If nothing else was evident in the recent hearing for Judge Brett Kavanaugh (regardless of where you stand on the political spectrum) was that he verbalized quite vociferously the emotional state he was in. To even the most obtuse observer, the vocabulary he used, his choice of words, the decibel level at which he spoke, his facial expressions and the energy he radiated, made it clear that he was not in control of his emotions. Anger was running the show.
What he was experiencing could be referred to as emotional hijacking, a term that was coined by Daniel Goleman, PhD, who wrote the book entitled Emotional Intelligence. He describes the ways in which the part of the brain called the amygdala reacts when in a stress inducing situation.
“The amygdala is the trigger point for the fight, flight, or freeze response. When these circuits perceive a threat, they flood the body with stress hormones that do several things to prepare us for an emergency. Blood shunts away from the organs to the limbs; that’s the fight or flee. But the response is also cognitive—and, in modern life this is what matters most, it makes some shifts in how the mind functions. Attention tends to fixate on the thing that is bothering us, that’s stressing us, that we’re worried about, that’s upsetting, frustrating, or angering us.”
When working with clients who have anger management problems, I describe it as if a big, burly being scoops them up and runs away with them before they can protest. Clearly, that creature was present in the senate chambers.
Contrast that to the calmly expressive Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. Her communication was at times, tearful, soft-spoken and deferential. Her voice was not raised, she made no broad gestures.
Consider the dichotomy between the ways women and men express or repress anger. In an NPR interview with author, Rebecca Traister who wrote the book Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger, she is clear that a double standard has long been at play. When men express anger, it is seen as powerful and justified. When women express anger, it is considered a hysterical reaction and a sign of instability.
Men’s anger is glorified and expected. Women’s anger is either disregarded or criticized.
Women are often taught to be “good girls.” We are encouraged not to make waves or rock the boat. We are advised to be deferential so as not to alienate men. An angry woman is condemned, an angry man praised.
In my childhood, I didn’t see appropriate expression of anger. In my home it was repressed. My father would say, “Your life is in the hands of any fool who makes you lose your temper.” In his line of work as a bus driver, I’m certain he needed to stifle his inclination to react to anger triggers. He did, however, often say, “That burns me up,” when disgruntled and chug Maalox throughout. I do question whether my anger would have been squelched simply because I was born female.
When it does flare up for me, it is generally what I call a mama bear, claws bared roaring in response to what I perceive as injustice. It serves me as a therapist, as I advocate for clients, but not as effectively in my personal life. This recovering co-dependent is learning to speak up for herself without fear of the reaction or rejection from men. I can permit myself a full range of human emotions and still be accepted as a strong woman who stands up for herself and others. There was a time when I would have been hesitant since it would have labeled me as a bitch. I have since claimed that title as I reframe it as someone who is Being In Total Charge of Herself.
The importance of women expressing justifiable anger is explained succinctly by Soraya Chemaly in her book, Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger.
“Women should be angry about the violence and fear that inform so much of our lives. Anger is the emotion that best protects us against danger, unfairness, and injustice. Understanding it and learning to think about its methodical uses in response to threats like these allows girls and women to move from passivity, fear, and withdrawal to awareness, engagement, and change.”
What if anger, whether expressed by men or women, could be channeled as a tool for building, rather than a weapon for destroying? In an interview with Arun Gandhi, grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, he offered his thoughts about anger. He had spent two years living in the ashram with the senior Gandhi and learned valuable lessons about its positive use.
“Unfortunately, we don’t teach the young people how to live with an understanding and we end up abusing anger. It is natural to get angry. Anger to a human being is like a circuit breaker to an electricity circuit. When something goes wrong, the circuit cuts off the electricity supply. In the same way, anger is telling us that something is wrong, and we need to stop and look at it. Instead of looking at it, and finding a solution to the problem, we lash out and express it in physical terms and verbal terms. It changes our lives completely. When I go to the prisons I see all these young people who acted in a moment of madness and now they regret it. They all say that if they could go back and take that moment away, they would love to do that.”
If used constructively and mindfully, we can prevent teetering off the tightrope of anger where there is often no safety net to catch us if we fall.