I don’t know about you, but these days if someone asks me how I am, I feel a bit paralyzed. My internal response is something like, “I’m ok. Well, actually I’m exhausted because my toddler didn’t sleep well last night, and I’m a little down because I listened to the news this morning. But actually, I’m also really excited to show up to my desk at The Riveter and be inspired by the community here. I met the most amazing lady recently at the Womxn ACT on Seattle events Sunday! But then again, the past year I’ve been simmering with rage and fed up with the patriarchy. I’m good, I’m bad, I’m everything in between.”
Does that resonate? Complexity is nothing new to most women. We’re used to exploring and holding multiple emotions at the same time. Expressing emotion is where it gets tricky, at least for me. Cultural, religious and family expectations around feelings have a strong hold on me. I know what’s considered appropriate and feminine, and when I step outside those boundaries I get a lot of pushback.
So let’s talk about emotional well-being this week. It’s on my mind, prompted by the array of signs I saw at Saturday’s Womxn’s March Seattle 2.0 (mad! sad! glad!) and an article on women and anger in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. How do we explore our feelings in a helpful way and live more honestly with each other?
I think we start by identifying the cultural messages that surround us and shape our internal and external expressions of emotion. I found Leslie Jamison’s anger article to be a good place to start.
It has always been easier to shunt female sadness and female anger into the “watertight compartments” of opposing archetypes, rather than acknowledging the ways they run together in the cargo hold of every female psyche. We love a victim to hurt for but grow irritated by one who hurts too much. A woman couldn’t hurt and be hurt at once. She could be either angry or sad. It was easier to outsource those emotions to the bodies of separate women than it was to acknowledge that they reside together in the body of every woman.
We can explore together our own roles in participating in and promoting this messaging. I appreciated the space offered at last night’s Salon + Supper to enter into this journey with other women.
When we’re ready to move beyond conversation to changing patterns of thought and behavior, we have tools available. I’m a particular fan of Nonviolent Communication. This method of developing skills for compassionate personal, relational, and social interactions is based on four things:
- Consciousness: a set of principles that support living a life of compassion, collaboration, courage, and authenticity
- Language: understanding how words contribute to connection or distance
- Communication: knowing how to ask for what we want, how to hear others even in disagreement, and how to move toward solutions that work for all
- Means of influence: sharing “power with others” rather than using “power over others”
In this model, we identify our feelings as some iteration of sad, angry, or happy. Then we explore needs that are or are not being met that have fostered these emotions. In NVC, anger and sadness are both appropriate emotions expressed when ours or others needs are not met.
Once we understand that anger is valid, we can move away from labeling it as “bad.” From there, we might explore its power to fuel action, as Leslie does in the conclusion of her piece.
“Once upon a time/I had enough anger in me to crack crystal,” the poet Kiki Petrosino writes in her 2011 poem. “At the Teahouse. I boiled up from bed/in my enormous nightdress, with my lungs full of burning/chrysanthemums.” This is a vision of anger as fuel and fire, as a powerful inoculation against passivity, as strange but holy milk suckled from the wolf. This anger is more like an itch than a wound. It demands that something happen. It’s my own rage at that faculty meeting, when the voices of students who had become statistics at our fingertips were being asked to hush up, to step back into their tidy columns. This anger isn’t about deserving. It’s about necessity: what needs to boil us out of bed and billow our dresses, what needs to burn in our voices, glowing and fearsome, fully aware of its own heat.