Content Warning: self-harm
At the beginning of this global pandemic I noticed an uncomfortable feeling starting to grow within me. As my friends continued going to work or to the grocery store while I remained at home, petrified of catching this largely-unknown coronavirus, the feeling grew from a small flame into a roaring fire, until I could no longer ignore it. I was angry.
Since I was diagnosed with my autoimmune disease roughly 8 years ago—which was more than likely the result of the birth control pills I was taking at the time—I haven’t thought much about how different my life has become. Sure, I have to take daily medication for the rest of my life and I can’t unwind every night with a glass of wine, but generally things aren’t too different for me. It wasn’t until my life was threatened because of my compromised immune system that I began to think “Why the hell did this have to happen to me?!”
As I was wracked with fears of illness and death for weeks on end, this question grew louder and louder in my head. It suddenly didn’t seem fair that the pills I had been using to help regulate my menstrual cycle as a teenager had turned my immune system against me. And the longer I was stuck at home, the more anger I felt when I swallowed the meds that were lowering my immune system in order to keep my body safe.
Now, anger is not something I’m particularly familiar with. I’ve certainly experienced anger before, but, not knowing what to do with the feeling, it was often expressed through moodiness, passive aggression, or even self-harm. Or, like many other women who aren’t sure what to do when they feel anger starting to bubble under their skin, I suppressed it. Without knowing how to healthily let it out, or even that I can express it in healthy, safe ways, I stuff it down and close the lid as tight as I can.
This time around, however, I was having a hard time keeping it contained, and it certainly wasn’t going away. My anger was fierce, and desperately wanted out of the jar I had kept it stored in for all those years.
At first, the anger built into rage that exploded out of me in the form of self-harm. I didn’t know where to direct my anger, and I had enough shame lighting me up like a neon sign that I became an easy target. So when pacing and hand-flapping gave way, I released the pent-up energy the only way I knew how, at the only person in the room: me.
Of course, shortly after the energy had been expelled and the shame set in, I realized that this method of expression was not sustainable. Which is when I realized that I didn’t have a single solitary clue of how to safely express my anger. Nor could I recall any female role models who expressed their anger in healthy ways.
I started talking with a friend lately about this, and when I asked how she expressed anger, she had a hard time finding an answer, as well. She made the excellent point that systemically men are taught to be angry, but to stifle sadness because it’s a sign of weakness, and that women are taught to stifle anger because it’s not feminine. While I sat there wondering how I’ve managed to stifle anger all this time, she mentioned that these beliefs are so ingrained in us that we don’t even realize we do it.
It’s funny, because as I’ve learned more about the damage done by the patriarchy and capitalism in the last few classes I’ve taken in quarantine, the angrier I’ve become. How ironic that the notion of suppressed anger in women has caused me to become so angry that I don’t know how to express it because I’ve been taught to suppress it!
Naturally, I turned to my therapist for guidance. I knew there had to be ways of expressing anger that didn’t end up hurting myself or others, otherwise we’d all explode! She encouraged me that I can feel anger while controlling my behavior. In all those cases where anger has led to self-harm, there was always a moment where I could have chosen another option. I allowed those neuropathways to stay ingrained in my brain, until my therapist showed me how to flip that switch.
Now, I know to use my pillow at a punching bag, or throw some balled up socks or water balloons at the wall when I feel that anger grow into a big ball of energy that just wants to be uncaged. Even more important to remember: I’m allowed to be angry. It is a natural emotion, just like happiness, sadness, and even fear.
My anger has helped me clarify my values and beliefs. If I didn’t get so angry about the corporations who are making billions off of our insecurities, I wouldn’t know how much I cared about righting that wrong, of undoing the thoughts that they have implanted.
Anger can be liberating if we allow it. I’m not nearly done learning how to express it, or unlearning how not to suppress it. But I’d say it’s about time we free these gendered shackles of how women (or anyone!) are “supposed” to feel, look, or act, and use our anger as a compass to guide us towards empowerment, equality, and freedom.