The One Powerful Emotion Women Writers Need to Succeed

Filed in The Inner Life by on October 6, 2015 • views: 2146

Angry Woman Computer 2Think back to your childhood.

What happened when you cried? Did your mother soothe you, try to fix what hurt?

What happened when you were happy? Did you see that emotion mirrored in your parents’ smiling faces?

Now, what happened when you got angry? Raised your voice? Slammed the door?

Were you punished? If so, what did that teach you about anger?

I’m willing to bet that a large number of us learned anger was a “bad” emotion, one that when we expressed it, resulted in negative consequences. Privileges taken away. Our very presence rejected.

Girls, especially, were likely taught that getting angry wasn’t proper behavior.

I’ve heard that today’s parents try to be more tolerant of their kids’ emotions. I don’t know how well that’s working out in families across the nation. I have a feeling it can be difficult to manage an angry youngster or teenager while trying to make the experience an educational one.

But this post isn’t about parenting. It’s about how a lot of women were raised to be kind, courteous, and polite, and to rarely if ever show anger. In many ways, it served us well. After all, it’s usually easier to succeed in life if you’re kind and courteous than if you’re losing your temper and shouting at people.

But there’s a huge downside to all this: women can repress their angry emotions so much that they actually lose touch with them, and that’s bad, very bad when it comes to creativity.

Why?

Because sometimes, nothing works as well as anger to get us where we need to go.

Women Transform Anger to Pain

Patricia L. Munhall, in her nursing book, In Women’s Experience, notes that she’s treated numerous women in therapy, and found most are not even aware of their anger.

“Their anger is held way in,” she writes, “deep down—repressed describes it perfectly.”

She goes on to say that all the women she knows have trouble with anger, and that primarily, they repress it, and then transform it.

Into what?

Something internal. Something self-destructive. Usually, it’s pain. A headache, stomachache, backache. Anger can be transformed into chronic fatigue, and eventually, depression.

“The emotion felt—anger—is often so painful,” Munhall writes, “that it converts to another kind of pain; a pain that can be spoken about aloud; a pain that may even prompt sympathy and, with women, empathy, like the pain of a migraine.”

In The Quick-Reference Guide to Counseling Women, doctors Clinton and Langberg agree that women repress anger, and that this approach leads to health problems.

“They stuff their emotion inside to maintain composure and peace,” the doctors write. “Some women actually deny (or are unaware of) their anger….Repressed anger can lead to various emotional and physical problems, including depression, anxiety, hypertension, and ulcers.”

Repressed anger can be so damaging, in fact—for both men and women—it can lead to even more serious health problems, like heart disease and cancer. In 2000, researchers confirmed this, and stated, “There is evidence to show that suppressed anger can be a precursor to the development of cancer, and also a factor in its progression after diagnosis.”

Writing and Wellness is all about trying to stay healthy while we pursue our creative dreams, so the fact that repressing anger can result in health problems is definitely worth examining. But I want to go further in this post—to talk about how repressed anger can affect not only your health, but your ability to progress on your writing (or other artistic) journey.

Tapping into that anger, at the right time and in the right way, may be just the power boost you need to advance in your career.

The Answer is to Express Anger in Healthy Ways

Marcelle Pick, OB/GYN NP, agrees that women, in particular, are discouraged from expressing anger.

“It’s not nice for women to be seen as angry,” she writes. “However, society seems to accept that men tend to be more aggressive to be protective. Many people can ignore a man who explodes with anger, but women who voice their anger are frowned on.”

Yet blowing up at people and indulging in regular angry outbursts isn’t healthy, either. This sort of behavior, when indulged in regularly, is also tied into health issues—high blood pressure, stroke, heart disease, and social isolation.

If repressing anger causes us problems, and exploding does too, than what’s the answer?

“Many women,” says health writer Dorothy Foltz-Gray, “unlike most men, tend to express their anger indirectly, research finds, and the result can be depression, heart disease, or an earlier death, regardless of the cause. Unfortunately, blowing up has health consequences as well. So what’s a pissed-off woman to do?”

