It isn’t just men who have trouble accessing their feelings. Some women, far more than you might imagine, have great difficulty expressing anger. This is a situation where men can actually help women with their feelings!
“Are you nuts?” one man complained. “Women are terrifying when they get angry!”
No one could argue with that. Many women have only too ready a capacity for negative emotions. But, not all women are alike. Traumatized by early experience, some women are completely unable to access feelings of anger. So firmly are their negative emotions suppressed, they may not even recognize when they are angry!
“I have never been an angry person,” Janine said. It was hardly surprising. Janine’s father had been a drunk. When he came home after work, the children could never be sure it was safe to greet him. Even when he was sober, his temper wasn’t to be trusted. His children learned that it was dangerous to displease their father. They followed their mother’s policy of making themselves as small and invisible as possible.
When a person turns off her capacity for negative emotions, she also tends to turn off access to her positive emotions as well. The authentic person she could have become has been reduced to a polite individual who smiles with a look of confusion or mild irritation under circumstances that would ordinarily provoke a person to lose their temper. Consider the anxiety these women might feel when circumstances eventually force them to get in touch with their suppressed anger.
A sudden upwelling of anger can be very scary for someone unfamiliar with strong negative emotions. Panic attacks are often a consequence. Ironically, this reaction tends to trigger even more suppression by our culture. Doctors prescribe medication to shut these feelings down, and husbands, terrified their wives are going crazy, take desperate measures to deal with such unwelcome emotions.
A man who is afraid of a woman’s anger will often tell her she is “irrational” or “hysterical,” reminding her, sometimes forcefully, of the cultural prescription that requires women to be “ladylike.” I say “forcefully,” because although women are no longer routinely hospitalized for being “hysterical,” they most certainly end up often enough in psychiatrist’s offices and mental health clinics.
It isn’t only an emotional paralysis mental health professionals see. Women handicapped emotionally often become self-critical, turning their anger against themselves in the interest of safety. Depression is almost inevitable, and self-compassion is notably lacking, while self-control is over-emphasized. This is incredibly sad because a woman who can’t express her angry feelings will be less herself. Other more positive emotions will be suppressed, limiting her emotional contact with others, and with her authentic self.
Why should men be concerned about this?
The obvious reason is that men often find themselves in a relationship with one of these women. The inability to get mad tends to have a detrimental effect on relationships. Things fail to get expressed or find expression indirectly in ways that are confusing and ultimately unsatisfying.
One young wife would return home with a brand new dent in the family car each time her husband upset her. It put her husband to considerable trouble seeing to the repairs. Another woman managed to burn a hole in her husband’s favorite shirt. And in households everywhere dinners get burned, and “headaches” seriously interfere with romance.
Passion can be significantly diluted when there are limitations on what a partner can feel. It is in a man’s interest to have a fully functioning partner. But, beyond this, who wouldn’t want their partner to be as much herself as she can be?
As it happens, men are in a wonderful position to help. Thanks to a culture that encourages it, most men have excellent access to their aggression. Long supported in their “softer” emotions by women, why shouldn’t men return the favor?
Not all men will be able to do this. Many become upset when a woman becomes angry, or even mildly critical. Nonetheless, some men are centered enough in themselves to recognize when a woman is afraid of her own aggression, who become concerned when they see how this affects someone they care about. Confident in their own capacity to be angry without being destructive, and fully aware of the positive aspects of aggression, they are happy to encourage a partner’s access to these feelings. They trust themselves, they trust their partner, and they trust the feelings, knowing they are merely emotions.
Even when a man is himself the target of a woman’s ire, he is on her side, supportive of her anger. Applauding her display, or even critiquing it (“Oh, come on, you can do better than that. Let’s see some growling!”), he will mentor her, helping her to feel the relief and the thrill of being herself.
Sometimes, things aren’t quite so heroic, of course. Sometimes, if the woman is someone close to you, her anger will actually scare you. The idea is not to retaliate. Admit you’re upset. Acknowledge your partner’s feelings, letting her know she has your undivided attention.
A strong man doesn’t pretend to be unaffected by a woman’s anger; he allows himself to be moved by it. He wants to know how she feels.
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