When Anxiety is Anger in Disguise
Outside of my work with couples, I work mostly with women. This weekend, a client shared her growing sense of anxiety, her gnawing feeling that something was off, but she couldn't quite get to the root of what was causing her anxiety. As she described her anxiety and the situations when she feels it most, she began using words like "irritated," "frustrated," and "annoyed." But still she described the emotion as anxiety, a type of fear.
I pointed out to her that, when us psychotherapist-types categorize emotions, anxiety is a type of fear (kind of like 'lime' is a type of green), while irritation, frustration, and annoyance are all types of anger. It struck me as odd that she would describe her anxiety using only words that relate to anger. She also found this odd, and so we looked a bit closer.
In my work with women, I have noticed – over and over again – that female-identified people tend to experience less anger and more anxiety than the male-identified folks I've worked with. I've noticed that when women are asked to get in touch with their emotions, fear and sadness rise eagerly to the surface, while anger often seems nowhere to be found.
Many women, myself included, have been told – maybe explicitly, maybe in a between-the-lines kind of way – that expressing anger is unacceptable. Maybe it was our family, or our culture, or both. We got the message that if you're a woman and you express your anger, you are a bitch, you're out of line, you're not being ladylike... you fill in the message here, we've heard it. And we've internalized it. And it has kept us small.
It has, for many of us, been unsafe to share that blazing fire of dissatisfaction, of outrage, of indignation. There have been consequences to our anger – whether it was someone else's fiercer blowback, or a passive aggressive withdrawal of affection by those we value most. So it became worth it to mask our anger, to transform it into something more palatable to others, to ourselves.
We used our magic and ingenuity to transmute our fierce fire into quavering fear or soft sadness. Because that was how we could survive, how we could still communicate our needs and get them met, how we could make a request without getting rejected.
But when you stopper a volcano, the explosion comes out sideways.
Suppressed anger can shift sideways to become a formless anxiety, a looming depression. Anger, constantly pushed down so far, can lash back out at the worst times, and hurt people we care about.
Anger has a purpose, an inherent wisdom that – like all emotions – is meant to serve us, to support our surviving and thriving. Anger tells us that something is not right here. Anger tells us that we have been hurt, insulted, or treated unfairly. Anger tells us that our boundaries have been crossed, that our sacred borders have been invaded. Anger tells us that something needs to change.
When we can access and honor our anger, we tap into a powerful creative source. This feminine fire makes change, in our lives and in our world. Through anger, cleanly and clearly expressed, we can burn through the debris, that which no longer serves us, that which is holding us back from our growth and from our power.
Anger, in its most natural form, is a powerful force for positive change.
As you move to reclaim your anger, first you have to even notice that it's there. This is a big first step for those of us who have so successfully suppressed our anger that we no longer feel it. Become alert to your anger's unique signature – do you find your face tightening? Are your nostrils flaring slightly? Do you feel hot? Clenched? Do you feel the urge to attack? To lash out at others, or at yourself? What are your clues that anger is coming up for you?
What kind of anger do you experience most? Is it subtle, like irritation, annoyance, exasperation? Or does it tend to be more intense? What's its pace? Is it a slow simmer? Or is it fast, where the force of your fury explodes, seemingly out of nowhere?
Once you recognize that you're experiencing anger, let it move. Use your breath, sounds, movement to support it and let your anger actually move. We don't need that energy sitting there, stuck!
Growl, groan, yell, scream (though it's best to do this into a pillow or somewhere concerned neighbors/passerby won't call the police). Use your low belly to support your noise – anger comes from your gut, from deeper than just your throat.
Move your body in ways that move your anger through and out. Push against a wall, using your legs against the floor. Use that attack energy to take a stance that takes up space, that claims your territory as yours. Imagine a wild animal that is staking its claim on its turf, and embody its energy.
As you witness and move your anger, pay attention. What is it asking of you? What changes are needed? How can your anger be a creative force in your life, rather than a destructive one? Where do you need that fierceness in your life? In our world?
I believe it is a sacred part of our evolution as women to reclaim our anger, and to learn to channel its power in the context of our lives, in the context of our world. Our anger is so needed.
If it feels alive and important for you to explore your own anger more deeply, and you'd like support in doing so, please feel free to contact me for a no-charge consultation. I would be honored to support you in this way!
Anna Mayer, MA, R-DMT, is a body-based counselor and dance/movement therapist based in Boulder, CO. She offers individual sessions, embodied couples therapy, and dance/movement DBT skills.