How do women deal with their anger? During the past 30 years, feminist writers have suggested that being angry goes against what many women were taught about how to be ideal women, and that when they feel anger, they experience shame or anxiety. Some theorists also observe that when women experience anger they keep it hidden in fear that it will threaten not only their femininity but also their relationships. Cox, Stabb, and Bruckner argued that, due to gender training, there is a complex process by which women develop forms of anger experience and expression that conform to what seems to be expected of them by society. Because it is now widely established that women’s emotional expressions, and specifically their anger expressions, are influenced by their gender socialization, this article addresses the following questions. Are there distinct patterns of anger experience and expression that can be traced to women’s gender socialization? If such patterns exist, what kind of perceived physical or emotional impact do they have on women?
Popular anger models assume that individuals can give accurate accounts of their anger-related behaviors, and that anger is either held in or let out. These formulations ignore more multifaceted means of handling anger, such as deciding not to be “an angry person,” or strategies that happen without full conscious awareness, such as blaming oneself and feeling shame. Thus, particularly for women, a binary model of anger may oversimplify true experience, and some evidence does indeed point to a more intricate view. Women in Thomas’s study described various anger behaviors and experiences that could not be captured fully by the dichotomous anger inventory used in the investigation. Among them were crying, engaging in physical activity, eating, reflecting on the situation, perspective taking, planning (rehearsing), experiencing physical sensations like clenched teeth and heartburn, feeling guilt or anxiety, and ignoring the target of the anger. Given this assorted list, along with the complex behaviors reported in other studies of women’s oppositional feelings, it appears that women’s anger experience and expression entail more subtle and perhaps intricate behaviors or processes than those detailed in existing models. Miller and Surrey have described women’s circumventing their anger, or avoiding direct talk of—or action on—anger.
This view suggests a rerouting of emotion, implying a different type of movement of anger from that depicted by “in-or-out” anger models. In order to address the apparent complexity of women’s anger experience, Cox and colleagues developed the “anger diversion” model through a heuristic, phenomenological process of clinical observation and discussion, coupled with interviews and focus group discussions between Black, Latina, Middle Eastern, and White European females. To further explain the process used in developing this model, researchers conducted structured group conversations with girls and women about their anger experiences and used content analysis to derive themes relative to women’s coping with anger. The researchers further reflected on these themes as they emerged in psychotherapy with women clients and used their own group discussions as a means of integrating their observations in psychotherapy clients with the themes emerging in their interview research with girls and women.
Anger diversions are not anger expression styles, but covert, emotional routes through which women try to escape (1) awareness, (2) deliberate expression, or (3) constructive use of their anger. Anger diversion is thought to be a means of reducing the distress associated with anger for women, given their socialization to avoid direct expression and their gender training to view anger as threatening to relationships. In contrast, assertive anger expression involves active ownership of emotion and verbal expression while regarding the rights of the person being addressed. In assertive anger expression women remain aware and directly convey emotion to target persons with the intention of either resolving conflict or defining a position. Although assertive expression is not absolutely necessary in the absence of diversion, it provides a behavioral illustration of anger that is not diverted: that is, anger that is clearly acknowledged, not denied, hidden from others, or unleashed explosively onto others, but is instead owned responsibly and perhaps spoken aloud for the purpose of solving a problem.
In the diversion model, anger containment is a means of restraint (e.g., holding one’s tongue) that generally brings prolonged physical responses, such as accelerated heart rate and shallow breathing, because the emotion remains active, albeit covert. Second, anger internalization occurs as a woman reallocates responsibility, incorporates her suppression or denial of anger, and experiences obsessive thoughts, guilt about anger, self-hate, or self-punishment (e.g., denying oneself pleasurable activities in response to being angry with one’s partner). Similar to Weinberger’s concept of a “repressive coping style,” or a style of managing unpleasant emotions by forcing them out of conscious awareness, anger segmentation is dissociation from anger that stems from an unconscious wish to evade or prevent it. Women who segment their anger have little awareness that they feel opposition, and sometimes claim to abhor angry people or conflict (e.g., thinking that anger is silly). The relational effects of segmentation often include unacknowledged hostile behaviors, such as subtly insulting a friend.
Lastly, externalization of anger entails projection or aggression or both, with a lack of attentiveness to the relationship aspects of an angry encounter. A woman who externalizes her anger fails to acknowledge openly her own angry emotion but places the burden of her uncomfortable feelings on the target, or yet another person, often a less powerful person or entity such as a child. In other words, the woman who externalizes anger is not attending to the fact that she feels offended by someone (that she is the owner of the anger), nor is she acknowledging that her retaliation will have a negative impact on the person at whom she is unleashing it.
- Cox, DL, Who me, angry? Patterns of anger diversion in women, Health Care for Women International, Oct 2004, Vol. 25.
Reflection Exercise #7
The preceding section contained information
about patterns of anger diversion in women. Write
three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section
in your practice.
According to Cox, anger diversions are not anger expression styles, but covert, emotional routes through which women try to escape what three factors? Record the letter of the correct answer