What Serena Williams taught me about anger


When Serena Williams “fell apart” on the tennis court, probably for the first time in her very impressive professional career, the public response was big. I watched the media explode with various forms of personal and social commentary. I observed thousands of people take to social media to vent their own personal point of view. And I not only noticed all the going-ons. I feltthem. For I too had a point of view on the matter and I too felt angry.

Anger’s an interesting emotion. And it holds a lot of charge for a lot of people. 

Perhaps you were brought up to believe that anger is bad. That exposing your emotions is not the done thing, that having a reaction to a situation you feel unjust, unfair or unacceptable, is in itself, not acceptable. 

I don’t believe there is anything wrong with anger as an emotion. To me, it’s as natural as excitement and hope. It’s as useful as fear or grief.

The issue comes in when we pretend it doesn’t exist (because good girls don’t get angry) or we deny it a channel for healthy expression (because we don’t know how to process it). 

When we deny our anger an outlet, that’s when it build up and either breeds an intense, deep-seated and seething resentment. Or it emerges explosively, the pent-up feelings finally seeking freedom from hiding.

In knowing how to deal with anger, it’s helpful to notice 2 different types:

There is reactive, triggered anger that feels destructive, imbalanced and explosive. 

This is the kind of anger that can feel unjustified, or somewhat out of kilter to the situation. What’s usually clear is that it’s an internal provocation, something that’s pushed our personal buttons, and with the resulting human reaction being to process the energy as quickly as possible. “Letting off steam”, if you will.

This kind of anger is very often a reaction to having an unhealed wound aggravated. And it’s also the kind of anger that requires deep healing. 

When this kind of anger emerges, it’s telling us that there’s something within us that’s not yet resolved. Perhaps an old story is still sitting unexpressed, untold, unhealed. Maybe it’s a grasping belief that’s opening up to another way of seeing the world. And the learning process feels painful.

And then there is another kind of anger: righteous anger. This is the kind of anger that is responding to an injustice. It’s the kind of anger that signals to us a feeling, need or desire suppressed for so long that the time has finally come for its expression. It’s as if an internal switch flicks over to say “Enough. Things can’t continue in this way any longer, and no, I will notstand for it”. 

To me, this is healthy anger. And a very natural part of nature.

In Eastern Medicine we look at the elements as a continuous flow of energy. Anger is associated with the Wood element, and it’s nature’s built-in way of processing change. After the winter period, the period of introversion and calm waiting, new roots push through the surface of the earth as spring finally emerges. The period of darkness, of holding out and of composting, is finally ready to shift. 

Anger has an important role to play here because it’s the energy of anger that cues movement. And it’s anger that provides the call to action: “change is needed now”.

When I watched Serena Williams express her anger, I saw someone who has worked incredibly hard in her career, overcome significant obstacles in her health and who has had to endure the relentless difficulties that face a Black women at the top of her game. 

I saw someone “lose her temper” because she felt wronged. I saw someone expressing her disbelief. And I saw someone who didn’t feel bound by rules of “femininity” in revealing her sense of injustice. 

Was it an ideal reaction? No. And I’m pretty sure she knows that. But neither is showing judgment towards her an ideal reaction, and none of us spent a week lambasting you for that, did we?

What was interesting then was to notice my own anger at play:

I was angry at the apparent double standards: people in the sporting world have been expressing emotion throughout history. Why was this incident singled out in this way? When it was John McEnroe, we shook our heads and laughed.  And that was the end of the story. We certainly weren’t talking about it a week later. 

I was angry at the self-righteousness it evoked: suddenly people were using this incident to provide commentary on their own personal soapboxes of “I’m right and you’re wrong”. People who have probably never competed at international levels, never overcome insurmountable obstacles and never had their ethics questioned, felt entitled to rant about what is considered “acceptable” or not. I was angry at the lack of empathy for the situation or for the very human response observed.

I was angry at what felt like a further entrenchment of out-dated feminine beliefs: Women on social media commented on Serena’s “unladylike” behaviour, writing her off for her display of humanness and quickly dismissing her as a role model for their own daughters.  And why would we not see Serena Williams as a role model exactly? Is it because good girls don’t get angry? Is it because well-behaved people don’t express their feelings about injustice? Or is it because it’s better to keep your views to yourself in the name of behaving appropriately? Personally, I don’t think this view is helping us raise courageous, truth-speaking, warrior women who have the ability and grit to change the world…

My anger arose quickly and fiercely and very soon I found myself on my own personal soapbox. Feeling, rising, reacting.

So which anger was I feeling? And how could I tell the difference between reactive anger and righteous anger so that I could figure out how to deal with it?

I asked myself these 5 questions:

1.   How does it feel in the body?

I felt heat and intensity in my solar plexus. I could feel it rising with an energy that felt bigger than me, almost uncontrollable. It didn’t feel like an exciting fire, it felt a little frightening. And to me, the intensity of the feeling was an indication that this wasn’t about this situation, but that something more was going on.

2.   What’s beneath this? Why is this feeling the way it is?

My initial response was: it’s about the injustice. It’s about the double standards. It’s about people’s ongoing need to comment on each other’s lives. It’s about the hypocrisy. It’s about people not minding their own business. 

3.   And what’s beneath that? What’s this really about?

So why is that bothering me so much? Why am I feeling it this intensely? 

Because I’m tired of seeing women treated unfairly. I’m tired of women being taught to believe that anger is unacceptable. I’m tired of feeling forced to withhold truth in case it’s perceived as explosive or because it might be uncomfortable with others…

Aaaaaah. This has nothing to do with Serena does it?

I’m looking at my own discomfort. I’m feeling into unfairness in my own life. I’m remembering a previous need to hide my own emotion for fear of being described as “emotional”, “dramatic” or “hysterical” and the resulting years of keeping quiet and deflecting to the world of rational thinking.

Serena was just the trigger. People’s commentary was just the fuel.

4.   Is this an external issue or an internal issue?

In this instance, the issue for me was internal. It was my buttons being pushed. My hurts. My emotions. My reactions, my sense of right or wrong. It wasn’t really about anyone else at all.

5.   Is there something I’m going to action/change as a result of it?

When I realized I wasn’t initiating a battlecry and I had not intention to use my views to ignite change at a broader level, I knew that this was a personal issue. Because I don’t feel the desire to do anything about it, I know that it’s not the kind of anger that evokes change. It’s the kind of anger that requires healing.

By going through this process, I learned that my own anger was reactive, not righteous. Perhaps yours is different. I have no doubt Serena’s was. 

So I encourage you to give this a try too: the next time you feeling anger rising within your body, ask yourself these 5 questions so you can get to the root of the feeling.

Not because we have to get rid of anger. No, it’s a very normal human emotion and when used to drive change, an incredibly helpful, and powerful energy.

This process is helpful because if we can get to the heart of what’s driving the anger, we can take the steps required to process it. Maybe in the form of facing our own triggers and belief systems, perhaps as the catalyst for igniting change. 

Either way, healing is possible.