Women and Anger - Kimberly Thompson


I see it all the time. Women come to me reporting that they have outbursts of temper that include yelling, crying, screaming, and maybe cursing or throwing things. Many of them are embarrassed to admit their behavior. They all admit that it is ineffective. Husbands and children hunker down until the storm has passed, and then whatever they were doing that provoked the anger continues.

In some ways we have not come very far from our great-great-grandmothers. Emotionally we are often still responding to situations in the same way our female ancestors did … when women had little concrete social power, no rights to own property or even retain custody of their own children in a divorce.  There was a time when anger was not considered a ladylike emotion, and to display anger openly could be risky.

What I have discovered is that we are socialized into the proper display of emotion, and the proper handling of emotion, very early in life.  At the time that most of us are having children, we have not thought deeply about things like female social roles and our response to them. So, we tend to socialize our daughters during their early years in ways similar to our own rearing. We model for them what is expected from them and from women in general. Telling them with words messages such as “girls can do anything boys can do” or “girls can be powerful” can’t undo the even more powerful nonverbal messages they get from watching women in action, if the words and actions are at odds. So, for the most part the ways we handle emotions come from countless generations of women before us, virtually unchanged by the freedoms and rights women now possess.

Some women are able to keep it buttoned up 24/7 for years. Those women are probably predisposed to a high level of emotional control, and that control is enhanced by the way they have been socialized. But just because a woman does not display her anger does not mean she never gets angry. Women who stuff their anger for years and years pay a high price. When a woman is chronically unable to appropriately express and discharge her sense of outrage and anger, it can go underground, reappearing in the form of physical illness and disability. It takes a toll on the body.

Most women have a breaking point. A lot of the women I see are not even aware that they are irritated and becoming more and more upset, until suddenly they can’t take it anymore and explode. They discharge their anger, but they end up feeling foolish and childish. They end up apologizing to the very people — usually their children and spouses — that set them off to begin with. It turns the situation on its head, to be wronged by someone else but then to react so explosively that YOU end up apologizing to THEM.

Women that I see in therapy are usually very relieved to find out that this is a typical female pattern. At least they are not alone. And they are even more relieved to find out that there is something they can do about it. Here are some of the things that I recommend to women with this issue.

1) CULTIVATE MINDFULNESS. Spend time every day in a few moments of mindfulness meditation. You can explore mindfulness meditation through smartphone apps built for this purpose, websites dedicated to it, or books. I work with my clients in sessions to improve their mindfulness skills. Choose specific activities (such as showering, eating, or running) to cultivate mindfulness. Mindfulness is acute awareness and focus on the present moment. It is a skill that can be developed. Mindfulness sharpens our awareness of mild, low-level emotions so that we can handle them appropriately before they rage out of control.

2) PRACTICE RADICAL ACCEPTANCE. I also work with my clients in therapy to make peace with the unacceptable things in their lives that they can’t change (at least not right away). Acceptance is not despair. It just means that you accept that you can’t change some things, and you release yourself to quit agonizing over them.  Many times anger is fueled by frustration, and frustration is fueled by situations that you don’t have the power to change.

3) EXPRESS DISSATISFACTION WHEN IT IS LOW-LEVEL. I work with my clients to help them express their dissatisfaction with a situation before it blows up. You have a right to express your opinion, especially in your own home and in your own family relationships, but also when any situation affects you and can reasonably be thought of as “your business.”

4) LEARN ASSERTIVE WAYS TO EXPRESS YOURSELF.  Assertiveness is neither passivity nor aggression. To be assertive means that you stick up for yourself and your interests without doing damage or violating other people’s rights. There is no guarantee that other people will accept what you say or do, so assertiveness must come from a place of confidence and awareness inside yourself.  There is an old saying, “Be sure you are right, then go ahead.”

As always, The Mommy Mentor


     I am Dr. Kimberly Thompson, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Lubbock, Texas. I work with mothers and their children to help them heal, grow, and live their most vibrant lives. My particular expertise is pregnant and postpartum women, and moms of “littles.” My book, Perfect Mothers Get Depressed, is available on Amazon and from Praeclarus Press. If you live within driving distance of Lubbock, you can work with me face-to-face; if you live anywhere else in the state of Texas, you can work with me via online therapy. Send me a message if you need more information, or call my office at (806) 224-0200 if you’re ready to book an appointment.