Experts usually recommend we take the time we need to calm down, and then talk rationally about what happened, expressing our feelings in non-blaming ways. Exploring the emotion more deeply to find out what really triggered it and finding ways to self-soothe are also recommended.

What if, like many women, you aren’t even aware of your anger? Psychiatrists suggest you look for clues. Deborah L. Cox, PhD, an associate professor of counseling at Missouri State University and coauthor of The Anger Advantage, told Prevention magazine, “Anger’s shadows are everywhere. If you don’t think you are angry, look at other parts of your life.”

Some clues:

  • Binge eating
  • Perfectionism
  • Burn-out
  • Critical self-image
  • Excessive fatigue
  • Headaches and other types of chronic pain
  • Depression (a big one)

“If a woman is unaware of her anger or thinks it’s bad, she can float from anger straight to depression,” says psychologist Dana Jack, author of Behind the Mask: Destruction and Creativity in Women’s Aggression. “I often suggest to women that every time they see their mood collapse, they chart what happened just before, and it’s usually that they got angry. But we feel like we’re forbidden to feel that, so instead we get depressed.”

The key is to learn how we can express anger in ways that benefit our lives. Anger isn’t an all-negative emotion. It can sharpen our focus, remind us of our power, and give us the courage we need to act.

We just need to tap into it so that it works to our advantage. There are two main ways women writers can do that.

1. Tap Into Your Anger to Boost Creativity

First of all, we can use anger to fuel our creative projects.

You’ve probably already heard that writing about your anger can be helpful and healing.

“Ask yourself in writing what makes you angry in a certain situation or toward a certain person,” says James W. Pennebaker, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas. “That process helps undermine the anger both psychologically and physiologically.”

You can also channel your anger into your short story, novel, or non-fiction essay. Repressed anger, for example, can encourage creativity. You may have experienced this yourself, the way writing about your anger or turning it into a piece of art can not only dissipate the emotion, but may eventually become something worthwhile you’re willing to share.

A 2013 study confirmed this can be healthy. Researchers found that when forced to suppress their anger, participants produced more creative sculptures and wrote better poetry.

“Anger, often caused by a perceived injustice, can be uncovered in story after story because it leads to the energy and passion to write a book, article, poem or short story in the first place,” says author Rita Robinson. “It can be the touchstone to writing what needs to be said, and provide the impetus to get it down on paper. That beginning, laced with anger or what some call “edge” helps to make a person’s writing sing. In turn, that melody draws readers to what that writer has to say.”

But you can go even further in using this powerful emotion. Having a bad day? Channel those emotions into your project. In a 2013 study, researchers found that the most productive creative professionals reported positive emotions at the end of the day, but noted they started their most productive days with negative emotions—they channeled their anger into their work.

Have you ever done that? With a rejection, perhaps? If not, you should try it. Researchers have found that rejection, if we handle it right, can actually enhance creativity.

I’m willing to bet that most women internalize rejection. (I know I have.) We see it as a sign that we’re not good enough and likely never will be. Maybe we felt that flash of anger initially—stupid people don’t know what’s good!—but then we quickly buried it down.

Wrong approach, according to a series of studies from Johns Hopkins University. Researchers had participants answer a series of questions, then a week later, told some of them to complete a few tasks before joining a group, and told others none of the groups had chosen them, so they had to complete the tasks themselves.

The result? Those who were “rejected” from the group actually performed better on the tasks, which required creative thinking. It turned out that those who performed better also had more characteristics of independent thinking—the “I’ll show them” attitude.

According to an article on the study, “The results were conclusive: rejection breeds creativity, especially for those who consider themselves highly independent.”

2. Tap Into Your Anger to Push Yourself Forward

A second way you can use your anger in a positive way is to use the power of it to motivate yourself.

