She’s mad but she’s magic. There is no lie in her fire. – Charles Bukowski
On January 21st, 2017 between 3-5 million American women walked out their front door and onto the streets for the largest single-day protest the country had ever seen. One day after Donald Trump’s inauguration, the Women’s March proved a preamble to the foment of the unprecedented impact of the #MeToo movement that followed. There was more than enough evidence that a groundswell of American women were done with being “nice” and had simply had enough. Books released in 2018, like Rebecca Traister’s Good and Mad, or Soraya Chemaly’s Rage Becomes Her, brought laser focus to this reality, exploring the history of accomplishments attributable to women’s ferocity in taking action around circumstances that were simply no longer acceptable. In the days after the women’s march a conversation was mounting about women taking off in our country, reflecting, perhaps, the Dalai Lama’s prophecy that “the world will be saved by Western women.”
This broad display of angry, defiant women is progress, no doubt. The record level women and minorities elected during the mid-terms reflected this. It was something feminist writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman, author of The Yellow Wallaper, written in 1892, could hardly have imagined during that early period of first wave feminism. Gilman’s character had found a kind of liberation through a ‘crazy’-madness where she began to challenge the status quo around her, but herein was a different kind of mad: angry mad, publicly angry mad, mad by the millions!
However, just as statistics about a rise in anxiety during the Trump presidency don’t tell the personal story of people’s experience of that anxiety, how it has changed them for better or worse, nor do statistics about the number of women (and their allies) who took to the streets tell the story of how women across America have experienced their anger, fed-up-ness and outrage. How it has over the last several years perhaps deepened their cynicism or, potentially, spawned a new level of empowerment and vision. This is the inside story.
No doubt, in 2017 you could count me into the category of angry women in America. I felt plenty angry-mad about Trump’s presidency, but in addition to attending marches and barking at my husband for just not getting it on more than one occasion, this time, a new frontier emerged that opened me up to a deeper sense of what it meant to experience strength and be fiercely grounded as a woman in myself.
ANGER’S GIFTS: The Developmental Chapters
Over the last thirty years, my personal relationship to anger has evolved in ways that I cannot help but see as having revolutionary significance. Unfolding like chapters, I’ve come to conclude that the evolving relationship to anger among those on the frontier of the gender revolution is responsible, perhaps more than anything else, for helping to shed the layers of cultural conditioning that have taught many of us, so well, not to be, or even know, our authentic selves.
My story has parallels with Gilman’s character, whose anger was initially locked up in the form of self-doubt and compliance. It has evolved, however, through several stages to now be the source of support for a deep self-reclamation, one that reconnects me to myself and my birthright as a women/human with inherent value living on this planet we call home. Herein, a short hand account of the chapters in the evolution of my relationship to anger:
CHAPTER ONE: Anger Disowned
From when I was a teenager in high school and on into my twenties, I thought of myself as someone who never got angry. I just wasn’t “an angry person.” Quite the contrary, I was reasonable, calm and empathic: a “good, nice girl.” If anything, I was the victim of other’s aggression. Having talked this over with many women, this ‘Chapter One” may be a cultural epidemic.
What I didn’t realize, which I can now see quite clearly looking back, was how much my disowned anger at that time crept out sideways, how much it lived in hidden pockets around stored up hurt. By my thirties and forties, once anger became more readily discernable, the biggest job I faced was getting space from the critical voices that told me it was dangerous, bad, wrong, unattractive, selfish, and reckless to feel angry. An ‘angry girl’ was almost an oxymoron in my childhood. Feminine (def.): The graceful absence of anger.
CHAPTER TWO: Living Small: Anger, Turned Inward
I spent a good decade, maybe more, after this, trying to fight depression in various degrees of severity. Seeking out the help of therapy, psycho-pharmaceuticals and self-help books, I worked hard to free myself from the dead space I now largely see as anger-turned-inwards. Better, it felt, to turn it against myself than out, where I risked an inconceivable degree of rejection from the world, my parents, partners. This is the territory of women playing small, of anyone who experiences gender in a way where who we feel we are on the inside doesn’t match up with anything we feel we can be on the outside. Anger doesn’t get a foothold because shame wins out; collapse rules the day.
CHAPTER THREE: Tackling the Inner Critic
It took many years for me to learn how to unhinge the inner critic and trust the feelings that lay hidden beneath its shaking finger. The inner critic in women (and men, and anyone on the gender spectrum) is the faithful servant of patriarchy, the emissary of shame, the enforcer of the ‘laws’ of normalcy. It works wonders in keeping us down, and tackling it is essential to adult health and development. The inner critic may be appreciated as a protective (albeit) harsh voice of a father, seeking to keep us safe, but when it lives in us in adulthood in ways that shut down our access to ourselves, our vitality and truth, it can act as the guardian of the status quo in ways that cripple personal and collective growth and health. Many books could easily be written here, and have been. More need to be. And more still. I can say that, personally, it took years for me to eventually learn… not to give a shit. No kidding. learned to defend against the inner critic (with support) using anything from talking back, to humor, to empathy. Whatever it took to disengage and reclaim a right to my experience, however it showed up.
