criticized and dismissed as unstable for legitimate displays of anger that often amount to far less than what men display; children who get too angry are diagnosed with a personality disorder if they’re female-presenting and Oppositional Defiant Disorder if they’re male-presenting. “Where is the outrage?” accompanies more and more posts on social media that include articles on the latest atrocity, human rights violation or environmental disaster. Yet anger is not welcome in most interpersonal relationships; many people as children experienced traumatizing expressions of anger from their caregivers and are triggered into parasympathetic-driven responses when exposed to even healthy anger.
But the therapy industry has made it astoundingly difficult to know what healthy anger looks like. When a therapy client expresses anger, the typical response from most therapists I’ve come across or heard about isn’t to validate it. It’s to attempt to get the client to go “underneath” the anger to find what’s “really” going on. Anger is a secondary emotion is somehow in my head — I don’t know when I first heard it, but it’s been there as long as the phone number to the house I grew up in. Because I’m female, I was told from a very young age that anger is not an appropriate feeling to have (to say nothing of expressing it). So the anger I felt at being bullied at school, at friends for breaking their promises, at my family for making fun of me for having feelings, at my sister for judging me as less than her and not worthy of relationship with her as soon as she was old enough to understand the word judgment, was always just one step ahead of the shame I felt for feeling angry.
There also isn’t a time “before” any of the memories I have of me trying to dig through the anger to some other primary — in other words, acceptable-to-society — emotion. I clawed myself apart trying to “heal” from all this anger, which compounded with every failure to dispel the anger until I was basically a human-shaped sack of rage. Rage is, of course, even more horrible than anger if a woman feels it. Women are to be nurturing and accommodating and safe and eager to perform 100% of the emotional labor men need done. The women who are unwilling or unable to do those things are either pushed to be tomboys or are shoved out of human community beyond shallow transactions and tolerance. And the therapy industry has aided and abetted the rejection of anger our society is hell-bent on.
There are only so many times you can ask someone who says they’re angry what’s “really” going on before they feel invalidated. Worse, though, constantly questioning what’s “below” the anger is a very effective way of gaslighting someone and getting them to mistrust themselves and their ability to identify their feelings accurately. If this is what goes on in therapy, it’s no wonder we’re so confused about anger in public. What if there is nothing below the anger? What if it’s, as they say, turtles all the way down?
What would it mean for those who have committed true wrongs against other people for their anger not to be a “surface” thing or a mask for some other emotion, but the real, actual emotion that the wronged person feels? I’ve written before about how our culture does everything it can to reduce blame and put comfort and protection where there should be guilt and remorse. Delegitimizing anger is yet one more way to keep the current structures of power and oppression in place.
Tone policing is yet another, and it has become a common practice in personal relationships, on social media and in public discourse. Rape survivors, victims of violence and people struggling to get out from under oppression shout and yell because they are silenced, ignored and blamed. Those in power turn around and tell them to lower their voices so they can be heard better. “Please speak nicely and politely about how you were viciously violated and discarded or else we won’t be able to hear you and then nothing will be done.” The degree to which you are able to recount your story of injury calmly, especially if you are female or a person of color, is directly proportional to how much you will be believed.
Anger is power in men (a positive thing if the man is white, a negative thing if the man is not), irrational in women, disobedience in children, a sign of danger in people of color, is considered “entitled” in poor people and a “weak moment” in someone with a disability. It is, except in white men, something most codes of conduct and power structures are set up to try to eliminate. Even many mental health advocates are now urging people to “stop participating in the outrage machine,” as if apathy in the face of climate chaos, disintegrating safety nets, sky-rocketing costs of living while wages stay stagnant and jobs become more and more impossible for the average person to get, desiccated relational landscapes and horrific acts being continually committed by people in power is good self care. It is, of course, not good to burn out your adrenals or do destructive things to yourself or others. Venting is now thought to make matters worse instead of better as it may retrigger the original emotions and further entrench you in physically unsustainable feelings. But if therapy wants to do good not harm, maybe it should work on methods of helping people feel angry at things it makes good sense to be angry about and finding the most healing ways of metabolizing or expressing that anger. Healing is very different than appropriate.
“Appropriate” behavior is what you do for other people; manners are a useful tool as long as you have to function in society and want some form of positive or at least neutral human contact, since consumerism in America has gone so far as to encourage everyone to only have positive, non “toxic” people in their lives — and never mentions what happens to those who are, accurately or not, labeled “toxic” (a topic for another post). “Healing” is about the individual and what the individual identifies they need in relation to their injury. How we define anger and who we let feel it in society is about managing behaviors, not about authenticity, healing or justice. The extent to which therapists participate in the current structures we have around anger and gender, race, ability and class is the extent to which they perpetuate harm on those they claim they are helping. This is one of the most damaging Orwellian conflations out there because the harm being done in the name of helping is less obvious, harder to catch.
I went to therapy for a number of years thinking that the invalidation, frustration, inability to define goals and lack of progress was all part of the process. Maybe I’m feeling invalidated because my feelings are actually wrong. Maybe I’m frustrated because I’m impatient or I want too much, I want what’s not possible, I’m greedy, my desires are out of my league. “These things take time,” I would remind myself, as my therapist would consistently remind me whenever I brought up this frustration of life moving forward without me despite my desire to figure out the life I want and build it. Maybe my inability to define clear goals isn’t because I have no idea who I am since I’ve felt I’ve had to pretend to be anything other than what I am in order to be loved for so long that pretending is the default; maybe it’s because we just haven’t gotten there in the process yet. Maybe I’m not really not making progress; maybe that’s just my perception, which is obviously damaged or I wouldn’t need to be in therapy, and my therapist who is telling me that I am making progress is right.
