April 17, 2000 (San Francisco) -- Before her divorce, Jane, a 52-year-old attorney, had a hard time dealing with an emotionally abusive husband who badgered their son and verbally attacked her. Sure, she was angry at her ex, but when researchers quizzed her about her experiences, she never once used the term "angry" to describe her feelings. Ditto when detailing a difficult situation at work. "Frequently I will say: 'It upsets me that I can't express this without the depth of my emotion showing,' " she says. "I try to kind of temper my reactions."
Jane's reluctance to say she's riled isn't surprising. Let's face it: Angry women have a bad rap. The bitchy boss. The mad mama. No wonder so many women opt to hide their rage. Well, scientists who spend their time figuring out why fuming women suppress this form of self-expression have news for you. It's good to get galled. "It's more than okay to get angry," says Deborah Cox, PhD, a psychologist at Southwest Missouri State University in Springfield. "It's a part of being really alive."
Feeling Ashamed About Anger
Why, then, do women need to give themselves permission to get piqued? An ongoing anger study by Cox and her colleagues reveals that women are just as likely as men to become angry when they need to assert themselves, for instance, when challenging an inaccurate restaurant tab. But, unlike men, women report feeling ashamed and apologetic when they get ticked off. In marked contrast, men feel like failures if they don't show their rage, says Cox, who presented her findings in January at the 11th International Congress on Women's Health in San Francisco. Cox is the co-author of the book Women's Anger: Clinical and Developmental Perspectives.
Cox and her co-investigators found that women like Jane tended to view anger as a liability, preferred using less loaded words like "frustration" or "upset" to label the emotion, and were more comfortable than men with suppressing anger. "The taboos against women feeling and expressing anger are so powerful that even knowing when we are angry is not a simple matter," writes psychologist and psychotherapist Harriet Goldhor Lerner, PhD, in her popular self-help book, The Dance of Anger.
That's not a good thing. "When you're angry, you know your needs, rights, and opinions in a way that you don't at any other time," Cox says. "When you're happy or sad, you're not necessarily as aware of your individual stake in things as you are when you're angry." So shake off that shame, Cox advises, and try to remember that anger can help you think more clearly, act more decisively, and initiate needed change. If an outburst spurs guilty feelings, Cox suggests it might be helpful to have an "anger buddy" -- a good friend you can call to give you a reality check on your reaction. "Women help each other all the time to normalize their anger," she says. "Making that relationship more overt and deliberate may help women better use this resource."
Anger and Health
Other research supports Cox's conclusions. Studies -- including one published in Annals of Behavioral Medicine in the fall of 1998 -- have linked suppressed anger to serious medical problems such as high blood pressure, heart disease, gastrointestinal complaints, and even certain cancers.
Researchers have even found a link between unexpressed anger and depression in women, says Dana Crowley Jack, EdD, a psychologist at Fairhaven College at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash.
When women do get angry, they tend to get especially livid -- the ranting, raving, seething, smoking kind of anger -- at the people they love most. Why? There's more at stake in these relationships, Jack says. But take heart: Research has shown that dealing effectively with someone who provokes anger is much more likely to strengthen rather than weaken the relationship. Indeed, experts say that constructive anger may be the only effective way to problem-solve in a partnership. "Anger is a wonderful, helpful, restorative emotion," says Jack. "It can be used to get rid of obstacles in a relationship. It really does work for that."
Even getting angry at your kids can bring you closer together. "Expressing your anger is an opportunity for you to speak clearly and honestly and enhance your relationship with your child," Cox says. "Unless kids see their parents or role models expressing anger, they won't know how to do it themselves." Telling your kids exactly why you're angry can help you work out a solution that's acceptable to both of you. However, make sure you're directing your anger in the right place -- if you're furious with your boss, don't take it out on your son.
So go ahead, say the experts, acknowledge that anger, and let other people know what you're feeling. When women are conscious of this strong sensation, says Cox, they have a better chance of using it in a constructive way. Anger is just a bodily reaction, a signal that a wrong has taken place, something needs correcting, or the demands on a woman exceed her ability to handle them. "We don't have choices about when we feel it," Cox says. "But we do have choices about what we do with it."
It may help to remember that getting cross -- even furious -- can have positive consequences. "Think of some of the social change groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving or the National Organization of Women," suggests Jack, author of two books, Silencing the Self and Behind the Mask, that address women's anger. "These social movements came about because women were just outraged."