Personally, in the space created by learning to see my anger without judgment, I learned to respect it, to decipher it as a messenger. and to tackle the challenging task of communicating – with some degree of skill – the hurt beneath the anger. This was a process I had to develop with others’ help and undertake, first, for myself.
CHAPTER FOUR: Boundaries and Communication
Much of the courageous and vulnerable action that’s given rise to the #MeToo movement lives somewhere between the chapter that tackles the inner critic and this chapter: The one where we respect that anger teaches us something about boundaries.
Through sexual assault networks, in therapy or in solidarity with other women, many women (and others whose sexual boundaries have been violated), are getting damn clear these days about their limits. There’s an explosion of not giving a shit any more that’s really important and that’s connecting to the body. For most of my childhood and decades of adulthood, the body I lived in was the taken-for-granted water I swam in. Whatever (non-critical) pain, discomfort and tension I felt were incidental symptoms I learned to override, maybe complain about or medicate with Tylenol, but mostly they were something physical in my body to just override or numb out. Over time, however, I learned to respect my body’s aches and tensions, often finding in them feelings that when I looked more closely carried bundled up truths about my history, stories that were waiting to be unlocked. Anger is one such feeling stored in the body and often related to bodies that have experienced their boundaries being violated. Bodies that have felt the pain of this carry the wisdom of violation and the mounting rage of a resulting “No!”
#MeToo comes from women’s bodies. From a process of learning to listen to bodies and then, to put words to what needs to be said. Anger has the valuable purpose, albeit often veiled, of speaking to our need for boundaries, to feelings of hurt and the pain associated with feeling dominated. Of course, seeing this requires self-observation and the cultivation of some skill and patience with oneself.
In itself, this chapter can take decades, probably a lifetime! It is the voice of the feminist movement, of the #MeToo movement, but on a deeper level it asks us to take an ever further step: to be vulnerable enough to find the clarity and words to identify not just what feels wrong, but also what now feels ‘right.’ No doubt, in the best of circumstances, this work happens in a safe, supportive environment, but that is not always available. Sometimes, anger as a teacher in this chapter points us to the “Exit Door” in a relationship. In this chapter, for me, I began to look at my relationships differently, asking the following questions:
1.) What boundary is my anger telling me I need right now? What is required to address this?
2.) Does the person I’m communicating with about this want to hear me and learn about their own anger and hurt?
3.) Is this a relationship that is nourishing and allows me to grow? If not, what do I need to have the courage to leave?
CHAPTER FIVE: From Anger to Essential Strength
That said, these earlier steps cursorily described here preceded, or prepared me, for the chapter that has more formally emerged in the Trump Era. In this chapter, I meet anger as my teacher by learning to experience the energy of anger, itself, for myself, directly, in immediacy. Here, in the energy of anger, itself, is the capacity of strength that would allow me to be myself, as myself, with love, value and dignity.
I am in the company now of a different guide. She is not a therapist but a teacher in the Ridhwan School, or The Diamond Approach/Path where I’ve been a student for many years. The primary practice in the school – called ‘inquiry’ – has been developed by its founders over the past 50 years. Its orientation focuses on the cultivation of presence and immediacy as a portal to deeper realizations about the truth of our experience. The school’s teachings draw on the wisdom of what emerges in our experience in presence and resonates, in places, with the teachings of the various esoteric traditions in many of the world’s religions. Some might call the teaching part of a mystery school, others simply a path to deeper wisdom at a time when many are seeking just that. It is a place, in this post-modern, post-truth era, where the search for truth has not been abandoned but is explored in consciousness, as a scientist might explore – through careful observation – focusing on the direct experience of one’s perception and awareness.
All told, my teacher’s lineage may be less important than the quality of fearless curiosity and the love of the truth she brings to our time together. Neither she, nor the school, is responsible for the content of whatever arises in me, but rather for the support she brings to being with the immediacy of my experience and what it reveals.
