The Spiritual Benefits of Being Pissy

Right around Easter I wrote a post that was a little bit pissy. I did this intentionally because I was feeling pissy—and I was pretty sure other people were as well. (And indeed, they were.) But I got a little bit of push-back for being “too negative.” So let me say this about that, there are spiritual benefits to being pissy.

If you were raised in fundamentalist Christianity, or even in the slightly less stringent evangelical flavor of the faith, you were probably not allowed to be pissy. This is especially true for women, because fundamentalist constructs are primarily patriarchal in format. Even if you didn’t come up in church, if you grew up in America you still got the lite version of this patriarchy model, because we are, in theory, “one nation under God,” which means our religious roots are showing.

Women, religious or otherwise, are generally speaking taught to be nice. Politeness and gentleness reign supreme. It’s not lady-like to raise your voice, express disagreement in public, or swear like a sailor. And why should you be questioning authority anyway? There’s an established belief system going on; men (for the most part) control that system; and your status as a member of that system and therefore that community requires acquiescence to those beliefs. To question, contradict, or to complain threatens your belonging. And so the tendency to suppress disagreement is strong. And suppressed disagreement, along with being unheard, being denied a “voice”—these lead to anger.

But anger is healthy, normal, and to be expected. In fact, anger is helpful. Here are my top three reasons anger is spiritually beneficial.

Anger Signals When Something is Wrong. Anger, like pain, is a helpful thing. Just as pain signals that something is wrong within our bodies, anger signals that something is amiss in our souls. When I talk to my children about anger we often refer to it as “a cover-up emotion.” I ask them what the anger is hiding, and they can usually come up with an answer. Women who have grown up in the church are not so skilled at this. They haven’t been practicing it since they were 3 years old, like my kiddos have. And it can be a hard skill to learn. But in time, with practice, it becomes easier. The next time you feel a surge of anger, ask yourself, “What is underneath this?” You might even try visualizing the anger as a stone. Then imagine yourself lifting up the stone, and see what is underneath. See if you can address that root issue. I bet you’ll be surprised at how skillful you are!

Anger Allows us to Live our Authentic Self. The modernist approach to faith values conformity to creed over allegiance to our authentic self. In a post-modern milieu (which is where much of the non-religious west is living these days), authenticity is highly valued. It is considered a hallmark of emotional and spiritual good health. For those of us raised in church, especially fundamentalist and evangelical branches of the church, were brought up in the modernist approach. (The church is about 10-20 years behind the cultural learning curve when it comes to the modern-to-post-modern shift.) But we are living in a post-modern culture. This push-pull relationship between these two messages—“agree with the creed” and “be your authentic self” creates cognitive and emotional dissonance. This dissonance often manifests as anger. Pressing through the anger into your God-given internal authority, and trusting that authority to give you permission to express your authentic thoughts, releases you from that dissonance and allows you to flourish in the playground of truthfulness. Doesn’t that sound lovely? Embrace your authentic self by expressing your anger and find your way to the other side.

Expressing our Anger Allows us to Mentor the Next Generation. Post modernity is not strictly a generational game. I’ve meet people in their 70’s who are more twigged into post modernity than I am, and I’ve met 20-something’s (mostly those raised in fundamentalist churches) who don’t get it at all. But generally speaking anyone born in the Gen X, Gen Y, and anyone falling under the category of Millennial Kids are thoroughly embedded in the post-modern mindset. This means they value transparency over all. They can sniff out a lack of authenticity from a mile away, and intuitively recoil from it. If we are to be good guides—good teacher/learners—for and with these next generations, we must embrace our authentic selves. And if we are going to be honest with and about ourselves, anger is going to have to be acknowledged as part of the package. Learning to identify and express our anger will help the next generation—especially the young women who are coming up behind us. Isn’t that a legacy worth leaving.If you can’t be angry for yourself, do it for your girls.

What do you think? What has been your experience with expressing anger in your life? Have you found a way to express anger within a conservative religious construct? Have you had a breakthrough in dealing with anger? Share your story in the comments below, and add to the giant pool of wisdom, forming now.

Tess May 31, 2009 at 11:26 am

Oh where to start? I think my background in the Roman Catholic church in England is similar to the evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity you describe. Certainly similar in terms of girls being expected to be ladylike. It’s all our fault, you see. We are guilty of tempting boys to sin; they can’t help themselves. (I was told this categorically by a priest when I was about 11.)