One of the reasons I got my first book published was because I got angry. I had spent years spinning my wheels, waiting for feedback on submissions and filing away rejections and letting worries about “not being good enough” get the best of me.

I remember specifically one day channeling that anger into hours worth of research on small publishers. I chose about five of them and submitted my story, and it was shortly after that I started receiving requests for the full manuscript, and eventually signed a publishing contract.

You see, prior to that, I just hadn’t been that aggressive in submitting. My anger helped me change that.

Counselor Shelley Klammer calls anger “the seed of passionate change.” There’s a lot of power in this emotion—power from which women often cut themselves off.

When you take that power back, you may be amazed at what you can do. Particularly if you’re facing something scary, like your first book signing, public speaking experience, or just hitting “send” on that submission, anger can give you the spark you need to get past your fear.

“If you’re like me,” writes an author at the For Dummies brand, “there are things you want to change in your life. But you’re afraid, right? You’re uncertain about what will happen if you let go of the status quo and move your life in some new direction—maybe a new relationship, a new career, a new city, or a new, healthier lifestyle (joining a gym, starting a diet, giving up alcohol). So, you do nothing—that is, until you get mad enough about the way things are that you spring into action.”

The first musical contest I ever won, I won as a junior in high school because I got angry—angry at being afraid of performing in public (I play French horn). I got tired of always feeling afraid, felt the anger burn in my belly, and walked out there and played one of the best solos I’d ever played. I won a scholarship and the chance to perform three times more with a full symphony accompaniment.

“Other dark moods such as anger and frustration can trigger creative responses for different reasons,” says writer Jennifer Reed. “These emotions generate the kind of energy that, when combined with our natural talents, can result in breakthrough ideas and solutions that address the sources of those frustrations.”

In fact, if things haven’t changed for a while in your career, it may be the perfect time to get angry about it—or to allow yourself to feel the anger you’re already sensing.

“You must allow yourself to feel a strong emotion, with anger being one of your strongest motivators, before you fully commit to making a complex change in your self-concept and behavior,” says Marcia Reynolds, Psy.D.

If you’ve repressed your angry feelings for a while, this may not be an easy thing—trying to channel it. After all, we get a lot of messages in life about how bad anger is. It hurts others, leads to destruction, and causes problems. A group of researchers asserts that this thinking, however, is flat out wrong.

“A growing cadre of social and evolutionary biologists, psychologists, and brain scientists begs to differ,” writes Joann Ellison Rodgers in Psychology Today. “With newly detailed neural maps of brain systems that underlie feelings and energize us to act on our goals, they have seriously dented the long-held view of anger as an all-time destructive and negative state worthy mostly of suppression. More to the point, they have uncovered its upside, and proposed a psychological model of anger framed as a positive, a force of nature that has likely fueled the ambitions and creativity of the famous and infamous.”

She adds that studies have found anger to be a powerful emotion that can not only move and motivate us, but fuels creativity, problem-solving, and courage. In a study by Dutch researchers, for example, scientists found that after they elicited angry emotions in their participants, those participants were able to brainstorm a lot more creative ideas on how to solve a problem than participants who experienced sadness or who weren’t stimulated emotionally at all.

“Not expressing anger seems to me not only bad for health, but stifling for writers,” says Robinson. “It appears obvious that John Steinbeck could not have written the Grapes of Wrath without anger at what poor people leaving the dust bowl had to endure.”

Think about how you feel when you’re angry. Don’t you tend to be more courageous? More powerful? Aren’t you more likely to take risks, or to say “to hell with what others think?”

“Throughout my entire career,” says entrepreneur Christopher Dessi, “I’ve been told that I should never get angry. I’ve been advised that it’s a negative emotion that shouldn’t enter the workplace. However, when I look back at my biggest wins, my most impressive accomplishments have all started with the same common denominator. I got angry.”

The trick to channeling anger into moving your career forward is to focus on what you want to change. What is it about your career that’s stalling? What is it about yourself you haven’t overcome?

