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?