Finding Anger, Forgetting Guilt.
Anger is a new emotion for me.
I realize I’m a 30 year old woman and I should probably have a better handle on this. But discovering anger, feeling it, naming it, and expressing it, are all part of a very new process for me.
Someone said to me recently that when it comes to complicated emotions,men default to anger and women default to guilt.
I’m not too fond of any binary set-up, but I thought it was an interesting idea.
I don’t hear a lot about anger. I work daily with white women on racial awareness and I don’t hear a lot about anger. I do, however, hear a lot about guilt.
The deeper I get in racial justice discourse, the more women (specifically white women), tell me they feel guilty. That’s usually the closest thing to an explanation that I can get out of them, because as soon as the word is mentioned there’s this expectation that it’s understood, and the discomfort is palpable. Guilt is so humiliating, so paralyzing, it’s no wonder we spend our lives trying to avoid it.
Here’s the thing, though.
Guilt isn’t an emotion.
Guilt is a state, you’re either guilty or you’re not. Not only that, it’s a state that you don’t get to determine for yourself. Someone assigns it to you. The emotion is shame, and when you make that distinction, you can see where the value lies in the anecdote “men default to anger and women default to guilt.” I still don’t like binaries, but if guilt isn’t really an emotion, then the idea of using it as a cover for other, more complex feelings is really interesting, regardless of gender.
Feeling guilt leaves you powerless. It keeps you suspended, lying in wait for someone to come along, tell you how you should feel and why, and then give you a punishment that suits whatever crime you’ve committed. If you “feel” guilt, you’re putting yourself into a whirlpool, spinning and sinking with no say in the matter. You can’t get yourself out, because you wait and wait for punishment, and no one sees you drowning.
This is where white women show up to racial justice: feeling guilt and waiting for someone to tell them they either are or are not guilty. This is the self-centering that slows down progress and has so many activists and organizers asking why you’re showing up if you can’t even listen. Feeling guilt leads you to seek punishment. And if we don’t get out of the habit of feeling guilt, we will continue to question every single thing we do, and the more we learn, the more vocabulary we take on and the more ways we find to punish ourselves and each other.
Stop feeling guilt. It’s not an emotion, and it’s only holding you back.
Feeling shame, however, is a personal experience. It’s something only you can deal with, and it propels you to find ways to assuage the sensation. You search to make it go away, you become pro-active in your own emotional experience. You grow.
The more I leaned into my feelings the more I discovered that I wasn’t feeling much shame at all. I had a bundle of uncomfortable emotions but as long as I didn’t assign them the title of ‘guilt’, I had to look deeper.
I had my suspicions.
“When women and girls protest the realities of their experiences, they are likely to be accused of contributing to a “cult of victimization” or “culture of complaint.” — Raising Their Voices: The Politics of Girls’ Anger, by Lyn Mikel Brown
I decided that I should get to know anger a little better. It seemed like such a necessary emotion, there was no way I was going through life without it. I tried to limit myself to the word anger, and not dilute it with words like “annoyed” or “frustrated”. If I could, I would mentally assign a number to the anger, on a scale of 1 to 10.
At first, I didn’t actually recognize anger.
I had this feeling that I couldn’t name, it was just discomfort. But I refused to let myself label it ‘guilt’ until I could put a finger on it. I didn’t want to keep walking through life mentally berating myself for something I hadn’t even investigated. Recognizing anger in me and naming it was tremendously difficult. Once I did recognize it, I swear I was angry for weeks. It took that long to get the residue out. It took that long before the anger started to clear and I could start experiencing it as a response to incidents, rather than just a backlog.
The next step was timeliness. Experiencing anger, recognizing it, naming it, and being able to identify what triggered it, all within a timeframe where I could do something about it, was massively difficult. For a time I would spend days trying to dissect my emotions, and it would take 2–4 days before I could confidently say “No I am angry, and I’m angry about this”. The more I did that, the shorter the time between incident and emotional response. The key was not accepting guilt as an emotion. If I felt shame then I would feel shame and deal with it, but I wouldn’t allow myself to default to ‘guilt’.
Do you know this Audre Lorde quote?
“I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.”
Do you know the speech it comes from?
When it comes to social justice issues, there is no moving forward without anger. Clearly identified, expressed and emotionally vitriolic anger. Even for us, white women. Even when it’s uncomfortable. There is no room for guilt.
I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own. And I am not free as long as one person of Color remains chained. Nor is anyone of you. — Audre Lorde
It’s time to get angry.
Also published on Medium.