The Mad Woman in the Kitchen

Last Editorial Review: 1/31/2005

Express Yourself

By Gina Shaw
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Charlotte Grayson

My mother never got angry when I was growing up. My father did, of course, and woe unto you when that happened. But mom? "I'm not angry. I'm disappointed," she'd say. Even after I became an adult, when I'd call home and relate the tale of a love-life betrayal or a workplace injustice, she'd say "And I know you're not angry, you're hurt, and that's worse."

Actually, no, some of the time I was angry. Why wasn't it OK to say that?

Because most of us have grown up being taught that women and girls are unattractive, bad, and undesirable when we're mad. "In my psychotherapy practice, I can remember saying to women, 'If somebody treated me like that, I'd be pretty angry.' To a woman, they'd say, 'I'm not angry!' They'd say they were hurt or disappointed, but not angry," says Lois Frankel, PhD, author of Women, Anger and Depression. "From early childhood we hear messages like 'little girls don't get angry. You're not cute or pretty or fun when you get angry.'" The words may change as we get older, but the message is the same." "Women are made to feel as if there's something wrong with them when they get angry."

But at a time when we're hearing stories about the dangerous results of misplaced anger -- road rage, air rage, deadly fights over children's sports -- Frankel and other professionals say we need to understand that it's dangerous for women not to deal with their anger openly and appropriately. If we don't, they say, we'll either internalize it (becoming depressed, eating too much or drinking too much, or experiencing "somatic" symptoms like headaches and stomach pains) or externalize it by yelling at our children or lashing out at our spouses and friends.

"Women tend to say that anger is bad in general. They say that anger hurts people, anger hurts relationships," says Deborah Cox, a psychologist at Southwest Missouri State University and a partner in The Anger Project, which studies women and anger. "They think, 'If I openly show my anger, I'm likely to hurt somebody or damage a relationship. It would be better for me to make it go away somehow.'"

But the opposite is true, Cox says. She and her colleagues have surveyed more than 1,000 women and done in-depth interviews with more than 100 for the Anger Project, and have a book coming out next spring on how women can use anger to their benefit. "When you don't deal with the things that make you angry, over time, you come to blame yourself and feel inferior, guilty, or just bad about who you are. You may not realize why, but you're hanging on to resentment and frustration you haven't felt safe to face," she says.

"Good Anger?"

So what should women be doing with their anger? "We've heard stories about a lot of maladaptive ways of handling anger, but we've also begun to hear of some really encouraging success stories where women are using anger in constructive ways that help them empowered," Cox says. "The crux seems to be how conscious they can become of their anger. For those of us who have discovered active things to do with it and keep anger in our consciousness long enough to learn what it means, we tend to benefit."

So how do we express anger instead of ignoring it? First, says Frankel, "separate the act from the actor. We're not going to punish people, but we're going to attack the problem. It's not about Joe, it's something that Joe did, and I don't want it to happen again." Psychologists talk a lot about using "I" messages rather than "you" messages; that's an effective way to express anger, Frankel advises. "Don't say 'You do this all the time and it makes me mad.' Instead, if you say 'I'm angry and disappointed. I thought we'd planned that I'd go out on Saturday and you would watch the kids, but that didn't happen,' it turns it into a discussion."

Sometimes you're not ready to have that rational discussion right away -- you need to express the initial rage in a "safe place."

Cox describes one woman, a single parent raising her children in an unsupportive community where her divorce is viewed as her own fault. "She's got a lot of reasons to be angry. So she's learned to do something physical, and to talk about it at the same time." We're taught that throwing or breaking things when we're angry is wrong; but if controlled and used constructively, it can help to burn off the initial fury, Cox says. "She'll go home to a safe place, and she'll choose a piece of junk from the garage and break it out in her backyard, and talk about it at the same time." Often, says Cox, the woman just repeats "I'm so damn mad!" "It helps her think more clearly, and it helps her to be able to come to some kind of solution. She may realize that she really needs to go talk to that boss or whatever. Having that outlet gives her a safe place to expend some of the energy associated with the anger and to think about it while she's safe, to put words on the situation and inspire her to do the next thing."

Ultimately, says Frankel, expressing anger for women is less about techniques and more about overcoming lifelong training. "You've read all the books on being assertive and expressing your anger in a healthy way. So why don't you? It's all the old stuff that gets in the way," she says. "We've been socialized not to feel allowed to be angry. Tape over that old tape."

So there, Mom. Get mad -- it's OK!

Originally published Aug. 19, 2002.

Reviewed by Charlotte E. Grayson, MD.

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