A discourse between Madison and Kathryn on anger: the squashed, shunned, and disapproved emotion. Madison voices her survivor perspective, while Kathryn adds a research lens from her background in mental health.
Please be advised that this article includes adult language and content regarding sexual abuse and misconduct that may not be suitable for all readers. Additionally, we each have our own unique experiences and expressions of emotions. You do not have to feel a certain way. There is no right or wrong in regards to feeling anger or any other emotion.
Disclaimer: Content and material in this post is for general informational purposes only. Seek out professional medical and mental health advice and support as needed. If you are in crisis, please visit our crisis resources page.
Anger, like all other emotions, is a physiological response in the body to perceived external stimuli. Anger causes high arousal in our nervous systems and can feel like muscle tension, closed fists, blood boiling, or a racing heart. Anger exists on a wide spectrum, including specific feeling words such as annoyed, irritated, frustrated, irate, rageful, loathing, furious, livid, bothered, tense, and vengeful. Anger can be loud. It can be subtle. It can be directed inwards or outwards and have various objectives, modes, and may or may not feel controllable.
When this emotion gets trapped in the body, not felt or expressed, it lies repressed or buried in our psyches and our souls. When this happens, we may experience physical pain and dis-ease, detachment, depression, passive aggression, incongruity between our minds, hearts, and bodies, and feel confused. The physical sensations of anger and the external trigger may also have been so intense, alarming, or incomprehensible that our anger response may be intertwined or stifled by another one of our body’s trauma responses, such as fight, flight, freeze, or fawn.
In these cases, our body is doing its best to triage and keep us safe. Because of anger’s intensity, societal ramifications, and judgments, we rarely experience its full life cycle and complete expression - this happens either when we are in a safe environment or if we have reached max capacity and it explodes. Dr. Emily Nagoski, in her book Come as You Are, details how this survival or suppression happens automatically and that recovery or expression requires relative security within ourselves and in our environment, which gives space for the panic and rage to discharge.
The bottom line is this: the more we know about anger, the more we can support ourselves and one another to learn from and experience this powerful and intelligent emotion safely, and the better we will all feel and connect with one another. Anger is a strong and forceful messenger telling us that a boundary has been crossed or violated and needs repair. We all need tools to ride the wave of anger and not get caught up in it, as the latter can cause undue harm to ourselves and/or others.
Madison: YOU SHOULD BE MAD!
You should be red-hot mad. Whoever first painted the picture of a listless, sobbing victim sitting in the shower with her sweatpants on didn’t get it quite right. At least, not for me. Maybe not for you, either. You’re pissed. And you should be! Take it from me: a lot of people are about to tell you to be less mad. Somebody fucking raped you. Why the fuck would you NOT BE MAD? That was a theft, wasn’t it? A theft of autonomy, of trust, of freedom, of respect. Somebody stole that from you. Why wouldn’t you be mad?
And here’s the thing: nobody lets us be fucking mad. They’re okay with us slipping into depression, into grief, into the background. Quiet girls who aren’t angry are so much easier to handle. Rage is interpreted as a threat, as if any of us would actually go set shit on fire.
Kathryn: Anger is not something to be feared but rather something to be felt. As scary and powerful as it might be, it is the changemaker. That’s why others often do not want us to have it. The expression is powerful and difficult for people to see and hold. We tend to be apprehensive of emotions and the power that they hold. We are not taught how to feel them safely and how to use them for good, to listen to the messages they are delivering to us. Anger can be overwhelming and intimidating. And it has been used by unwieldy hands before. But when processed responsibly, it can be magic.
Women and survivors, especially, are often told not to be angry. They may be perceived as bitchy, witchy, volatile, or erratic - these labels stemming from a deep history of muting emotions. Survivors are frequently reinforced by society to keep quiet, stay small, and not be a bother. We also may fear that we may be punished for our anger and that experiencing or expressing anger may make us unworthy of love and acceptance. Sadness, tears, and depression are quiet feelings that are “less disruptive” to society.
But anger invokes and invites change. It signals disruption. It is loud, it is inconvenient, it is necessary. Anger is the biggest tell. The biggest message our bodies can tell us. That a boundary has been crossed. That we have been violated and that something is unacceptable. According to Dr. Nicole LePera, “If you feel angry, good. You’re no longer numb. Now you can heal.”
