Anger might be one of the most complex emotions around. However it arises — a faint wisp of annoyance, a slow burn of hostility, or a Mack Truck of rage — it can cause us to think, say, and do things we’d never normally consider if we were in our “right minds.” Afterward, we may feel a variety of secondary emotions: fear, righteousness, or even humiliation.
Harriet Lerner, PhD., author of The Dance of Anger, believes that anger may be even more complicated for women. Our patriarchal society feels largely uncomfortable with female anger, so it is often policed and shamed. (Just check out “Seeing Allred” on Netflix, a documentary about the feisty and unapologetic human rights lawyer Gloria Allred who has been labeled “shrill” and “in league with the devil,” among many other things.)
And why exactly are women so threatening? Lerner puts it this way: “If [women] are guilty, depressed, or self-doubting, we stay in place. We do not take action except against our own selves and we are unlikely to be agents of personal and social change. In contrast, angry women may change and challenge the lives of us all, as witnessed by the past decade of feminism. And change is an anxiety-arousing and difficult business for everyone, including those of us who are actively pushing for it.”
Just a note here: these words were published in 1985. In the era of #metoo, Lerner’s explanation seems even more pertinent. It has been cathartic for many women to speak out, and their words have been necessary for large-scale change. Similarly, it’s also sometimes necessary to express anger towards partners, friends, or family members. However, doing so without a more extensive plan can cause both parties to stay firmly entrenched in their positions, defensive and likely resentful. Lerner shares a two-step process to ensure anger can lead to better personal relationships.
The Contemplative Phase
Anger is a sign that something is wrong. We feel that our needs are not being met, or our boundaries are not being respected. The first step, when feeling angry, is to explore what our needs and boundaries are. We may feel that someone in our life is disregarding our needs, or overstepping our boundaries. In these cases, we need to take the opportunity to think about how we can clarify our wants and limits, and/or fulfill them ourselves if necessary.
For example, maybe you feel that your partner works too much, forgets important dates, or doesn’t take on enough of the cleaning. In these situations, you might be experiencing a lack of connection, appreciation, or egalitarianism in the household. What are your needs and boundaries in these areas? How might you state them in a way that is more matter-of-fact than blaming? What are you willing to accept? What do you deserve? Oftentimes we don’t slow down to consider these types of questions, but understand that doing so can lead to profound personal growth.
This process of contemplation can also lead to a position of strength. Instead of blaming another person, or explaining why they are wrong to do or think something, you will be simply sharing your own thoughts and emotions. Even if it is not “logical” or “ideal,” this is the way that you feel. This stance may shift you away from black and white thinking; perhaps the other person also has a right to think or feel what they do, even if you don’t agree.
The Active Phase
The next step is to pick a calm time to share your needs. This step can be difficult for anyone, but especially women. Even today, women are taught to avoid making others feel uncomfortable, and to instead protect them, even at the expense of themselves. All people may fear that bringing up their needs may destabilize the relationship. However, if instability is there, that is likely something that should be brought to the surface.
When sharing, avoid blame and instead state what you are feeling. Try to be compassionate towards the other person; you may feel that you can do this more easily speaking from a place of strength and empowerment. Then share how you plan to address your needs. For example, if your partner has been spending a lot of time at work recently, you may share that you miss spending time with them, but understand that they’re finishing a big project. In the meantime, you’ll be spending more time with your friends and family to get your social needs met.
At this point, the other person may engage in countermoves or what Lerner calls, “change back” reactions. This is a natural part of the change process, and if the “changer” stays resolute in his or her position, and maintains a loving connection, this reaction should lessen over time. If the partner escalates his or her countermoves (“I can’t believe you’re out with your friends when I’m at my desk killing myself every night.”), then that is a sign that there are broader issues within the relationship that should be explored.
Of course, these acts — defining yourself and your needs, breaking out of conflict patterns, preparing for resistance, and continuing slow and steady progress — are easier said than done. Lerner provides more detailed practical advice for each of these stages. But even the first step of exploring oneself can be a radical act. Ironically, becoming more open and vulnerable can lead to feeling stronger and more grounded — and that’s a good thing for any relationship.
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