The one thing therapy has helped me with over the years is internalizing the ability to invalidate. In all my years of therapy, I didn’t actually learn the tools of self love, self soothing or authenticity. I continued to feel broken, like my anger was inappropriate and unreasonable and I was being too hard on people or not giving the benefit of the doubt when I expected them to mean what they said. I continued to feel unrealistic for wanting to see progress, as if trying for years and wondering why things weren’t working was like demanding change overnight. But then I remembered that I had been unreasonable in the past; I had expected too much of myself and others and I was probably just doing that again. Maybe I truly did have an anger problem I needed to manage. Maybe I wasn’t being treated with the love and respect I wanted and believe all humans are worthy of because I wasn’t behaving in a way that earned said love and respect.
It used to be upsetting that my therapist would talk about what we were going to do or what we needed to do, but most sessions were spent on me relaying “updates” or explaining what I had done on my own. My therapist would say that I needed therapy and I would agree, but then, in session, he wouldn’t know what to do and would spend several expensive, precious minutes thinking and then still not coming up with suggestions. It used to really upset me that I was having to pay quite a lot when I didn’t feel I was being helped. But then my therapist was able to show me how badly I was making him feel when, playing the role of me in a role-play, he said what I’d apparently actually said to him when I was trying to express my frustration at using my limited resources in a way I didn’t feel was helping me, “You’re a bad therapist. You don’t deserve your money.” Okay, maybe I was being harsh. Maybe it just hadn’t been enough time yet. Maybe waiting — to feel better, to get clarity, to move forward with my life — was a thing I needed to learn how to do for whatever reason.
It used to be pretty upsetting that so many people consistency cancel plans the day of (or simply ghost and not bother to even say they’re not coming) and that I could count so much more on people cancelling plans than actually being there for me that I began to double book myself constantly and only once in the years since I started doing that was there a conflict. The other thing I started doing, though, was telling myself that my expectations of people were too high. Instead of affirming the exhaustion of attempting to build connection and relationships and the mini traumas that I experienced regularly from people not taking their word or time with me seriously, I simply told myself that it was unreasonable to expect people to mean with they say. People are busy, I would try to comfort myself, pushing down the hurt and loneliness that comes with never being anyone’s priority ever. It used to be upsetting that people wouldn’t follow up when they knew you were having a hard time. People are busy, I would tell myself, and ignore once again the injury that comes with not being chosen, planned for or sought out.
Of course, I’ve experienced much more deeply wounding things than this — several just in the last six months alone — but I don’t want to communicate that anger should only be about huge things like betrayal or death or divorce. Anger is valid when there is legitimate hurt, “big” or “small,” and it’s legitimately hurtful to be willing to show up for people and have those people not show up for you for no other reason than “busyness,” as if people are victims to their own schedules and choices, if you get a reason at all. Anger is valid when your friends are not there for you, when they ignore you, when you have to do all the initiating and pursuing just to keep the friendship going. Anger is valid when you are hurt. Period.
Anger, not excusing away and invalidating my feelings, was also valid in all those situations above with my therapist. There are modes of dealing with trauma that do not leave the person suffering in agony for over three years. Anger is valid when your individual therapist wants to remain neutral in a relationship breakup you’re experiencing because he “doesn’t know the other person’s side.”
Anger is valid when you do not feel safe. There does not need to be an emotion “beneath” it.
Anger is valid when you do not feel loved by people who claim to love you but show no action to back their words. It’s valid as a primary emotion. It’s also a valid response to the customary “just get new friends” invalidation our society likes to tell people who experience the end of friendships, as if making friends as an adult is super easy or something.
Anger is valid when you are gaslighted, scapegoated or made out to be the monster. Hurt and sadness can be present, too, but that doesn’t make them more real or more primary than anger.
Anger is valid when you are abandoned by those who have given lip service to caring about you.
Anger is valid when you are harmed by people who get paid to help you.
I’m not defending anger just because I like it or because I’m an angry person. It’s not just my opinion that anger is not only okay but actually good — it’s science. There have been studies done on children raised by angry parents and children raised by passive (some people like to call it “permissive”) parents. While both anger and passivity caused damage, the children who struggled under passive parents fared worse than those who dealt with angry parents. Children who had passive parents were less resilient, struggled to get good grades (not that I’m validating the education system as an accurate measure of intelligence) and had a harder time accomplishing the things they said they wanted to accomplish. People who had passive parents had trouble regulating emotions and struggled with self-motivation much more than those who grew up with angry parents. For the most part, though, our culture treats anger like public enemy number one and the therapy industry dismisses it as something in the way of the “real” feeling.
But actually, it’s not anger that’s so damaging, it’s passivity, which is a polite word for neglect. Of course there are scary expressions of anger. Of course those who have experienced destructive anger in their lives from partners, parents, caregivers, bosses, friends, etc., have every right to be uncomfortable around it. But our fixation on validating those who are afraid of anger, the way therapists manage and treat “anger issues” and how we allocate anger allowances, is deeply broken. Anger is not the enemy; the things, systems and attitudes that blame the angry person and otherwise cause harm are.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.