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Angry women get a bad rap – but this psychologist says it’s an emotion worth embracing
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Angry women get a bad rap – but this psychologist says it’s an emotion worth embracing

“We want to be careful to not lose what anger is trying to tell us."

A leading mental health specialist is urging women to embrace anger as “a perfectly normal, appropriate and even important emotion” – even if it goes against what’s expected of them.

Nettie Cullen, an Auckland psychologist, says anger plays an important role in alerting us to injustice, disappointment or boundary breaches, and informs us of what is significant to us.

But in the latest episode of Rova podcast Grey Areas, Cullen told host Petra Bagust that many women suppress the emotion because it jars with expected gender norms.

“It's a gross, gross generalisation, but a man expressing anger will often have the impact of other people listening and perhaps changing their point of view depending on what's being expressed,” Cullen says.

“A woman expressing the same thing often has quite the opposite effect; people become more resistant and dig their heels in … [because] women are supposed to be the nurturers, the carers, the ones whose job it is to make everybody feel comfortable and at ease.”

Cullen says while there are gender dynamics at play in society, the pressure to suppress anger doesn’t always come from external sources and is often an internalised dynamic.

SOURCE: Stephanie Soh

She explains that we all have ideas about how we are meant to be in the world, and what we need to do to be loved, accepted and have our needs met – and our anger can sometimes feel like a threat to that.

“We learn very, very early on ways of muting and diluting and making [anger] acceptable and palatable.”

“We don't even need a negative response from somebody [to our anger], because we've internalised all of those messages right from the very beginning – that it's not attractive, it's not desirable to be angry, it's not feminine."

“And then we take in that dialogue, that narrative, and we continue the conversation internally.”

This mindset encourages women to push down their feelings of anger or frustration, says Cullen – and that comes with consequences.

SOURCE: Stephanie Soh

“It's not a comfortable emotion. It's very unsettling, stressful and frightening, depending on what your story about anger is. And what we do in response to that fear often is to dismiss it ourselves.

“We split it off and we cut it off and we deny it … but in denying its existence, we deny its validity and we deny its importance. What we're then saying to ourselves is what I want, what I desire, what I'm feeling is not important, it's not valuable. And that pushes us into despair and helplessness and depression.”

On the other side, women who express and work through their anger see benefits – they’re optimistic, and having their feelings validated helps them hold hope for their future.

SOURCE: Stephanie Soh

Cullen says there’s beauty in embracing all of ourselves – whether that’s joy and kindness, or the less desirable feelings of angst, frustration and disappointment – and women need to fight the urge to avoid the bad stuff, because sometimes what it’s telling us is important.

“We want to be careful to not lose what anger is trying to tell us. The thing about any of the emotions, actually, is about allowing space to make sense of them and working through it so that our response to it is appropriate."

“So when we get angry about something, that is something that would be good to have changed.”

The full episode of Grey Areas is available to listen to now on Rova.