A Surprising New Nealth Tip:
When You're Angry, Let It Show
By Sarah Henry
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 asked 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 OK to get angry," says Deborah Cox, Ph.D., a psychologist at
Southwest Missouri State University in Springfield. "It's a part of being really
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
"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, Ph.D., 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
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, Ed.D., a psychologist at Fairhaven College at Western Washington
University in Bellingham, Washington.
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."
Tips on handling anger:
Even though expressing your anger can be good for you, flying
into a rage at every suspected slight isn't the answer. For instance, blowing
off steam by hurling hardware at your hubby or breaking plates over the
boss's head aren't great solutions. But it is possible -- even desirable -- to use anger
in a positive rather than negative way.
Forget the pop notion of channeling anger into more productive pursuits.
"Relationship enhancement is the most productive outlet possible for anger,"
Cox says -- and this can happen when you let the other person see your upset.
So what concrete tips might help when you're mad as hell and not going to
take it any more? Read on.
Seek out a safe place to seethe. Before confronting the object of your wrath, talk with a
trusted friend, co-worker or counselor who can help get to the root of what's pressing
your buttons. Mulling it over with someone safe may help you figure out less hostile, more
instructive ways to express your feelings with a loved one, colleague or boss.
Approach the person who sent your blood boiling in the first place. As a
general guideline, the more significant the relationship, says Jack, the more
important it is to articulate feelings in a constructive way. She suggests
trying something like, "This is bothering me. Something has to change. How
can we deal with it?"
Identify the reason behind the rage. There's always something underlying an
angry reaction. The trick here is to find the trigger. If it's not obvious, keeping a log
of anger experiences may help you uncover patterns. For some people, professional help may
be needed to delve through deep-rooted feelings of shame and anger that started in
Find a physical release. Though jogging and other physical activities can be
helpful, Cox advocates an anger workout: hitting a mattress with a tennis racket or
slapping the sofa with a bat when you really start to see red. The key, says Cox, is to
talk as you thwack the furniture. Engaging large muscle groups along with your voice
should help you work through some of your fury. Kickboxing or Tae-Bo may give the same
results. "Some women feel less likely to lose it if they have a physical release
first," explains Cox. "When a client tells me: 'If I really let it out, we'd all
burst into flames,' then I might suggest an anger workout."
Take several deep breaths. If you find yourself blinded by heat-of-the-moment anger, try
to buy some time to cool off a bit, especially if you think you're at risk of harming
someone physically or emotionally. You may even need to walk away from the situation for a
while. Remember, though, that in the long run, fleeing the scene won't help you express
yourself. So ask for a few moments to collect your thoughts and then say what needs to be
Look for like-minded souls. All fired up about a societal injustice? Sick of
suffering? Then hook up with people who share your passion or problem through
a support group or organization. Consider working with an organization for
change, like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). "Joining other people who care
about what you do can transform anger into a positive expression," says
You're not alone. You'd be amazed at how many other women experience menopause-related anger, mood swings and sometimes uncontrollable rage.