And I think there was also a more subtle dynamic going on in the community in which I was raised. Women were expected to be educated. We were expected to be bright. Being a bluestocking was as acceptable as being a wife and mother, a nun or a teacher. But women were not expected to express their intelligence in any way that would rock the boat. It was as if intellectual arguments could be made (although not against the fundamentals of the church), but they must be made in a bloodless, cool way. No anger, no guts.

And for me, at least, all the anger swelling and surging behind that seawall of expectations has often spilled back onto my self. I’ve stuffed the feelings back with food and other poisons. I’ve been paralysed into non-action or distracted by relentless action.

It’s really only quite recently, in my early fifties, that I realised how deep it all runs and I’m still searching for ways to express it.

Kel May 31, 2009 at 12:53 pm

Rachelle, the title of this post is just gorgeous and the message hits a home run for me. As someone who sits squarely in the midst of both groups you minister to [soulful creatives and the malcontents club] your ability to ‘name’ the things that have hugely impacted my life journey is stunning.

I used to write for and edit denominational publications. My words were forever tempered to fit the ‘lady-like’ mode you speak of. One day I realised my very life was being edited to fit within that mold. Authenticity was such a strong core value for me that I had to walk away from it all. Right when my talents were being recognised and I was being head-hunted for overseas publications.

I was also involved in youth ministry and introducing soulful creative spiritual spaces and practices that pomo gens relate well to. The kids loved it but the ‘authorities’ squashed it, fearing things unknown, calling those activities and me things we are not.

To answer your questions: I have not found a way to express anger within a conservative religious construct. When trying to write pissy, in a ladylike manner, all I ended up with was prissy :-)

A breakthrough for me in dealing with anger has been to process things through creative arts therapy. To move away from words (the preferred church communication method), and into images, symbols, sounds, movement. More recently I have been doing some work with ‘toning’ and it is profoundly healing.

Tori May 31, 2009 at 1:36 pm

The more I communicate with other people, the more I realize that I have a very odd family. I’m not even sure how to explain my family to most people. There is my mom, dad, little sister & me family, where we could be seen as perfectly normal. Then there is my whole FAMILY, all the people I grew up with/around. This includes all the aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents who I am very close to. When people look at them they have to be thinking “This explains so much….”

In my small little mom, dad, sister family I got the regular dose of ‘responsibility’, ‘good behavior’, ‘don’t talk back’, etc. etc., even without a church influence. (I’ve never attended church.) But, I didn’t spend much time at home as a child. Both my parents worked so I spent my before school hours, after school hours, and summers with the other members of my family. Here is where I learned the facts of life. My most important life lessons were learned during this time spent away from my mom and dad- including how to express anger.

All my cousins bit, hit, threw stuff, chased, pinched, and generally hurt each other out of anger. And someone was always angry at someone else. My aunt was a busy person and did not have time to constantly supervise us. When she found out about the hitting and throwing stuff, kids were punished by being spanked or yelled at. I grew up thinking that physical contact and yelling were perfectly valid ways to express anger.

I picked up these bad habits and I am still trying to shake them. When I get angry I still have a hard time not hitting. At home I was still told ‘don’t hit’ and ‘don’t fight with your sister’. Luckily these lessons are the ones that I am trying to live by. When I do hit someone out of anger I immediately regret it and hate myself for not paying attention to what I’m doing. I cry when I am angry. I cry because I don’t know how to deal with how I’m feeling. Hopefully I’ll learn how to express my anger better, I’m working on it.

rowena May 31, 2009 at 2:40 pm

Very interesting and much to think about. Sometimes I think the creative and spiritual blog world wants everything to be shiny and pretty, too. It has to be all positive and supportive, without realizing that being pissy a little, that being critical can be more supportive than just saying that everything is wonderful. A debate might serve more purpose than fawning over how wonderful a blogger is. Authenticity over Perfection. Perfection is so destructive, in my opinion.

I suppose I am firmly placed within the post modern culture. I definitely value transparency and authenticity. I was raised a Buddhist, not Christian at all, although I do remember that we were expected to convert people, even as children. I would suppose that’s one of the reasons I left.

