I don’t like me when I’m angry: rage, sustainability, and activism

The first time I went to a therapist, it was because I was angry all the time. It was during grad school, so there were plenty of sources of stress in my life, but what worried me most was the anger. I was fighting with my family. I had a short fuse about everything — random interactions, small infractions, selfish people, rude people, clueless people. Socks left on the floor. Empty ice trays. Inane administrative red tape. Mistakes.

At the end of our first session, I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder. In my case, anxiety and stress were translating into anger, especially at small things I couldn’t control. My therapist and I spent the next several weeks coming up with a set of tools and practices to process my anxiety in more healthy ways, which would turn the dial back from anger to calm. Each week, I would have different homework, as I slowly built my tool kit. The first week, I was asked to take a break from venting.

I was surprised, because I’d always thought of venting as healthy — it’s a way to process and release steam, like a safety valve (which even the name implies). But when my therapist asked me, “Do you ever feel better after you vent?” I realized I didn’t. Venting would wind me up, rather than cool me down. Instead of venting, he said, try just stating how you feel about something, and leaving it at that. That was six years ago, and I’ve found that letting go of venting has been one of the healthiest things I’ve ever done.

And then, I started this blog. 

Tenure, She Wrote was conceived in summer 2013 as a place for women academics to write about our experiences from the protection of psuedonymity. It’s a place to have conversations that we might not otherwise feel safe having, but which may still be important. In the last few years writing as Acclimatrix, I’ve found that she’s taken on a persona of her own. She swears more. She’s more irreverent. She gets to say things I’d like to say in my other online accounts, but don’t — just as I intended when I co-founded this space in the first place.

She’s also angrier.

Anger is a tricky emotion. We’re told not to go to bed angry, to not send angry emails, and to choose a walk rather than escalate during a heated conversation. There are very good reasons for this! But we’re also told not to hold anger in, and in an unjust world, there are reasons to embrace anger, too, especially when some people (women, people of color, and other marginalized groups) are not allowed to be angry. The tensions about anger’s place in discourse are manifesting in the growing, often heated, conversations about social media and outrage cycles, and whether social justice advocates are turning into bullies.

Some of my most popular posts are the ones I wrote when I was angry about something: who benefits from those? Who is this blog for? Should it matter? When am I turning away more readers than I invite? If my goal really is to change hearts and minds, can I do that from a place of anger? These are big conversations and they touch on the future of how we talk about social justice. To be clear, I would never tell someone in an oppressed group that they shouldn’t be angry, or that they shouldn’t communicate from a place of anger (see: tone argument).

But speaking only for myself? I don’t like who I am when I’m angry. Sure, I worry that I alienate people and am less effective as a communicator. I worry that by focusing on the negative, I’m turning women off to science or academic life who make the decision that it’s just not worth the pain and, yes, the anger. But mostly, I just don’t feel as though my anger is sustainable. I worry I’m burning out as an activist and as a professional. I worry that I’m exacerbating a stressful position, and spending limited emotional bandwith. I worry that I am devoting too much of my energy to small things, getting worked up over a microaggression or a bit of red tape, and losing energy that I should devote to doing science or staying in it for the long haul, rather than dying a slow death by a thousand cuts.

Because anger is so much more exhausting than happiness.

I know it’s not my fault that I’m angry at a system of injustice; it’s the fault of those structures and individuals that actively reinforce that system. I know that I’m feeling self conscious about an emotion that’s not “okay” for women to feel or express. And I know that I have every right to be angry, most of the time. But for me, anger has collateral damage: my physical and mental health, my relationships, my productivity, not to mention my long-term sustainability as an activist and professional. How do I use this space to process and share my experiences without turning it into a place to vent (especially when comments can be more rage-inducing than the topic I chose to write about in the first place?). Am I angry because I think about social justice, or do I think about social justice because I am angry?

I’m not sure how to proceed. I can work on self-care and reducing stress, so that I’m less likely to want to vent. I can try to approach blogging from a better place, emotionally. I can work on actively dialing back Acclimatrix’s grouchy persona. I can try to blog about positive topics more, and I can take a break from the activism I do outside the internet to avoid burnout. This isn’t just about being a better blogger; my anger takes a physical and emotional toll. There will always be something to be angry about, but I’ve only got one life to do something about it. If I can’t anger less, maybe I can try to anger better?

15 thoughts on “I don’t like me when I’m angry: rage, sustainability, and activism

  1. It’s tough. I admit I have been running into a similar issue, for reasons I don’t really have the words or understanding to articulate. And since I don’t even have enough insight to understand my own brainspace, all I can offer is sympathy and support.

