After experiencing sexual harassment, it’s understandable if you feel angry.
Anger is your mind and body telling you that something is wrong. And that’s true. The sexual harassment you experienced and any difficulty afterward are wrong and unfair.
Anger is neither positive or negative. It’s not right or wrong to feel anger. Rather, it’s a signal that you are not okay with something that is happening. It makes total sense as a response to sexual harassment.
Besides feeling anger toward the person who sexually harassed you, you may also be angry at others, like your employer, co-workers, or the company you work for. You may be angry at your community, the media, or the legal system for believing the harasser over you. You may also get angry at yourself, blaming yourself for what happened.
Anger happens when we feel a need to protect ourselves. There can be a lot of other complex emotions underneath our anger, like feeling disappointed, hurt, lonely, misunderstood, scared, embarrassed, worried, ashamed, guilty, or sad. Sometimes, especially if we think of ourselves as being strong, it may be easier to get angry than feel those other more vulnerable emotions.
It’s possible to have misdirected anger, where the person or thing you’re upset with isn’t the actual reason for your pain. Most often, the people who are the targets of our misdirected anger are the people who are the safest to do that with. So, when you feel unsafe at work, you may find yourself yelling at people at home. If you have a loved one who is always there for you, you may get angry with them. This happens because you know they’ll stand by you or forgive you. It’s important to recognize when this is happening so you can stop yourself from taking out your anger on the wrong person.
Understanding your anger
Here are some of the things you may be thinking when you’re angry:
- How could they do this to me?
- People are always going to hurt me!
- I hate them!
- Why did I ever trust them?
- The system is broken; it only helps the rich and powerful
- What is wrong with them?
- What is wrong with me?
- No one ever helps me!
- They are all idiots!
- It’s not fair!
- I want to punch somebody!
- People are out to get me.
These thoughts are totally understandable. It makes sense to feel violated by sexual harassment, and to be furious about it.
There can be a lot of ways we show (or don’t show) our anger. Usually, they’re a sign of what we’ve learned about feeling angry.
Were you taught as a kid that it’s wrong to be angry? Did adults in your life ignore their anger and pretend everything was fine? Did you think you had to explode and lash out in order to be taken seriously? Were you taught that powerful people feel angry and weak people feel sad? Recognizing these lessons can help you decide what patterns you want to continue and what changes you want to make.
The truth is that anger doesn’t feel good. It’s designed to be uncomfortable because it’s our body’s way of pushing us to protect ourselves in some way. Because it’s so uncomfortable, we often want to move away from the angry feelings as quickly as possible. This is why you may need to take a moment before reacting. But remember that’s different from bottling up your anger. It’s important to not ignore your anger—it’s telling you something and it needs your attention.
Although your anger is justified, you may be upset with yourself for feeling this way. That’s right—you can get angry at yourself for being angry! A lot of times, others tell us or we tell ourselves not to get angry or that it’s wrong to do that. Anger can be very uncomfortable. Despite this, there is nothing wrong with feeling angry, so long as you remain safe and refrain from hurting yourself or others.
There are people who never feel angry, while there are others who always feel angry. If you rarely feel anger, it can be helpful to give yourself permission to recognize, express, and connect with your anger. If, however, you always feel angry, odds are that you are also someone who feels a lot of hurt and pain. Anger is most often a result of three possible things:
- feeling hurt
- not having your expectations met
- not having your needs met
If you are “always” angry, chances are that all three of these experiences are familiar.
It can take time to process your feelings of anger. It can require you to adjust your perspective about what you know about others and how things work.
Sometimes the anger you feel toward the person who sexually harassed you is overshadowed by feelings of betrayal because of the way people you turn to for support let you down. Not having people there to understand and help you can feel like an ultimate betrayal. If this is your experience, it makes sense that your feelings of anger and betrayal would be strong.
What can help
- Try to not judge your feelings as “good” or “bad.” Instead, try to be mindful about what your anger is telling you.
- If you’re feeling upset, give yourself time to cool off. If possible, step away from the situation, go for a walk, listen to music, or talk to a close friend. Take more than a couple of minutes for this—it can take anywhere from 20 to 45 minutes to start to calm down after getting angry. Try to give yourself that time.
- Pay attention to early signs of anger (like a tight jaw or feeling warmer). When you recognize it earlier, you’re better able to address things before you feel full-blown rage. Still, anger can happen very quickly. If you suddenly feel a 10 out of 10 anger, remember that your job right then is to focus on calming yourself down. If you can get to a six or seven out of 10 you can start to think more clearly. Then you can explore what you’re needing.
- Ask yourself what other emotions you are feeling underneath the anger. Often these help you to understand needs that are going unmet. Feeling misunderstood shows you need understanding. Feeling scared means you need reassurance and safety. Feeling alone means you need human connection.
- Watch out for “should” statements—those thoughts you have about how you should feel, think, or act. These mean you’re judging yourself against the (false!) idea that there’s a “right” way to be.
Recognize the difference between healthy and destructive anger. It’s never wrong to feel the emotion of anger, but our actions when angry can range from being helpful to causing extra pain and suffering.
- Allow yourself the space and time to feel your anger, betrayal, and pain. Talking to someone who is understanding and nonjudgmental can be helpful. If you do this, be sure to clarify when you want emotional support and when you want problem-solving. Most often people assume that you want them to offer suggestions or find a way to quickly change how you’re feeling. In reality, though, it’s more common to just want to be heard and understood. Here’s bestselling author Brené Brown the difference between sympathy and empathy.
- Anger can also be a helpful alert that something is wrong or unjust, which can motivate us to seek justice in some way. You may decide to report the harassment or take legal action, even if you’re unsure what will come from doing this. So, document everything from the very beginning, even if you don’t think you’re going to use it for anything.