On a Sunday afternoon last July, I watched Nanette for the second time.

It’s a Netflix special featuring Hannah Gadsby, a Tasmanian comic whose entire set is about how she can’t do comedy anymore. What a roller coaster! I laughed…oh, how I laughed! I was deeply moved time and time again. And I cried. A LOT.

I’ve noticed that I often cry in the presence of truth. 

{Spoiler alert: I’m about to tell you some deets about the show, so if you haven’t seen it, bookmark this page, get thee to Netflix, and I’ll see you back here in an hour.}

Throughout the show, she weaves in an explanation about how comedy works. She creates tension through storytelling, and then relieves it with the punchline. This is the formula. But, she points out, that often means leaving out the meaningful endings of real life stories, because they wouldn’t be funny anymore. A comedian’s job is to create tension and then relieve it and we all have a laugh. In her career, this has often meant self-deprecation and freezing traumatic moments in time and making a joke out of them. Oof.

Towards the end of the show, she shares her experience of being a lesbian in a world that doesn’t treat her with respect. She reflects back to us that it’s not safe to be different in our world. She tells us the rest of the story that she had previously left out to tell earlier jokes. She tells us about being beaten, about carrying deep shame, about putting herself down in order to be heard.

My friend, it’s tense. And there’s no punchline.

And she says, “This tension is yours. I am not helping you anymore. You need to learn what this feels like, because this tension is what not-normals carry inside of them all of the time. It’s dangerous to be different.”

We’ve all heard the stereotype about lesbians always being angry. And I’m sure we’re familiar with the way society views anyone other than white men when they’re angry. Women aren’t allowed to be angry. People of colour aren’t allowed to be angry. Everyone who has a reason to be angry should simply calm down, right?

And so many of us buy into this. Anger is uncomfortable. We don’t know what to do with it. Our only experiences of it have been toxic.

Want some help figuring out what your anger is trying to tell you?
Book your free, one-hour Boundary Tune-Up Call with me here.

When the credits rolled, I turned to my husband and started to say what I’ve been thinking for a while, and that’s this. “We don’t have examples of people expressing anger in a healthy way.” 

But I caught myself. I caught myself because he and I had just witnessed a fucking POWERFUL example of it.

Hannah herself talks about not wanting to spread anger. She says this is why she must quit comedy – because she’s angry, and it’s easy to unite people in anger, but that leads to hate and then the vicious cycle continues. 

But I don’t think that’s true. 

I don’t want the cycle to continue either. That’s my friggin’ life’s mission, is to help create a better world and stop the patterns that have led to so many people being left behind. 

But I think the change happens at a different point in the cycle. Change happens when we learn how to hold anger powerfully.

Many of us see only two options: (a) express anger in a toxic and destructive way, or (b) not at all.

We need to witness anger being expressed with clarity and strength, and without harm. I caught myself because in Nannette, Hannah Gadsby does exactly that. 

She was pissed. She has every reason to be. It’s uncomfortable. And the truth of her experience and perspective remain.

She was angry, and she expressed it clearly. And nobody got hurt.

“This tension is yours. I am not helping you anymore.”

When I heard her say it, my mind replayed that first part over and over again.

“This tension is yours…” 

I don’t know about you, but I sure as heck feel like discomfort is pretty much always mine to resolve.

I grew up walking on eggshells, and although it was someone else’s behaviour that was toxic, someone else’s reactions that were over the top, I became an expert at smoothing things over.

I read a quote on social media the other day that I can’t find for the life of me now.

“Women have been the shock absorbers for men’s feelings since the beginning of time.”

I can’t find who said it, unfortunately. But truth is truth. I feel it in my bones. Because when men are angry, we rush to fix things. Their comfort is paramount – and on a certain level, that makes sense. When someone who has the capability to do you physical harm has a surge of anger, it’s in your best interest to find a way to calm things down. Diffuse the situation. Make him feel better. 

And while this might not even be happening on a conscious level, it makes sense when it comes to our innate survival skills, doesn’t it? Diffuse the tension in the room, and diffuse the danger.

This also applies in situations where someone has some other kind of power over you, for instance, power to fire you from your job, or power to affect your sense of connection to your community.

But not this time. Hannah speaks her truth and lets it lie. You could hear a pin drop. The audience is speechless, hanging on her every word. She takes us on an uncomfortable journey and then leaves us there, because that’s what’s real. In that moment, she refuses to deny her experience, or wrap it up in a bow, or turn it into a punchline to save us from our feelings.

“This tension is yours. I am not helping you anymore.”

What if we could all learn to do that? 

What if we all learned that it’s ok to tell the truth even if it makes others uncomfortable? 

What if we believed that our anger was rooted in realness? 

Whether you’re in a relationship or a system that relies on your willingness to dissolve tension, consider the possibility of exposing the gaps by not making tension go away. Because if you’re not there to diffuse it, it means that something needs to happen. More resources are required for a team to complete a particular job by the deadline. A different balance of tasks is required in a household so that things can get done without pressuring one person disproportionately.

It’s scary, I know. And I get the resistance, I really do. If you’ve ever felt out of control with anger, it makes sense that you would be cautious about considering what I’m saying. If you’ve been on the receiving end of out of control anger, it makes sense that you’d want to avoid it altogether.

But ignoring it doesn’t make it go away. It just sticks around and festers. New irritations get piled on top until eventually, it starts coming out sideways. Suddenly, it seems you’ve become an angry person and you don’t know why.

I don’t know you, so it wouldn’t be fair for me to say exactly, but I have a hunch that if your anger is coming out sideways, it could be because you’ve been taught to suppress it, and you don’t quite know what to do with it. You’ve been taught to “suck up” all the things that are causing your anger, and you’ve also been taught that you’re not allowed to be angry. Wow. What a mindfuck. 

Rather than pretending that we can just will our anger away, isn’t it time we learn how to work with it? I mean, how amazing would that be?

Imagine recognizing anger when it comes, taking the time to sort through its messages, giving yourself a healthy outlet for any extra energy that needs somewhere to land, and then finding a way to clearly express your needs?

Without feeling responsible to tidy up other people’s tension?

What if we could learn to be present with what’s there and let it inform what needs to change?

I don’t know if the tension in Nannette will change the world. But I do know that if we decide to be the first one in our respective family lines to learn how to hold anger powerfully so we can honour the truth, change is inevitable. Imagine the next generation growing up around adults who all know how to work with anger rather than denying it. Imagine the possibilities for emotional intelligence.

Hannah’s performance is generative because she’s showing us exactly how to do this. She doesn’t even realize it, but she’s doing it.

And it’s a beautiful thing.

Want some help figuring out what your anger is trying to tell you?
Book your free, one-hour Boundary Tune-Up Call with me here.