When you adamantly say, ‘Enough,’” writes Reynolds, “you may be angry about your circumstances but probably you are just as angry at yourself for standing in the mud with two good feet. Use your anger to initiate the positive shifts you need to change your life.”

Not sure how to do that? Here are a few tips.

5 Ways to Use Anger to Push Your Writing Career Forward

  1. Use your anger as a guiding star. Ask yourself what you’re angry about, and then ask why that makes you angry, then ask why again. Dig down until you discover the real reason you’re angry. The emotion is trying to tell you something. Something isn’t right, and your anger is asking you to fix it. Instead of ignoring or repressing the emotion, use it to find the answers you need.
  2. Focus yourself. Anger is a great way to sharpen your focus. Once you know what you’re angry about, focus on changing it. What do you need to do to make things better, to help yourself feel better? Don’t wait until the anger dissipates—get some of your ideas down now.
  3. Stoke the fire within. Refuse to let things remain as they are. That may require you to stoke your anger on a daily basis. Make a list of the things you’re angry about, and how you want to change them. Maybe you’ll send a new submission out once every week. Maybe you’ll seek out a first speaking opportunity. Maybe you’ll commit to saving for that writer’s conference you’ve been wanting to go to. Don’t let your angry energy dissipate without using it to create change.
  4. Use your anger in play. It’s time to pull out the creative tools that allow you to express your anger. Pen and paper, play dough, finger paints, colored pencils, whatever you can think of to use that allows you to make big, bold strokes and firm marks. Play with the material until your anger starts to calm, and then see what comes to you. This is a good way to experience a breakthrough in figuring out what needs to happen next in your career.
  5. Accept your anger as something you can use to your benefit. This may be the hardest one, especially for women. We may want to run from anger and angry situations. Over the next week, try to see anger in a different light—as a useful emotion you can put to work for your benefit. Notice how you respond to it now, and how that may be holding you back. Without hurting others, start indulging those angry feelings. Agree to feel them completely, and to express them in healthy ways without repressing them. Above all, see how you can channel that angry power into something creative, and see if you don’t experience a breakthrough.

How do you usually respond to anger? Have you used it to motivate yourself, or to take steps forward in your career? Please share your thoughts.


Sources
Thomas SP, et al., “Anger and cancer: An analysis of the linkages,” Cancer Nurs., October 2000; 23(5):344-9, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11037954.

Emily Kim, et al., “Sublimation, culture, and creativity,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, October 2013; 105(4):639-666, http://psycnet.apa.org/psycinfo/2013-23795-001/.

Ronald Bledow, et al., “A Dynamic Perspective on Affect and Creativity,” Acad Manag J, April 1, 2013; 56(2):432-450, http://amj.aom.org/content/56/2/432.

David Burkus, “Use Your Anger to Smash Creative Blocks,” 99u, http://99u.com/articles/17961/use-your-anger-to-smash-creative-blocks.

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Comments (6)

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  1. Chere Hagopian says:

    I have always tended to think of anger as damaging and destructive, but it certainly can be used for good. Some of my favorite humor pieces have come out of anger. I don’t know why, but anger helps me to be much more sarcastically funny.

  2. I love this post, Colleen! Anger, channeled correctly can be so very energizing. As long as you don’t get stuck in the anger, as you mention!
    It’s great for creativity. It spurs on that muse, and all those emotions spill onto the page.
    It really does help me to focus, and “stoke the fire within.” Love that!
    Thank you for this.

    • Colleen says:

      Thanks, Susan! Sounds like it works for you, too—I definitely need to tap into this more often! :O)

  3. I’ve noticed that an awful lot of my stories that I write have anger as an igniter. NOTHING can get me to sit down and start typing like someone who has REALLY pissed me off. The stories end up being about more because what I really want to do is affirm beauty, but anger does trigger me to write a lot of them.

    I’ve been telling myself this is a good thing. 🙂