Most of us are pretty well acquainted with anxiety. Some more than others, but it’s a feeling I’m willing to bet almost every human has experienced at some point. And if we’re talking about moms, I can pretty much guarantee that number goes up to 100%. But what isn’t nearly as universal is how we experience that anxiety.
For some, anxiety shows up as physical symptoms: sweating, shaky hands, racing heart, tightness in your chest, feeling like you can’t catch your breath. For others, it’s more psychological: racing thoughts, difficulty sleeping, constant worry. And for many it’s a combination of these things.
But anxiety isn’t always straightforward. It can show up in strange ways that we don’t typically associate with anxiety, and this is particularly true for moms. One of the unexpected ways I frequently see anxiety showing up for moms is as anger. The anger is really unpleasant in and of itself, but it’s made even more difficult because it doesn’t usually scream “anxiety” and often leaves women thinking there’s something wrong with them as moms.
Anger is actually a very common symptom of anxiety, but it’s not one we talk about often. I’m particularly passionate about increasing awareness of the anxiety-anger connection, because it’s one that causes a tremendous amount of shame in women. Our culture does not view anger as very ladylike, and therefore women who experience anger are often embarrassed by their behavior or told by others that they ought to be embarrassed. Even more shameful is our view of angry moms. We have so many ideas of what moms “should” look and act like, and anger is definitely not part of that.
We also don’t typically associate anger with anxiety, so women who experience a sudden spike in anger often struggle to figure out how to bring the anger down because they’re unaware of its true root. As with any time we misunderstand what’s actually causing a problem, we haphazardly throw “solutions” at it hoping something works. The end result is usually a lot of wasted time, increased frustration, and a growing belief that the problem isn’t solvable and perhaps something is just wrong with us. You can see how this would lead to even more anger, another round of attempts to find a solution, and the cycle goes on and on.
I often meet women in my office who are trapped in this cycle, convinced they aren’t cut out for mothering, with relationships and self-images that have been seriously damaged. We have to work to not only figure out the root of the anxiety that is driving the anger, but now we also need to repair the damage that has been done to her confidence in her mothering, her feelings about herself, and her relationships. How much easier would this have been if she’d known that anxiety was often the root cause of anger and been able to take that into account when trying to resolve the anger? How much more understanding would others have been if when she started screaming they thought “I wonder if she’s feeling anxious or overwhelmed?” rather than thinking “wow, that’s unattractive.” How much less damage would have been done if rather than being embarrassed at her rage, she’d recognized it as a symptom of something bigger and come in for help then?
How much better would things be for so many women if we started talking about women’s anger as something other than shameful, taboo, and not ladylike or motherly?
We have a cultural image of the “angry woman.” She’s physically unattractive. She’s out of control. She’s harsh. She’s masculine. Others are scared of her. If she has a partner, he’s generally depicted cowering in a corner somewhere, totally emasculated. Who wants to be that woman?
But let me tell you what many of the angry women I know actually look like. They are well-educated. They are well put together. They care deeply about their children and are very maternal in their interactions with them. They have close, loving relationships with friends and partners, and many of these people are totally unaware of the way anger shows up in her life (though partners are generally well aware). They are moms you would run into at the grocery store and think have it all together.
So what is the actual connection between anger and anxiety in moms? Let’s start by getting clear on my view of anger: it’s not a primary emotion. I believe anger is very real, but it’s not a standalone feeling. It’s not actually a feeling at all. Instead it’s a behavior that is a symptom of other feelings. When I say I “feel” angry, I’m actually feeling a set of physical symptoms that tell me I’m about to lose control of my actions to some extent. I’m about to yell, or scream, or throw something, or say something intentionally hurtful. I know this because I can feel the tension building in my body. It may be that my jaw is clenched, or my fists are tightening, or I feel my face flushing. I can feel it rising up in my chest and know it’s about to explode somehow. That explosion is anger. But it’s not an emotion, any more than crying is an emotion. Crying is the outward expression of something else. Just like anger.
So what is anger the outward expression of? There are lots of possibilities, but for moms (new moms in their first year postpartum in particular), I find it is often anxiety. I get angry because I’m overwhelmed by my responsibilities. I get angry because I’m terrified that I’m not doing this right. I get angry because I feel out of control. I get angry because I feel alone and unsupported. At a root level, this is all about anxiety. And this overwhelm, worry, self-doubt, and loneliness is what needs to be addressed to lower the anger so many moms are experiencing.
Where do I advise moms who are experiencing anger or rage to begin? First, we need to figure out what is under the anger. We do this by simply noticing. We notice our anger, and rather than trying to push it away, or get over it, or judge it, we ask ourselves what else we are feeling below the anger. This can be really tricky, as we are so used to assuming anger is just anger that it can be quite difficult to dig underneath the anger to find what’s really under there. In the beginning it may be helpful to prompt yourself with some possibilities: am I worried about something? Overwhelmed? Feeling unsupported? Needing comfort or connection?
Over time you will learn your go-to feelings fueling the anger and this will form the groundwork for beginning to restore calm and let the anger go. If you take only one thing away from this post, I hope it is this: your anger isn’t a sign of weakness. It has nothing to do with whether or not you’re a good mom. Your anger is a signal that something else is running below the surface. You aren’t broken.