Mental Health

Toxic positivity, anger & the mask that’s my smile

So we need to talk about anger. Toxic positivity and people in general not understanding how emotions work and how to deal with them are in the habit of shaming people for expressing anger, especially black women and people perceived as such (Angry Black Woman stereotype). As someone who’s needed to relearn anger as part of my recovery from depression (and possibly some trauma) I want to say it and say it clearly: ANGER IS NOT A BAD EMOTION.

In fact we need it. Like every emotion it has a purpose and no, its purpose is not villainy or abuse. It’s the other way around. Punishing people for simply expressing anger is a common tactic of abusive people. They want you to be an easy target who doesn’t fight back. They want you to take whatever you throw at you, and since anger is a normal reaction to wrongdoing, that’s a problem for them.

How you express yourself matters

Now I know and it would be irresponsible not to say this, so I will. Emotions can be expressed in unhealthy ways too. They can be used as a weapon, any emotion. Which means that goes for positive ones too. It’s not all black and white and it is complicated. There are exceptions and grey areas and what not.

Entitled white fuckboys come to mind who go around shooting and stabbing people because they got rejected. White women who are confronted with their racism and cry their white tears to skirt responsibility come to mind. Abusers who say they are acting for your own good but are stripping your of your agency, like autism mom’s forcing their autistic kid into appearing neurotypical or make speeches about wanting to kill their kid to “save them” come to mind. I can go on but I won’t. They won’t all seem like anger, but confront them with their behaviour and in comes all the rage.

That’s why I’m careful not to say anger is always good. Obviously it’s not, but it’s very telling when one people are allowed to be angry and others are never. It’s very telling when some people are always punished for showing anger and others are rewarded.

Bottled up emotions tend to become explosive

But toxic positivity doesn’t want us to be in tune with our emotions. They just want to see us smile. They don’t want to deal with the discomfort of negative emotions so they make us bury them. Bottling up emotions usually backfires though. Emotional wounds will fester and eventually they will come out, grown out of control and you have no idea how to deal with them because you never learned.

Learning to deal with emotions isn’t only a “mentally ill person’s thing”. It’s not only a thing you do in therapy. It should be something we learn as a basic skill.

Anger is a motivator. It can set you to action, drive you to fight for change. It also sucks a lot of energy out of you. Especially long-term anger can be destructive to yourself. You need to let it out (in a healthy way), guide it towards a beneficial route.

Suppressing anger and oppression

Now I did mention the angry black woman stereotype which is fuelled by misogynoir and that’s because black women and black non-binary people who’re perceived as women are often perceived as always angry about something (as if we don’t have a fuck ton to be angry about, lol). We’re seen as always being angry and so we’re not only punished for expressing anything but a smile, we’re also invalidated through said perceived anger. They don’t believe we have anything to be angry about, we’re exaggerating and overly sensitive. Which happens to be the very slogan of gaslighters. This ties in with the oppression we face, especially dark-skinned Black women, while we actually have a lot to be angry about, but misoginoir makes them not want to see it.

This is also different from how non-Black women are often told to smile. Especially white women. You’re told that because they want you available to the male gaze. With Black women, racism taught a lot of people we’re unattractive and masculine. They don’t want us to smile because they want to feel like we would let them bang us. They want us to smile because they feel threatened otherwise.

Regaining anger saved me

Context is important here too. Since I don’t know everyone’s situation, I best talk about mine as an example instead. Here’s why it was necessary for me to relearn anger.

I grew up terrified and insecure. I didn’t feel safe and to cope with all of that I made myself as much the opposite of intimidating as possible. Smiling still is a coping mechanism for me when I feel threatened because if it. Anger wasn’t an option for me because like other negative emotions I was ridiculed and punished for them. Because I knew negative emotions would be treated like that, I not only never learned to set boundaries, I also was afraid to do so when I did learn.

Because anger lead to (psychological) pain, I stopped feeling it for more than brief moments because fear would overwhelm it. It took me years to feel anger again. It freaked me out so much the first time I felt it and it wouldn’t go for several minutes that I locked myself in a tiny closet (I was still flexible back then lol). I just didn’t know what to do with myself.

I continued to feel it and I had to learn how to deal with it. It didn’t always go smoothly. I made mistakes and I did hurt people (not physically) but I did learn. And you know what it’s done for me? I’m learning to set boundaries and KEEP people to them. I’m learning that I’m ALLOWED to do so. I’m learning my feelings are valid and I am allowed to express myself. I’m learning other people discomfort doesn’t trump my wellbeing. That’s what anger means to me. That’s what it’s given me.

So when you say anger is a bad thing, that people shouldn’t feel anger and that expressing it makes them negative and bad and what not, that tells me they don’t want people to stand up for themselves. They don’t want you to set boundaries. They don’t want you to fight for justice and they want you to take it quietly. They don’t want you to ripple the status quo because that makes them uncomfortable. And that? That angers me, and it should anger you too.

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