How to Bring Your Anger Into the Room
It’s a good-faith expression of expecting better
There’s a lot to be angry about right now: A global pandemic given free rein in the United States by callous and incompetent leadership. A righteous uprising against anti-Blackness and state-sanctioned brutality met with more brutality and martial law. Millions of people squeaking by on unemployment, many of whom may now also be facing eviction. The upcoming start of a school year that holds worrisome unknowns, particularly for the most vulnerable among us.
Despite all the reasons to feel angry, I find in my therapy practice that it is somewhat rare for my clients to bring their anger into the room. Anger is an emotion many of us have learned not to express, even when its expression would ultimately serve us, and our relationships, well.
We don’t know how to express it. And we don’t know how to take in the anger of others. We aren’t taught to see other people’s anger, or our own, as deserving of space and recognition. This aversion prevents us from forming truly reciprocal connections on a person-to-person basis. What’s more, it holds us back from creating a more equitable society.
To get better at processing anger, it’s useful to remember: When we’re asked to bear witness to someone else’s anger, it often means that they feel safe enough, care enough, and trust us enough to want us to do better. This is a gift.
We can use the current moment to help us understand our collective baggage around anger. Here’s how.
The power imbalance of anger
It’s not difficult to guess why we might tread with caution: Anger is a complicated and sometimes destructive emotion. Often, it’s something we allow ourselves to feel in place of the more vulnerable emotions that lie beneath the surface, like fear and hurt. In other cases, we deny our anger so entirely that, unbeknownst to ourselves, we end up turning it inward or projecting it somewhere else. To get to the bottom of our anger, we need to face it, and that can be painful.
Which brings us to the crux of the matter: Anger is a site of massive inequality. White heteropatriarchy has a well-documented legacy of undermining the anger of women, people of trans and nonbinary gender identities, and non-White people as irrational or “hysterical.”
Indeed, as a clinician whose caseload consists mostly of gender-minority and queer people of color, it’s hard not to make the connection between these social phenomena and the relative lack of expressed anger among my clients. In contrast, cisgender, heterosexual White men are socialized to experience and express their anger in ways that affirm their dominant social position.
We see this dynamic in our politics. Male politicians’ anger tends to be read as “rousing” and “primal,” even wielded to bolster credibility. Women politicians, on the other hand, often feel pressured to sidestep any display of emotion entirely, lest their ability to do their jobs be called into question (though lack of emotion, too, is cause for criticism). This double standard is apparent in the recent suggestion that Sen. Kamala Harris has undermined her likelihood of becoming Joe Biden’s Democratic running mate in the 2020 presidential election by refusing to apologize for attacking Biden’s record of segregationist pandering in an early Democratic debate.
These inequalities are further reinforced by mainstream media and pop culture and, by extension, the social interactions that they inform. Consider, for example, the trope of the angry Black woman; the way that stereotypical “spicy” sexiness undermines Latinx women’s anger; or the way that Asian women are often perceived to be too submissive to be angry. Contrast these stereotypes with the cultural tendency to perceive White women as innocent and meek and the real-life consequences that each of these tropes has on the lived experience of each group, both separately and in their relationships with one another.
The utility of getting mad
A series of recent tweets by Erin B. Logan, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, offers a clear example of how expressions of anger can be treated as outside accepted norms.
Logan, a Black woman, recounted the experience of calling her company-sponsored therapy hotline “at her wits’ end” and in tears about stress and racism. Logan went on to recall that, once she broached the subject of racism, her White crisis line worker began crying too.
“She told me that … she didn’t grow up ‘that way’ and couldn’t believe people in 2020 were still being racist,” Logan tweeted.
Deprived of the space to communicate her anger, Logan found herself comforting the mental health professional on the phone instead. (After that, Logan found a Black therapist to talk to.)
If You’re Serious About Anti-Racism, Listen to Black Women
The key to challenging multiple forms of oppression
A healthy navigation of anger requires us to be aware of our positionality: our relative locations in the social hierarchy and the power and privilege therein. This is something I was trained to be aware of as a therapist, but it’s something we all can do.
One place to start (especially for non-Black people) is to not only be aware of race-based and gendered stereotypes of anger but of the places in which we might be complicit in reinforcing them. If we are navigating anger from a friend, colleague, or loved one, we must keep in mind the power dynamics at play to avoid centering ourselves.
When people of marginalized identities express their anger, particularly in the context of harm that arises due to imbalances of power, consider: Though it may be uncomfortable, anger is not unkind.
In many instances, an expression of anger reflects a good-faith invitation to work toward a resolution together. In the case of the White crisis line worker, a more productive (and certainly more professional!) response would have been to validate and give space to Logan’s feelings of anguish rather than shifting the focus to her own guilt and dismay.
And for people of marginalized experience: It is important for us to remember that — contrary to what the dominant White patriarchy would have us believe — our anger is powerful.
In her 2018 book, Rage Becomes Her, author Soraya Chemaly describes anger as “an assertion of rights and worth” and an act of “revolt and reconciliation.” “Anger,” she writes, “is the demand of accountability.”
Anger is motivating. Anger is often what we need to spur us into interrupting the chronic cycle of stress that stems from struggle. Anger gives us the energy we need to fight back. And in the current uprising and beyond, it is anger that breaks the silence of inaction and gives substance to hope.