Madison: I hate reading shit like “your feelings are valid.” Sure, it’s true, and it’s desperately unhelpful. Who cares if your anger is valid? Your anger is forceful. Your anger is powerful. Your anger hurts like a bitch. Your chest tightens when you think of it; not in fear, but in pure goddamned fury. You’d set the place on fire if you wouldn’t get caught. You’d spray paint rapist on his car. Carve it into his forehead with a dull knife. Let him feel one fraction of the pain he caused you when he killed you and left you alive. It wouldn’t be enough punishment.
There’s nothing wrong with you for being angry. There’s nothing wrong with you for not being angry, either. I’m just so sick of people trying to validate me and not actually fucking helping me, so that’s not my goal here for you. I don’t need another well-meaning acquaintance to tell me they’re so sorry, I’m so brave. I need somebody braver than me to start setting the famous rapists on fire. Maybe then when the younger girls I know go to college it won’t stop me from breathing every time I think about it. Maybe then I won’t buy them pepper spray. Maybe then the idea of having a daughter won’t fill me with panic.
Kathryn: Just like any other emotional experience, it is important to remember that emotions can coexist, that they are not mutually exclusive, and there is no right or wrong way to experience them. We all have different emotions and at different times and in different ways, and they all are valid and real. Often, anger is wrapped up with shame, guilt, grief, and forgiveness and thus even harder to make sense of. All of these layers are true and real and part of the emotional experience and package of the human experience. It is our job to parse out these aspects and sleuth the anger for its message, for its gold while also honoring our other feelings.
We must be wary to escape into anger, to wear it as a mask, and become it. As intense as it may be, we may prefer it to the other sensations or adopt its force as emblematic of getting our powerback. Yet this is attaching to the messenger of anger, not the message anger brings, which is what we will consciously act upon to reinstate our boundaries, needs, and our power and control in sustainable ways.
It can be very helpful in the midst of anger to apply mindfulness and observe the anger churning through your system and watching its force. Take a moment and reflect, who or what are you angry at or with. For survivors, pain often underwrites the anger, and the emotion may be directed to the abuser, a caregiver, yourself, or to the loss of power, control, agency, safety, health, security, etc. Take your time, as this can be incredibly difficult and complicated as relationships are complex, multidimensional, and many factors can be occurring at the same time.
Madison: You do not get less angry. I hate to tell you this. It comes in waves. When your friend loses her Title IX case, it is a hurricane. When your sorority little tells me what somebody tried to do to her at her first frat party, it is a tsunami. Sometimes, when all has been quiet, it is at low tide. But it does not leave you.
I have no way to end this thought. I am angry. It has been years and I am still furious. I am made out of fire and brimstone. But the anger can be used. It can help. It can pass laws, it can march in the streets, it can cause massive image issues. I’m pretty sure my university and my old sorority had me on some sort of bad-PR watch list. Good. Let me be a problem. Let me be a mad woman. Let me be the fire rushing up the ivy. You do not get to hurt littler girls than me anymore.
Kathryn: Just because you think and feel what could be dangerous thoughts does not mean you will be dangerous or commit a crime. We are not our thoughts or our feelings, we are the thinker of our thoughts, and the feeler of our feelings. Though they can be powerful and sometimes intimidating or overwhelming, or we would prefer to feel or think differently, or not at all, we ultimately do have control over what we do with our thoughts and emotions. The first step is reminding ourselves of this separation between ourselves and the anger. This looks like creating time and space between your physiological experience and your actions, taking a breath. Remember, we are not responsible for our first feelings or thoughts, but we are accountable for our second thought and first action. And for our feelings - those are meant to be felt.
Then once we are grounded, we need to give our rage and the rage of others more than validation. The anger validates itself. That feeling is real and valid, otherwise you wouldn’t be having it. It needs to be expressed. It needs to be heard. Seen. Witnessed. Commiserated. Shouted from the rooftops. It needs a place to be held and honored and respected. In this witnessing, it can heal, and change can occur. This is where and how we can receive the message the anger is delivering us.
By downloading anger’s message we can transmute and alchemize the anger. The fire can be used to ignite change, for a better world, to be loud and let others know that what happened was not ok and that things must be different. To honor those feelings inside yourself and for everyone else who has had their boundaries crossed. As anger is then processed through your system and you honor its insights, the sensations often simmer and dissipate. Remember, that emotional experiences are not linear and there are no judgments on your natural emotional processes and timelines.
Kathryn McClain, MSW, MBA
Program and Partnerships Director at #WeRideTogether
Communications Manager at #WeRideTogether