With her as my guide and witness, I do not engage an inner dialogue; I only go where I am – in each moment, breath by breath. She is able to be with the feelings that may show up in our inquiry because she’s spent many years coming to experience and inquire into her own. (As a woman who has looked over decades under many of stones, I discover her, over time, as a member of the unofficial ‘sisterhood’ of wise elders). On this day, as I talk to her while visibly agitated, she asks what I am noticing in my body. I turn my attention inwards for a moment and sense into the tension under my ribs and a tightness in my forehead. I tell her so. “Take a moment,” she says, “Breathe into the tension. What does it feel like?” I respond, feeling the quick agitation in it. “It’s anger.”
“Anger.” She reflects back my observation with an attentive strength of presence in her words. “OK, can you stay with that? Can you sense what the anger is about?”
There were, of course, many culprits embedded around the feeling. Trump being the obvious, then Mitch McConnell and his cold, measured words amounting to what felt like a heist of due process and a skewering of 50% of the American electorate. On his heels, I saw the pursed lips of Brett Kavanaugh’s indignant scowl rebuking Blasey-Ford’s testimony on that fateful day so many American women will never forget. I saw my father there, the man who, whenever challenged on something hurtful he had said or done would react with this same angry, ‘wounded,’ indignation – shaming the victim. It was this behavior that created in me the collapse and self-doubt of my childhood, the self-diminishing, self-blaming behaviors that I’d had to work so hard to unfurl in those early chapters of discovering anger. On the political front, this indignation (and the implicit judgment in it) as it kept surfacing in Trump, Kavanaugh, McConnell, Hannity, O’Reilly, Carlson, was a chilling reminder of the overblown confidence of a father who so easily elevated himself beyond accountability or reproach. I could feel the grief, collapse and heartache of it, but also, the mounting fury!
And it wasn’t just men! There were the women, too, like Hope Hicks and Sarah Sanders, who didn’t seem to skip a beat hailing ‘the boss’ and his hush money payments to the woman he hired for sex while his wife nursed his newborn son. Anger pulsed through me around these enabling women, familiar, too, from childhood. Women who’d gained the ‘security’ of the alpha male’s affections with their loyalty, assuring themselves in this way that they wouldn’t be the females deemed weak, low IQ, worthless, disposable or incompetent.
So, the whole shit storm pissed me off, but this indignant deflection away from responsibility towards blame, twisting away from accountability (technically, projective identification, colloquially, gaslighting), was where the current political circumstances pressed on my childhood history the most. It was the site of the most anger and rage, the hottest kernel cooking that needed to burst open. And that was how I answered her.
“I’m angry about this fucking heist on the truth by all these white men. How my father did this. How shitty it felt to be so hurt and angry and walk away deflated, doubting myself.”
“OK, keep breathing. When you sense into the anger directly, what do you notice?”
My teacher listened patiently, but consistently intervened in one, critically important way. While she asks what my anger is about, it is not so I can rail against my opponents in an endless barrage of accusations. Rather, she does so to raise my awareness of the story’s highlights while redirecting me back each time to my body and the breath that supports my capacity to stay with my experience.
To be sure, in the early days working with this teacher, questions like “What do you notice when you sense your anger?” felt strange. In time I learned to ‘see’ more, however, to notice what I was noticing, witness what I was witnessing – to see the value in actually letting myself experience my experience.
“It’s tight,” I answered.
“Good. That ok? Sense the tightness. Is it solid? Does it have a texture? A temperature?”
I took another breath, sensing in and focused my awareness.
“It’s… it’s like fire. Like what it would be like to be in a fire, no, to be a fire.” Again, staying with the sensations: “It’s like a fire that’s ripping hot, fast, strong and fierce!”
“OK, take another breath and stay with that.” (She pauses while I sense in.) “…and notice as you breath how that fiery hot sensation impacts you.”
At this point, with her invitation to notice, I’m aware my body is actually warming up and the inquiry continues. In the immediacy, moment-to-moment with each other, the sensations associated with the anger start taking a fuller shape, expanding in the awareness of my sense of physical presence in the space I know to be myself.
Something remarkable then started to happen. In the immediacy I was aware of memories of my father’s indignation, but the more I stayed with the anger, itself, breathing space around, sensing in, the more I could feel myself, and the less the memories and my father seemed to matter. The story from the past, or even in from CNN’s present, ceased to capture my attention. I was beginning to literally feel more myself, my limbs waking up, blood pumping. Without judgment, I could feel a pleasure and sensuality in letting myself experience the shape and sensation of this energy of anger.
These sessions happen over a few months as headline after headline, the world continues to meltdown into volatile, surreal, maddening absurdity. Trump pulls out of the Paris Accord, insults Chancellor Merkel and the Mayor of London, sidles up to Putin, drops racist innuendoes ongoingly flinging red meat towards his base. There are many moments during these sessions when I shuttle back into the story, cursing whomever I see as the cause of my fury, pissed at how the white guy always wins. Yet with my guide’s support, I notice something happens each time I slip back to the storytelling.
