I heard my words first, then I heard the emotion behind them.
“Don’t you understand what she said?” I snarled at the woman at the cash register, gesturing to my cousin, who was having trouble communicating her request. “She wants that one.” The woman ducked her head and silently took down the item. She averted her eyes as she scanned it and added it to our purchases.
My stomach rolled at the shame I knew she felt, a shame I caused. My tone was condescending, angry, and full of hate. I was too full of rage—at myself, at her, at everyone around me—to apologize and could only stomp off when our purchase was complete.
It had taken me eight months to get to this point. That’s how long I had been living in mainland China, and how long I had endured insults from locals for my poor Mandarin skills and my even poorer understanding of the local culture. Like a good Christian girl, I didn’t let myself get angry about it. On my good days I acted as if the barrage of cruel comments and actions was mildly amusing. On my not-as-good days I told myself they were trivial annoyances I could shake off.
Then came that interaction with the woman at the grocery store. She was younger and physically smaller, and in a less powerful position than I. I couldn’t remember bullying anyone before. I was known for my kindness and compassion, yet here I was, shouting in Mandarin over the simplest of misunderstandings.
The anger I denied ever having ballooned and festered into rage over which I had no control.
For most of my life I read those well-known verses from the New Testament—“Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry” (Eph. 4:26) and be “slow to become angry” (James 1:19)—as commands to not get angry. Wrath, after all, was one of the seven deadly sins. I assumed that the further one could stay away from anger, the better.
Most American women probably agree. From a young age, we are discouraged from getting angry at all; it’s unpleasant and unfeminine. Women who freely express their anger are given pejorative labels and set up as negative examples. Men who resort to confrontation, conflict, or even physical aggression are ostracized as well, though society generally expects and accepts more overt expressions of anger from them.
Despite the emotional stereotypes, every woman experiences anger—often for good reason. A landmark study of hundreds of American women found their most common reasons for anger were powerlessness, injustice, and the irresponsibility of other people. Anger is inescapable for men and women alike, and it should be. More often than not, those first pinpricks of irritation and ire we experience are warning signs that something doesn’t feel right. They push us to explore the possibility that something within us, in our circumstances, or in the world around us needs to change.
While unfiltered venting and aggressive expressions of anger are unhealthy, so is our denial of anger. Failing to deal directly with anger leads to damaging psychological and physiological responses, including stress, anxiety, depression, headaches, abdominal pain, even heart attacks and a higher risk of cancer. The more chronic the anger, the more likely we are to remain incensed: research has shown that anger feeds on itself, snowballing endlessly until it is addressed.
Psychologists posit that this denial of anger leads to gossip, passive-aggressiveness, resentment, avoidance, and self-hatred. One of the most sobering research findings on women and anger is that women tend to hold grudges for much longer than men—and more readily write people out of their lives over a past offense that was never directly addressed. Repressed anger, given the time and space to grow into full-blown resentment or rage, can diminish our capacity for gratitude and joy, and create huge divides in our relationships with one another and with God.
For months I convinced myself that I shouldn’t be mad at those who tried to make me feel small. It wasn’t their fault I looked like a local, despite being born and raised in the US. Years later, I realize their contempt for me was indeed unjust and undeserved, and I recognize how powerless I felt to change the situation. I had good reason to be angry. But my justified anger, when unacknowledged and unaddressed, grew into unjustified aggression and hatred against myself and others.
Right before he exhorts the Ephesian Christians not to let the sun go down on their anger, the Apostle Paul challenges them to “be angry and do not sin.” Anger itself is not the problem; rather, how we respond to our anger determines whether we are following the path of virtue or sin. Because I ignored my anger and did nothing to address the causes, it took root deep within me and turned into hatred. Wrath is one of the seven deadly sins in the Catholic tradition for precisely this reason: it is the genesis for a myriad of other sins.
But anger acknowledged—assuming the anger is justified and of reasonable proportion—can actually be used powerfully by God. If we can act on our anger with grace, humility, and the genuine desire to release and move beyond our anger, it can catalyze us toward positive, productive behavior. Anger can push us to change our circumstances toward greater health, safety, and balance for ourselves and others. Anger can move us to repair relationships that have been tainted by hurtful words or actions. Anger gives us the courage to protect the weak and challenge oppressors. Anger has started untold numbers of social movements calling for more just and humane societies. And anger can change our own hearts.
When I finally acknowledged what I had been feeling and why, I realized that I had placed myself above the people around me as much as I had placed myself above anger. I thought I could never be as unkind as they were—and then God showed me that I absolutely could. Through his grace, my untamed anger-turned-hatred was reborn as humble empathy and, ultimately, forgiveness and reconciliation. If I had never acknowledged my issue with anger, I would have closed myself off to recognizing that the locals in China craved compassion and acceptance as much as I did. I would have missed the opportunity to connect with people there on a soul level.
During this Lenten season of self-examination, rather than attempting to fast from anger—an act both unhealthy and impossible—I want to fast from denying my anger. I want to recognize the frustrations of daily life before they boil over into resentment or other hurtful responses.
Good Christian girls who never get angry don’t actually exist. Nor should they. When we let ourselves feel anger, and allow this anger to move us toward positive actions, God can work in amazing ways.