Up until my late twenties, whenever I walked past those miniature, blown-glass tchotchkes in mall kiosks, I wanted to smash them with a baseball bat. Because the impulse seemed so random, and because I never followed through, I didn’t allow myself to be troubled by it. Now, many years later, I wonder, How could I have been so out of touch with my inner reality?
For the first three decades of my life, whenever anger surfaced, I treated it like the carnival whack-a-mole game and ruthlessly pushed that anger back down. This strategy worked well until the day my fiancé abruptly bailed out of our relationship.
For the next few months, my reservoir of anger slowly breached its levee. I could no more deny its existence than I could stop breathing. However, I had no idea how good Christian women expressed anger. In my broken economy, feeling—let alone showing—anger felt like failing. Then one day I had a radical idea. I bought 24 cheap glasses from the local dollar store, grabbed some safety glasses, went out into the urban landscape, and hurled them, one by one, onto a rock ledge.
At the time, I thought I was the only one who struggled with anger, but now I know better. I recently surveyed more than 60 friends about the issue and only 12 percent of them felt they could easily communicate their anger to another person, especially face-to-face.
Which leads me to wonder, why is our relationship with anger so complicated?
Anger and Families of Origin
As with almost all other relational dynamics, we learn how to deal with anger primarily from our families of origin. From an early age, we watch our siblings and parents express and respond to anger, and often we mimic them. Some of us learned to throw things. Some of us learned to self-medicate with junk food or alcohol. And some of us learned to check out. Very few of us had parents who modeled anger well; less than two percent of the friends I surveyed said their parents navigated anger in a redemptive manner.
I grew up in a home of reserved people who valued self-control over honesty. The one time I raised my voice toward my parents ended poorly, and the taste of that Ivory soap still lingers. When my mother and father had conflict, they crystalized our home in icy silence or walked out the door alone, leading me to associate anger with abandonment.
My friend Anne’s family had a different narrative. Rather than repressing anger, they freely vented it. If the Yankees lost, there was anger. If the Republicans won, there was anger. If she didn’t do well on an exam, her father’s belt might materialize. Though her household temperament was the exact opposite from mine, we both learned ineffective expressions of anger and concluded that it should be avoided at all cost.
Shutting down Women's Anger
Many of these unhealthy or avoidant patterns are reinforced by the culture at large: both secular and religious. In the professional realm, an angry man is perceived as decisive and powerful. An angry woman, on the other hand, may be called derogatory names, penalized, or dismissed as being overly emotional. All three have happened to me.
Less than 24 hours after returning from a month-long assignment in post-Communist Romania, I photographed the American League playoffs. It was a massive culture shock. There had been less than a dozen photographers exposing the horrific human rights abuses of the Ceauşescu regime, but here there were more than a hundred milling about Fenway Park. This imbalance (exacerbated by the excesses of professional sports) deeply troubled me. When I walked back to the makeshift darkroom, I tried to explain my angry tears to a male editor. His response? “You must have your period. Pull yourself together or go home.”
Religious institutions can also become jittery when women display anger. While few church leaders would be as crass as my photo editor’s admonishment, most women know that if we thumped our fists on the pulpit or protested injustice as boldly as Jesus did when he overturned the money changers’ tables, we might be ushered out the door. As such, most of us automatically tone down our anger to prevent others from feeling uncomfortable.
What Do We Fear?
It doesn’t take much to discourage women from expressing anger because there’s so much fear and ambivalence associated with it. Some of this fear is directly connected to the way our bodies respond. As adrenaline floods our system, our hearts begin to race, our faces turn red, our muscles tighten, and none of this is by choice, which can leave us feeling vulnerable and on the brink of losing control.
In the poll I took, almost all of my friends admitted that they felt some level of fear in expressing their anger. We fear losing verbal control—or worse, physical control—and in that moment we fear hurting someone we care about, particularly our children. We fear rejection and the potential loss of friendship. If we have a history of being abused, we may fear retaliation. Given all of these legitimate fears, it’s not surprising that we often deny our anger. But is that really the best option?
Consequences of Avoiding Anger
The long-term consequences of inefficiently expressing anger (either by habitually ignoring it or constantly lashing out) may be worse than our fears. Anger elevates our bodies’ cortisol levels, eventually fatigues our adrenal system, and may lead to chronic pain, bruxism (grinding teeth), depression, and even more serious illnesses such as digestive disorders, heart disease, and cancer. Anger can also be linked to mental health issues. (If you need help parsing out these symptoms, please reach out to a mental health expert.)
Anger also affects our spiritual health. Prior to my glass-smashing episode, if I felt angry and anyone dared to press in, I would either withdraw or claim to be tired. While being slow to anger is almost always prudent, pulling back and refusing to engage can be a form of manipulation, which is neither righteous nor constructive. And by dismissing my edginess as merely fatigue, I lied, valuing false peace over God’s call to be a truth teller.
Whether we’re on the denying or exploding side of the anger spectrum, or somewhere in between, few of us embrace anger or view it as constructive. In fact, many Christians mistakenly equate anger with sin. Paul cuts through this misunderstanding in Ephesians 4 when he said, “Don’t sin by letting your anger control you.” Note, he didn’t say, “Don’t be angry!” In fact, throughout the Bible many individuals such as King David, Moses, Jesus, and Paul overtly expressed anger, confirming its normalcy. Though our fear of losing control or responding poorly to our anger is valid, we won’t develop that self-control muscle by denying the internal storm; we’ll develop it by trying—and occasionally failing—to communicate our anger.
For most of us, learning how to accept and express anger is a lurching, lengthy process, involving paradigm shifts and mistakes along the way. By paying attention to anger rather than ignoring it, we can glean crucial information that may clarify problems, expose boundary violations, and help us make necessary changes.
Can you think of moments or specific places when or where you feel angry? What are they? Are you always angry in staff meetings? Maybe that anger is prompting you to gently confront your coworker about his tendency to talk over you.
If you’re feeling ongoing anger toward your children, which often evokes shame and guilt, it might be that it’s time for a parenting “tune up.” For example, maybe you’ve gotten sloppy about bedtime routines or enforcing consequences for noncompliance around chores or homework, and that’s caused repeated frustration. It’s time to lay out the expectations you have for your children in a kind way.
Or perhaps, in the face of injustice and inequality, your anger is an expression of God’s heart for the poor and oppressed. This might be his way of calling you to action.
Anger invites us to trust God more fully. When we truly believe that he will never leave or forsake us, we will be able to vulnerably venture in and process our anger with others as it unfolds rather than a year later. One friend I spoke to said it perfectly: “My faith allows me to know that I am loved, and I will sin, but I am forgiven for it and that communicating [about my anger] is possible, necessary, and productive.”
When I recently walked past a store filled with glass figurines, I waited for the angry, bat-smashing feelings to come, but they never did. Apparently, I’m making progress. Though it’s seldom talked about, learning to express our anger redemptively will help us all become the whole and holy women we long to be. It’s a long journey, but it’s worth it.