Yesterday, I read this article, by the brilliant, eloquent Sofie Hagan. She articulated something we discuss a lot in feminism in a whole new way for me: the guilt we feel as feminists when standing up for ourselves has real consequences for men we stand up to, who didn’t know until that moment that their behaviour was unacceptable.
I felt her post deeply. I am surrounded by men I care deeply for, and more than once, in order to assert my own right to exist on an equal plane, I’ve had to tell them in quite strong terms that they’ve harmed me. Even the best of men will accidentally speak over me, mansplain at me with what they think is care and consideration, or take my agency away in a misguided attempt to ‘care for’ me. The guilt I have felt when telling them to stop can’t be expressed.
All this feeling started me thinking: about how we talk to men we love, about feminist guilt, and then about feminist anger.
We all know the “angry feminist” trope. We’ve all encountered one ourselves. Most of the feminists I know have been one. I definitely have. There’s an argument that rages within the feminist community and outside of it: a tension between our right to anger and our desire to communicate effectively and bring people over to our way of thinking.
Feminists (and social activists more broadly), especially those who have been doing this activism thing a while, usually assert our lack of responsibility to educate others and our right to be angry at a system which actively oppresses us. All of this is true, but I think there’s more to it than that.
I don’t just think we have a right to be angry. I think, sometimes, we need to be, precisely to combat the guilt Hagen is going through in that post.
A Right to Anger
In my current work, I have multiple clients living with c-PTSD, a diagnosis which is given to people who have suffered severe, systematic abuse from a young age. It’s not unlike my own diagnosis, as you all know, so I am more confident working with these clients than I am any others. I feel attuned to them. Even when they respond differently than I would, I can understand how they got there.
I have worked with every single one of them on how they express anger. None of them feel safe or comfortable doing so.
Neither do I.
Now, most of these clients are young men, since child abuse doesn’t discriminate based on gender. C-PTSD symptoms, however, often do present differently in different genders (and different races, sexualities etc. etc.) and one thing that is common to all the young men I work with is a kind of impotent rage which bursts out at inappropriate times, a rage which makes them feel extreme guilt and powerlessness.
They feel powerless to express their pain in any constructive way. They feel powerless to control their rage. They feel extreme guilt for being angry at innocent people.
They feel extreme guilt for being angry with or standing up to their abusers.
One of the most powerful things my therapist has ever said to me regarding my own abuse was “That wasn’t fair.”
It sounded petulant, childish, ridiculous. I stared at her in shock and amazement. She repeated it every time I recounted an incident, and every time I reacted with numb disbelief. What on earth did fair have to do with it? These incidents were just reality, a depiction of how life goes. Fair wasn’t relevant, was an idealistic and naive dream. ‘Fair’ wasn’t the real world, and I thought less of her for bothering with the concept.
Over weeks or months, though, it sank into my bones, and I began to get mad. So angry that I had been through this. So angry that now I was ruined and broken. So angry that I had been betrayed by people who were supposed to protect me. So angry at all the bystanders who never questioned the bruises or did, then shrugged their shoulders as though they were helpless.
Endless, focusless, completely impotent rage.
My therapist encouraged this anger. Short-sighted, I couldn’t understand why she wanted me to feel worse. What was the point of me feeling at all times like a coiled spring, or a wild animal in a cage?
Until that anger started to release, and I got it: the anger had always been there, I just couldn’t access it after a lifetime of being told to suppress myself. The anger is important. The anger is what drove me to unapologetic change.
Setting boundaries is easier when you’re angry. Telling people ‘no’ is a joy. You look some dickhead in the eye, flip your hair and point him to the nearest bin, sweetly requesting he dispose of himself as soon as convenient. And the guilt, trained into me by parental figures who used it to control my behaviour? The guilt was nowhere to be found.
Now I spend a lot of time telling my clients to get angry. Telling them they didn’t deserve what happened to them, and it’s their right to feel absolutely furious. I encourage their emotion, I justify it and I stand behind it.
What I don’t do, however, is justify or encourage bad behaviour as a result of anger. Yes, it happens sometimes, because mistakes are part of recovery. But we’re not aiming to punch holes in walls or people here – in fact, it’s the opposite. By acknowledging and feeling that righteous fury, we learn to release it in non-harmful ways. We learn to use it to create positive change.
Instead of feeling a welling fury, rising from the core of me until it floods from my mouth, I feel a targeted irritation with a specific cure. What I hope for my clients is that they feel the same: an acknowledgement that their reality was not normal and was not okay, and that now they have the power to change it.
It’s very common to hear on both sides of the argument that the ‘purpose’ of activism is to convince others to do what we want them to: to convince white people to be nicer to Black people, to convince men to let women have some seats in Parliament, to convince straight people that marriage equality is a good idea.
I think there’s another kind of activism. I think it’s the activism we have the biggest responsibility to be a part of, all of us: It’s convincing ourselves.
Now by and large, not many men have been convinced to give up their privilege by the seething fury I embody when I spit on their misogyny. But that’s okay, because those acts of communication (like much of the world) were not actually about them. They were acts of self-protection, of self-care. They were the only method I had to unlearn the abuse I suffered at the hands of the power structures inherent in our society.
Not every woman has survived abuse. But every woman survives misogyny, and every woman has had to find ways to unlearn its seemingly logical siren call, the safety it promises if you just conform. Breaking free of that is not unlike breaking free of a bad relationship, although I hope the process is much less traumatic than it has been for me or the people I work with.
Part of breaking free of structures you grew up trusting is grieving them. Part of grief – essential to grief – is anger.
So get mad. Coil tightly, spit like a snake, go smash some stuff, send endless dick pics to that one particular prick. Grieve, because the patriarchy has fucking failed you. Failed to protect you, failed to nurture you, failed to keep you safe. And when you’re done railing wildly, you can find ways to release that anger positively – when you’re ready, when you’ve processed and accepted and taken care of yourself, first and foremost, like you were never taught to do.
Grieve, heal. Fight. Never feel guilty again.