What I got wrong about women & anger

Feeling anger isn’t necessarily a problem, but it’s not a solution, either. It’s a starting gun telling us to engage.

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Lately, I find it hard to avoid getting angry.

On Facebook, I watch as the posts and comments I scroll through give off sparks with their vitriol. The chasm of understanding dividing me from those I disagree with feels achingly wide. And I know that I’m not the only one experiencing this gap, and the underlying anger that comes with it: a friend of mine recently wrote about some of the underlying issues we face as a nation for a faith-based website; she received death threats.

But for me personally the anger and alienation landed closest to home last year when I visited my sister Katie not long after one of the presidential debates.

One afternoon, back from a languid trip to a cider mill, Katie and I started chatting about the candidates. To my surprise and chagrin, our light-hearted discussion grew heated. After a few minutes, breathing hard, I held up a hand.

“Maybe we should stop talking about this,” I said.

I saw my dismay reflected in Katie’s eyes. She nodded and we changed the subject.

I suggested we stop because her face told me my words had landed like punches. I knew that look and it frightened me. I recognized it because I used to see it way too frequently on my husband’s face when we first married.

We’re all turtles or skunks

In our premarital class, almost fifteen years ago, our teacher spoke to everyone about two communications styles. “Some people are turtles,” he said. “They withdraw and hide from conflict. Other people are skunks. When they’re angry, they raise their leg and spray.”

At the time, my husband and I giggled at the unfortunate image, but after we got married, I found it less funny.

Because I’m a skunk.

If I got angry enough, my words grew noxious. When I felt hurt, I grew so enraged I wanted to see my spouse hurt too.

I remember looking in the mirror once as I said something awful to him. I ache now to remember I felt pleased by what I saw. I thought I saw power.

But one day, in a book discussion group with a group of other women, I reflected on a chapter on anger. The author, Beth Moore, said that when we felt entitled to control and punish people with our anger, we could end up abusing them. She said meanness could “catch like a virus.”

My breath caught in my throat. Her words brought to mind my face in the mirror, hardened by fury. I had felt entitled to hurt my husband. But I had no such right.

I went home that night and asked his forgiveness. I once thought of my anger as a permission slip. It was nothing of the sort.

Anger signals hurt and pain. It beckons us towards taking action.

Of course, that left a big question. What is anger for if not to express it? I’ve read enough pop psychology to know even negative emotions offer tools. So what could anger teach me?

Clinical psychologist Harriet Lerner puts it this way: “Anger is a signal.” Anger signals hurt and pain. It beckons us towards taking action and getting our butts in gear. It’s a starting gun telling us to engage. And feeling that anger isn’t necessarily a problem. But it’s not a solution, either.

I realized that if I wasn’t careful, I could damage relationships with anger. And if I did not address the source of my hurt, I could injure myself. When anger surges, I have a chance to learn how to avoid both unhealthy outcomes.

What surprised me was how many better options I had—once I looked for them. To breathe, to journal, to ponder. To ask a friend’s advice or go to a therapist. To table the discussion. To read a book on communication, pray, or go for a walk.

Now when my husband and I disagree, I pay attention to when I feel anger. I don’t pretend it doesn’t exist, rather, I embrace the emotion, get angry, but process the anger and diagnose my hurt before I engage the topic again. It’s hard to control my anger; it’s vulnerable to address the hurt that’s underneath it. But it is loving.

Hearing someone matters more than changing their mind

Which brings me back to my sister.

After she and I argued about politics, we tiptoed around each other for a few days. I went home saddened by our disagreement. I poked at my anger, trying to understand it.

And finally, I did. I had felt like she could not hear my words or my heart. I suspected she felt the same.

So I sent her a message, telling her I was sorry about the disagreement. I told her I wanted to understand where she was coming from, even if we differed in our conclusions. “I trust and respect you,” I said. “And I want to know who you are and why we’re different.”

She wrote back, gracious and open. Since then, I think we’re both still wary of political discussions. But the one time we have tried, our conversation ended well. As we talked, I tried to remember that hearing her mattered more than changing her mind. I imagine she concentrated on the same thing.

Now, with discussions about the presidential election, Black Lives Matter, gun laws, policing and terrorism all over my social media feeds, the lessons I learned with my husband and sister have to guide me even more strongly.

It’s not possible or wise to engage with every mean-spirited stranger on these issues; we have to draw boundaries for our own sanity. But with those closest to us, I believe we must attempt these crucial discussions.

When we do, it’s worth remembering anger is often a cry to be known and healed. It’s a signal to listen and love. When we do engage lovingly with those we disagree with, we can trust that good things will follow.

None of us has permission to inflict hurt when we feel outrage. And when we don’t give in to that temptation, astonishingly, we find before us better tools by far. They’re not easy, and often frighten us with the vulnerability required. But when meanness, anger and violence catch like viruses, it’s worth trying to find a cure.

Heather Caliri
Heather Caliri

Heather Caliri is a writer from San Diego whose work has appeared at Relevant.com, Her.meneutics, BlogHer, and ChurchLeaders.com. She’s scared of (among other things) bees, heights, and the movie Gremlins—but has slowly discovered that she’s more courageous than she thought. She is the author of the e-book, “How To Become Braver.”

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