But I was also trained as a girl to not make a ruckus, to not be angry, to not set my unstable father off.

I still have problems with confrontation. I have to consciously choose to confront an issue. And for some reason, I ended up with a partner who has anger issues.

Sometimes I think life puts in front of us the challenges we need to overcome in order to be our highest selves.

It’s really annoying.

Phyllis Mathis May 31, 2009 at 3:11 pm

Excellent post. I agree that being pissy – owning and rightly expressing anger – is essential to spirituality. When I was in a religious system that was more phony than real, I figured somebody should be angry about it. I had a feeling God might be a little pissed to be misrepresented that way. I knew I couldn’t keep quiet and play nice any more. So I blogged about it. Something about breaking the no-talk rule was spiritually cleansing and empowering for me. Thanks for bringing this into the light, Rachelle. It’s essential.

Abbey of the Arts May 31, 2009 at 3:21 pm

This is great Rachelle, I love your reflection and the very wise comments that follow here. Funny thing is that I was raised in a household that wasn’t the least bit religious, but I wasn’t allowed to express anger either or any strong emotion. Churches do a great job of shrouding that with religious language which adds power to the stifling. But I have also spent much of my adult years learning how to express my anger and like rowena, I still have problems with confrontation.

One day I am going to write a book about the spirituality of doubt, despair, & desolation and explore some of the great mystics and saints who write about the how essential these experiences are in our journey toward the sacred. I’d love to see your book on the spirituality of anger right next to it on the shelf. Better yet, the pages open wide across the laps of women everywhere.

Bethany May 31, 2009 at 3:57 pm

Anger is a subject that has consistently come up this past year in my journal and in those late-night soul conversations with my husband. Even as so many areas of my life have found healing, anger continues to dominate some days, and I’m usually clueless about how to treat it. I love your idea of visualizing it as a stone and looking at what it’s hiding; I will be trying that next time for sure.
And as for the religious requirement to be sweet, stoic, and un-confrontational as women… GRRRR.

Sam May 31, 2009 at 4:09 pm

It is so hard to learn healthy ways to be angry, and yes, to even acknowledge that being angry is okay. Even now, I try to verbalize my anger (even in “inappropriate” ways, considering I have a little one but he’s not so big on the speaking yet) instead of doing it my mother’s way (slamming cabinet doors, huffing and puffing and then having one big blowup that clouds up the whole house). I am still not sure if it’s better for my husband and I to fight in front of our kid or wait until later.

As for anger within in the church, it still BOGGLES my mind and heart that women MY AGE (I’m thirty, for goodness sake) and younger so easily accept the “your man is your overlord” philosophy. Or men in general – that’s why I cannot in good faith attend a church that doesn’t let women participate in ministry – it’s ridiculous. I remember the moment where I realized that I “knew more” than my pastor as far as Old Testament knowledge went – and realized that I didn’t have “authority” to say what I knew in front our of congregation. That’s when I was done, so to speak.

I know they justify it with scripture, and I know many men only want to do good by their wives, but there’s also that handful that enjoy their “authority” far too much. But I can’t get over it. I honestly believe that by doing this, we put so much pressure on our men, to DIE for us? To have all the answers? One morning in Bible study another woman confessed to not feeling ready to have a 2nd child, but her husband felt that they should, and so she was ‘submitting’ to his wisdom. I looked at her in disbelief.

That said, I’m all about a wonderful partnership, and I trust my husband to make good decisions for our family, even sacrifice for our well-being, just as I do for us. I could write about this for days, and maybe I will…

Deborah VanDetta May 31, 2009 at 4:50 pm

I feel like anger has been a constant in my life. And I was never given a positive way to express it. I was raised in a family of women – passive-aggressiveness and guilt were how they expressed anger. I am blessed to have a husband who has taught me and is still teaching me to SAY what I feel, what I need and be direct and clear. Very long learning curve on that.

I also love your visualization of anger as a stone to be lifted. I think that will be so helpful for me, to understand where my anger comes from, why it escapes into rage. Thankfully as I’ve grown I have learned to control my violent physical explosions, and for me medication for depression and anxiety was a huge part of that. For negative thinking I use “That is a story that does not need to happen.” Now I can add “What is under this stone of anger? to my emotional toolbox.

Thank you for another thought-provoking and valuable post.

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