When my focus is on the abuses of the ‘other’ I start to notice a hopelessness and helplessness rise up in me. It is as if my focus on them directs me away from a focus on my rage and with that comes a projection of power out of me and onto them. With that projection, a parallel self-image gets created of my weakness and powerlessness. The story, then, creates them as the authority who have power and me as helpless. In seeing this enough, I notice how I’ve attached myself to an identity or self-image of powerlessness attributing to others an image of power. To be sure, there are real differences in political, cultural and economic power, but here, I see the differences I have forged in my mind.
I see in this how I kept myself safe in staying small as a child, hiding my anger to stay polite, deferential, focused on others’ wellbeing. And yet, the experiences I am starting to have of myself filling up in space somehow begin to challenge self perceptions I adopted around these deferential ‘feminine’ behaviors. As I feel myself taking up more space in my body, feeling my feet beneath me on this earth, I cannot help but ask, is it really true that I am that powerless?
This is not a question I answer with my head, nor, somehow, does it actually come from my head. It comes from the space of awareness created in presence. I listen as a different answer than I have known in the past is being brewed in my body.
As the sessions continue, instead of the headlines, I continue to explore the anger with my teacher, contacting it as directly as I am able to in my awareness and my body for the sole purpose of coming to know it more intimately. Sometimes, with the anger my teacher invites me to squeeze two ends of a hand towel with all the strength I have. At others, I shout into a pillow, my breath muffled and hot: “Fuck the fuck off!! Just FUCK OFF!” As yet others, I beat my fists and legs on the mat I am lying on. And if the critical voices show up at any point, I stop to fend them off too. “Fuck off!” Each time, my guide patiently directs me back, with directness, alertness and open curiosity to what I notice around the anger.
Yes, I am mad, raving mad, but this, now, no longer feels like a reactive anger. Rather than wasting this anger on Mitch McConnell, I harness the fruits by letting myself actually have the experience.
“It’s thick now, still fiery and quick, but substantive as well,” I told her, “like it has a kind of weight.” In fact, the anger could be described as not only heat but swirling, dynamism – an energy and a substance at the same time with a weight in my body that allowing me to feel myself ‘here.’ It felt wonderful, rich, emboldened, beautiful, even, and unmistakably full of value. Expanding out beyond thoughts and stories to a fuller, warmer, more real and substantial version of myself, the shell of constraint that contained me as a “good girl” was melting away. The truth is, I had a lot to be angry about. I and many other women. But I wasn’t feel a hostile righteousness around this any more. In the place of the ‘good girl’ and the righteous activist (who had inwardly doubted her own capacity) was a strong, expansive warmth I could feel, and know, as myself. As strength itself.
This wasn’t about Donald Trump or my father anymore. Out there in Washington D.C., on TV, and the rest of the world are remote, uncontrollable others. By contrast, here, in the body and heart of this woman and citizen, a lively transformation was happening. Here was a human being filled with all-too-human emotions. This was about them anymore, it was about me. The anger had alchemically transformed into the full and robust quality of a birthright: my own strength.
There was also something else I could see in this unfolding: the preciousness that all that anger had built up to protect. Somehow, in seeing the beautiful value of strength at the pure heart of this woman’s anger, I began to feel my own preciousness, something I somehow now knew in this unflinchingly field of strength could never again be destroyed by anyone. In this pure form, this strength was not separate in any way from love, from a love and value I could know as myself.
It may be hard to believe that all this florid language actually translated into a real shift in how I started to feel about the news, Trump-world, my father and Brett Kavanaugh. But with less doubt about my anger, more intimacy with it, more confidence in the inherent truth in it, more familiarity with my strength and its value, I felt less scared. I also found myself feeling more resilient, confident – an essential, true confidence. In feeling more embodied, I was also more landed, more capable, more curious about the people who scared me, certainly less scared of them.
This last chapter about how a woman steadily became un-embroiled from Trump’s America and found her strength through an engagement with conscious anger continues to be written in my daily life. The pages are still unfolding, but after taking my own anger seriously, turning towards it, loving it, seeing it, embodying it, I am like Gilman’s protagonist who, after crawling around on the floor, beating on pillows and scratching at the walls, has a taste of a new sense of freedom. As the last ‘strip of paper’ falls to the floor, I am living beyond judgments in the truth and honesty of my experience and here, there is no amount of gaslighting or righteous indignation that can take this from me.
But this is not where this story ends. Because in mining these fault lines of my past, waking up the volcanoes lying in wait, another, deeper, subterranean force was awakened. One, yet again, that was not mine alone but that is alive and kicking in our collective, polarized culture today…