In The Upside of Anger (2005), Terry Wolfmeyer (Joan Allen) is described by her youngest daughter, Popeye (Rachel Evan Wood), as having been “the nicest person I ever knew. She was the nicest, sweetest woman that anyone who knew her ever knew.” Terry’s husband disappears one night and she jumps to the conclusion (unconfirmed) that he has run off with his Swedish secretary and left her and their four daughters without a word.
Terry goes from being the nicest woman in the world to becoming angry, bitter and cynical. The pendulum swings from seeming Stepford Wife behavior to uncensored rage fueled and abetted by alcohol. We can guess that Terry was really not all that nice and that she was covering up all her “darker” emotions, until events triggered and released her fury. Although the characters don’t show particularly mature or skillful ways of expressing their anger, in my classes I’ve found this film to be a powerful way to start talking about anger.
Women’s anger is nearly taboo in our society; in men, anger can be considered forceful, assertive, or powerful, where in women it may be judged as aggressive, bitchy or irrational. In general, women have been conditioned to be “nice” and not to make waves; often their anger has gone into their “shadow” (the hidden, unconscious parts of ourselves). In addition, current ideas about “thinking positive thoughts” don’t leave room for our more unpleasant emotions, potentially resulting in a feeling that something is wrong with us if we can’t change the way we feel simply by will-power.
Anger, however, is a normal, instinctive feeling. One needs only to observe babies or infants when they are frustrated to see this. As with hatred, another taboo feeling, the point is not to “get rid” of an emotion, but to accept and acknowledge it, to use it as a point of self-inquiry (“how come I feel this way?”) and to use its energy in a skillful way.
Among other things, the “upside of anger” can:
- Show us when unresolved issues from the past are present
- Let us know when our boundaries are being crossed
- Point to unmet needs (ones we may not consciously be aware of)
- Show us when injustice is present
- Help us effect change
- Help us turn aggressive impulses into assertiveness
- Point us to what is really true for us
Many women either “cave in” and cry, covering their anger with hurt, or impulsively lash out [Harriet Lerner does a good job with this topic in The Dance of Anger]. And sometimes depression is a sign of anger turned inward.
Another part of the “upside of anger” is that it can express authenticity. Terry’s boyfriend Denny (Kevin Costner) remarks, “You know what it is I like about going over to your house, Terry? I like how it smells. Something’s always cooking. My house doesn’t smell like that. And I don’t even mind going over there when there’s tension, and there’s a… there’s a fucking lot of it, you know? Somebody is always mad at somebody. Doors are slammin’. Fur’s flyin’. Even when no one is talkin’, it’s…it’s loud. But at least it’s fucking real.”
In the closing narration, Popeye says, “Anger and resentment can stop you in your tracks. That’s what I know now. It needs nothing to burn but the air and the life that it swallows and smothers … It’s real, though…the fury, even when it isn’t. It can change you…turn you…mold you and shape you into someone you’re not.”
I would qualify these statements with anger and resentment that haven’t been understood and processed. We can get stuck with these feelings if we don’t work with them. Additionally, anger that has been consciously dealt with can point us to what’s true beneath all of our “niceness” and to what our real values are. In that way it can help us become more of who we really are.
The Gift of Anger by Marcia Cannon, PhD
The Fierce Face of the Feminine, Ted talk by Chameli Ardagh
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Last reviewed: 24 Oct 2011