When I was growing up, my favorite pastime was to blast angsty or heart-pounding music, jump on my trampoline, and daydream. I would do this every day for hours. I would imagine myself in the various fantasy novels I’d read, taking on the role of fierce heroine. In these daydreams, I was always a fighter, I was always the powerful one, I was always kicking ass and taking names.
In quiet moments, I would occasionally think, Wow, I must have a lot of anger in me. Then I’d laugh to myself, because of course that was ridiculous. I wasn’t angry—I was nice, and nice people don’t get angry. Now I look back and think I must have been angry all of the time, with that undercurrent of simmering emotion always pushed deeper and deeper away. Out of sight, out of mind.
Here’s the rub: I can’t get angry. I can’t sustain anger, no matter how righteous it is. I’m not talking about sparks of annoyance, road rage, and petty frustrations like that. I’m talking about situations where someone else has wronged me; done harm to me; threatened my physical, mental, or emotional well-being. I’ve been in plenty of those situations, and I can’t get angry.
I’ll feel a rush of energy, that brief flicker of fire, and then in a snap, my anger turns to sorrow, to grief, to a gut-wrenching sadness. While anger is often directed outward—I’m angry at something outside of myself—sorrow directs my focus inward. When I experience this sadness, I blame myself. I take responsibility. It’s my fault that the situation ever happened. I’ll take on the guilt, the shame, the regret.
Other people hurt me, and I’m left hurting myself.
I once returned from a weeklong women’s retreat to find out that my most recent ex-boyfriend had read my journal (we were still living together at the time, though I would be moving out in a few weeks). If I were the type of person who could get angry, I would have said to him, “You messed up, motherfucker. You did wrong. I don’t care what you read, or what you think you know about me. You betrayed my trust. I owe you nothing.” If I were that type of person, I would have left right then, getting a hotel room or staying with friends.
I did not do this. Instead, I just cried and cried, feeling exposed and vulnerable, like in reading my journal he somehow knew me better than I knew myself. I felt scared and guilty, like I was wrong for what I had written about him, like I was at fault for feeling and thinking what I felt and thought about him. I even remember him comforting me. I remember feeling comforted.
It was easy, after the fact, to commiserate with friends over what a fucked-up thing he did, and how dare he? But in the moment, I could do nothing but cry. Again and always, turning inward.
Previously, I had been in an abusive relationship for three years. I had always blamed myself for my partner’s behavior. Instead of getting angry, I got shame. Instead of saying “no,” I told myself I must not be doing enough for him, that I needed to do better, be better, be good enough. I left him eventually, and it was the most empowering thing I ever did. But I never told him directly why I was leaving. I never got angry.
And then there was the charismatic narcissist. I went along with everything he wanted, made myself accommodating, available. I was the placeholder he could have fun with even though he was interested in someone else, someone unattainable. I let him take and take and take as I gave and gave and gave. And I wasn’t angry. I was ashamed, disappointed in myself. Thankfully, I don’t see him anymore. I broke that off years ago. But again, I never directly told him what he did wrong. I have never called a man out on his bullshit.
I have never spoken up for myself.
It’s not that I want to be angry all of the time. As with all emotions, I just want to feel anger in its fullness, let it be completely expressed, and then let it pass when it is all spent. But if I can’t stick with anger at all, and if I can never express it as I’m feeling it in the moment—what sort of protection can I offer myself?
It’s not enough to be able to feel flashes of anger after the fact. It’s not enough to calmly think later, Anger is an appropriate emotion at this time. None of these afterthoughts matter if, in the moment, I bow my head, accepting the pain and hurt and wrong that they caused, the fault that is their own, and, taking responsibility for it, make it my fault, my wrong, that I’m wrong, that I’m sorry.
What is this legacy that makes it so hard to speak? Where is my rage, my anger, my fury? What have I lost by not being able to express or feel anger?
Anger is a very natural emotion. It is an appropriate response to unbearable situations. It can also be empowering. Anger is the fierce claim that our experiences are valid; that we’re not crazy for feeling a certain way; and that we have a right to exist and to feel what we feel.
How much anger in women is pushed aside as frivolous, scorned as childish fancy, disregarded as “a phase”? How many women are looked down upon as being “just angry,” without recognizing the appropriateness of that anger? How many times are women gaslighted, made to feel ashamed of their emotions like they are wrong for having them, as if emotions could ever be wrong? How many women repress their anger with a laugh or a sip of liquor, because being angry is not what nice women do?
I am censored, and I am angry that I am censored. I am angry with myself for censoring myself. I am angry at the culture that censors me.
But that anger will fade to sadness, to the inward-directed emotion that is socially acceptable for women to express.
When it does,
—when I blame myself for not being good enough to be at peace with my station,
—or when I feel guilty for not being strong or outspoken enough to stand my ground and speak my truth,
I’ll make sure that I keep writing. I’ll keep expressing my emotions on the page until, eventually, I can say them in person, in the moment, as I’m feeling them.