This is a subject, especially among women, that needs a lot of fresh air and discussion. Since my best friend of 27 years said our relationship wasn’t working for her anymore, I’ve been grieving. There’s a hole in my life and in my heart.
Similar sudden break-ups have happened to other women I know. “M” lost her closest friend of 40 years over what sounds like one exchange of angry words, an exchange that, to my ears, wasn’t even nasty. “D” lost her best friend because they couldn’t work through what made them mad at each other ten years before.
The loss still hurts.
Can Women Friends Manage Anger?
I don’t know. If you’d asked me last year, I’d have said, “Of course they can!” Now I think I don’t know anything at all. It’s ten months since my long-time friend has spoken to me.
Our culture certainly does not make room for women to express our anger. Research with babies has shown that when they cry, if people think the baby is a girl they’ll say something’s upsetting her or she’s afraid. If you take the same baby and wrap it in a blue blanket, people mostly say he’s angry about something. Men are allowed, expected even, to show anger, but not fear. For women, it’s the reverse.
When I get angry, my face flushes, my heart hammers, and my throat gets tight. Afterward, or even while I’m livid, my breath comes faster. Maybe we women are less used to these physical responses and find them scary? I know it’s hard for me to get over my getting furious; I mean I have to go over and over it in my mind, trying to understand it, trying to let loose of it.
Humans Are Herd Animals
Recently, Dr. Judith Jordan from the Wellesley Centers for Women spoke on the subject of “Change, Power and Resilience” at TOP, a series of lectures I attend in the fall and spring. She said the human brain is hard-wired to connect with other humans; that when we are dis-connected, the same part of the brain lights up as when we experience physical pain. “Social pain is real pain, people. We need to get that message out,” she told us.
Jordan explained that compassion is a natural response that our culture trains out of us. I’ve noticed this with toddlers. Their immediate response is to either cry when someone else cries, or to go comfort the weeper. A few years later children have learned that such a response is considered “babyish” (which, in the best sense, it is) and have stopped responding to another child’s tears.
In the US, the myth persists that individuals achieve success on their own. We laud independence as if it’s the best thing going. But when I quit being a partner in a large firm and started my own business, I counted up. I knew I had lots of help, but I didn’t realize how much help until I didn’t have it anymore. No fewer than 100 people had made me look good.
There’s no such thing as achieving anything all by yourself. Think about it. We all have support in the workplace, from families, friends, spouses, organizations, laws, the government that builds the infrastructure all around us, the farms that feed us, the companies that make our clothes, the people who write books we learn from, the teachers who teach us, the doctors and acupuncturists and therapists who heal us and so on. Humans are herd animals, after all, despite the fact some of us like our alone time. The true hermit is a rare creature for a reason.
I asked Dr. Jordan about anger. She understood that women’s anger is frequently suppressed and women who show their anger are often punished for it. She agreed that women need to be able to get angry, to understand anger, and to discuss their anger in order to avoid living as if we were invisible, second-class citizens.
“First off,” Dr. Jordan claimed, “anger a signal that someone is aggressing against you.”
I was stunned. I’d never thought about it that way. Even after being a feminist for decades, I had not validated my own anger.
Jordan continued, exhorting us to follow our anger to point us in the direction of something we know isn’t right. The anger is a signpost to something important.
Anger can also be harnessed. It can be a great energizer. I’ve used my anger to keep me working on getting a great person elected to office despite sexist, racist, ageist, homophobic or other attitudes and tactics.
Secondly, she said, she wasn’t saying to swallow or suppress one’s anger. What was crucial was what one did with the anger. Do you use it to aggress against someone else? To name-call, blame, suppress?
Yeah, I’ve done that.
Not so good. Allowing anger to surface is good; letting it lead us into aggressive, inflammatory behavior doesn’t help resolve what’s wrong and may even escalate the problem.
The amygdala, Jordan explained, is part of the brain that deals with memories and emotions, especially when they are combined. So if someone “makes” me angry, I may immediately associate it with other times that people have aggressed against me and gear myself up to fight or flee. These memories can trigger fear reactions, too, like freezing or rapid heartbeat, sweating, and the release of stress hormones.
The amygdala also is associated with binge drinking and processes our reactions to the invasion of our personal space, just so you get a sense of how primitive it can get.
Daniel Goleman coined the term amygdala hijack in his 1996 book, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. The term refers to responses from people that are out of line with the actual (versus perceived) threat they face.
What happens is that when we feel sufficiently under threat, our brains don’t waste time sending a message through the cortex, or thinking part of the brain. Instead, the message leaps right to the amygdala and triggers the fight-flight reflex in men or the tend-mend reflex in women. This can happen in a millisecond.
The amygdala literally hijacks the rest of the brain and we stop thinking and start reacting. For me that usually means either freezing or erupting angrily. How about you?
Can We Talk When We’re Angry?
I worried that Jordan was saying we always had to hide away when we were angry, think everything through and come back when we were all rational. “Cool, calm and collected” is the cultural wisdom. That feels like oppression to me. Our American culture says we should all behave like men who show no emotion except anger—except that no one but men should get angry.
Not so, Jordan responded. Women need to express their anger and our culture will benefit from their doing so. On the other hand, letting the amygdala rule when our lives or physical beings aren’t in danger—when we’re fighting with a friend, for example, not a foe—isn’t wise. She advised saying something like, “I’m so angry right now I can’t talk to you, but I’m coming back when I can.”
Then, after getting over the fear of being eaten or mauled (the great fears of our ancestors), we can talk about the problem. We can still be angry. We can still sound angry. But we don’t need to “go nuclear” as my husband calls it when things ratchet up to bashing the other person or issuing an ultimatum.
Back to the Question
So, can women friends get angry with each other and still remain friends?
Sometimes. Once I told a hiking friend I found her pretty controlling. She surprised me by responding, “That’s funny. I find you pretty controlling, too!” I think the shock pried loose the clutches of my amygdala and intrigued my cortex. What on earth could she mean?
We had a great talk about it. Notice I didn’t say it was lighthearted or easy. It wasn’t. But it was immensely fruitful and today, nine years later, we are closer, better friends. We’ve talked since about getting angry with each other and how to handle it, what would scare or irritate each of us, and how we’d react best to the other’s anger and why. It helps.
A writing buddy of mine and I had a tense conversation in which I said it drove me crazy when she went off on long tangents in the middle of a subject. She said she thought I didn’t listen well enough, that she often had to stop what she was saying because I interrupted her. I said, “Hold on, that’s just how I feel about you!” We created a code word, a ridiculous, silly word that signaled one of us was about to drive the other over the edge. Saying our special code word made us stop and laugh, and kept our amygdalas firmly in place. (And, no, I won’t tell you our code word; it’s ours. You can make up your own. Trust me, it will work better anyway.)
How have you navigated a friend’s anger, or your own toward her? I hope you’ll share your experiences, successful or otherwise. I hope men will chime in, too. The more we talk about this, the more we’ll learn from each other and, hopefully, the less we’ll suffer from abrupt endings to treasured relationships.