  2. I too struggle with anger. I’ve done a lot of work on it over the years in a non-professional context, but the results have certainly spilled into my professional life. There are often a series of questions I need to ask myself when faced with anger. The first often being, How Important Is It? I can easily get angry about the little things too, and I know little things can add up into bigger things, but like you, I don’t want to walk through my life angry all the time. If I really want to be less angry, then I need to practice on the easy stuff, the stuff that isn’t that important. It’s a work in progress and I do better some days than others.

    But what has really had the biggest impact is asking myself what I’m trying to get out of expressing my anger. Am I trying to get you on my side (manipulation)? Am I trying to make someone look bad (gossip)? Am I trying to identify with a group? Am I exaggerating? Or am I trying to find some solutions to my pain? If all I want is to vent and commiserate, I can talk to my husband about it. He’ll grumble along with me about the injustices of the academic world. But if I want to really delve into my part of the problem and how I can positively impact situations, I talk to a small group of friends who won’t cosign my BS. Finding that group of friends has been priceless.

  3. I think it is natural to feel anger, for those of us who don’t suffer fools gladly. This blog is great, because it seems to attract sensible (not foolish) people – but the rest of the world is not like “us”.

    I was very angry as a teenager, and even as a new mum. I had to start to control it when I had kids, and learnt a lot by watching other mothers in playgroups. I then remembered that my father, the most fair and reasonable and kind person I have ever known, told me he used to get angry as a young man but somehow, for some reason, he had learnt to control it and put it to good use in trying to right small wrongs he saw about him. At the time, I couldn’t understand how anyone could change – but I just had to when I had tiny tots.

    I think the therapist was very wise – accept that you are angry, that others are not as sensible as you, and state your feelings then get on with your life. HOWEVER, I would suggest one more thing. Work out if there is something positive you can do, given your own time constraints, however small (eg just writing a letter to a bureaucratic organisation about their inadequate systems – it gets it out of your head and someone may even take notice; or it may be a wider issue and you may try to get yourself nominated to a committee …. etc etc these are just examples pulled out of my he do what the therapist suggested and continue with your important stuff in a better frame of mind.

  4. I feel this. I, too, am drained from being bold and political. For me, personally, anger doesn’t drive me. Anger has a different emotional timbre. However, I know what it’s like to feel stressed and emotionally stretched thin. Processing microaggressions and then your emotional response is exhausting. Negativity can burden you and other people.

    So end on a positive note! Talk about past successes and future solutions. Build community. Validate and ask to be validated. There are ways to have emotionally powerful conversations that bond, not divide.

    When you are angry, what do you need? Emotions are your brain’s responses to your environment. Anger is a protective emotion. What are you trying to express to other people when you feel angry? What is the need you are looking to fulfill? Find out what you are asking for when you are angry, and ask people for what you need.

    But sometimes you just need a vacation, whether it’s a few short hours of self-care or a week away somewhere. It’s totally okay you step away for a while and let your HPA axis calm down. Even the best of us need a break once in a while. Check to see if it’s that time for you.

    • Great question — I think the thing that causes me anger the most is people not considering others. So, validation would help? Acts of kindness? Maybe I could channel that anger into doing something nice for others?

      • Unfortunately, these people who are not kind to others are not going to change – they are not going to start being kind, whether you are angry or not, or whether they know you are angry or not (I’ve been there, done that, trying to rationalise people into changing – they don’t). A wise counsellor once said to me you have to “work around” those situations, you can’t push through.

        So you have a great idea there, if you are nice to others when you see someone else being un-nice, then you spread the nice-ness around – it doesn’t have to be exactly the same type of kindness to the same people, it just has to be something for someone, somewhere.

        Of course, if it is possible to be nice to the person who is not-nice, and they notice, then that may shock their system up a bit. But it is rarely that simple.

      • That is a good idea, spread the niceness around so there is more of it in the world! It doesn’t matter if you are nice to someone else … eventually what goes around comes around.

        • apologise for the multiple posts on the same theme – I didn’t get a message that my post was being moderated, and i thought it was lost forever. Pls delete two of the three if you like.

  5. I’ve found that blogging often gives me a useful outlet for my anger. Sometimes it even leads to change, or I hear from other women in really life that they enjoyed a particular post and found it helpful. My anger feels less futile when expressed this way.

    • Heh. My problem has been that it’s been through blogging that I’ve noticed this about myself. Hearing from others that a post is helpful does help.

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  7. Anger means that your boundaries are being pushed. It’s a totally healthy response to injustice. But yes, it can eat away at you. Instead of (or in addition to) channeling that energy into something positive, I suggest letting it out through an aggressive physical activity so that you can release it. Kickboxing, self-defense classes, etc. It really helps.

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