In one of my recent breathwork workshops, a Black woman who had risen through the ranks at a prestigious investment firm shared with me that her work environment was so toxic that she was debating whether to stick it out or leave, even though she loved the work itself.
As tears rolled down her cheeks, she told me about an incident when she asked her younger, white male direct reports to update the numbers for some important documents that would be released publicly. They felt like she was asking too much of them, even though this was a pretty standard request in her industry, and they proceeded to throw pens and balled up pieces of paper at her during the meeting. (Yes, you read that correctly. They actually threw pens and pieces of paper at this woman, who was their boss, and refused to do the work.)
Even though she was very upset, this woman didn’t respond to the disrespectful behavior during the meeting. Instead, she went to HR the next day to address the matter and get support. However, the guilty parties were out of the office. In fact, the entire team (all white males) including the managing directors and partners – those above and below her in seniority – were gone on a golf outing. Not only was she not invited, they didn’t even bother to tell her they would be out of the office that day. It was as if she didn’t exist. Her concerns about her subordinates’ behavior were never addressed.
Now ask yourself: If you were this woman, would you feel angry?
Permission to be angry – and to then express that anger – is a complicated issue for most Black women in the workplace. Even in circumstances where her anger may be understandable, the threat of being labeled as “the angry Black woman” when she dares to show any emotion is always present. And for most Black women, avoiding this label isn’t simply about wanting to be liked at her job. It’s about survival.
In a recent Harvard Business Review article “The Angry Black Woman Stereotype at Work,” researchers found that “people in organizations believe Black women are more likely to have belligerent, contentious, and angry personalities, an assumption not as readily assigned to other men and women.” This negative perception was found to be a unique phenomenon for Black women, and the researchers suggest that “when Black women outwardly express anger at work, her leadership and potential are called into question.”
As a result of this long-standing stereotype, Black women know subconsciously they are less likely to be afforded the same grace that their white counterparts experience when they express emotion in the workplace. While others may be praised for their “passion,” Black women are chastised and penalized for their perceived aggressiveness. This might cause us to not speak up when we should – whether that’s making a complaint with HR about mistreatment, negotiating deals on behalf of the company’s interest or simply countering someone’s point in a meeting. It affects our job performance, it makes us more likely to play small, it limits our ability to be the best leaders we can be, and it ultimately stifles our contributions to the companies where we work – negatively impacting our career trajectories and compensation.
It can also severely impact our health. Not having an outlet for release of your anger or other negative emotions is toxic to your body. Enduring overt racism and microaggressions such as having your competence questioned, not getting promoted or feeling invisible can cause mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety, and has been connected to serious illnesses such as chronic stress, higher rates of heart disease and high blood pressure in African Americans.
Mindfulness and breathwork can help. This is why I am so committed to working with corporations and organizations to bring these practices to BIPOC employees. The simple act of breathing calms our nervous system when we feel like we are being attacked. Having the tools to transcend these feelings may not only save your job, it may also save your life.
So, Black women, when you feel yourself getting angry, remember to B.R.E.A.T.H.E. Here’s my framework to support you through the process.
B – Be angry. It’s okay to be angry, so go ahead and feel the feels. As a human being, you are allowed to experience this emotion, so take a moment and acknowledge that you are angry without judging yourself for it. Let go of how you’re “supposed to” feel.That said, this doesn’t mean you have to “go off” every time you’re upset. Know that you still get to decide how and when you want to release that anger in a space that feels safe, comfortable and most supportive to you.
R – Release the anger with your breath. There’s a breathing technique I use for anger called “breath of fire“, which I share more about in my upcoming book, Black People Breathe (Penguin Random House, 2023). In addition to releasing anger, this technique releases toxins and chemicals from the cells in your body, boosts your immune system, delivers more oxygen to your brain, which improves your ability to focus, and so much more.
E – Elevate your heart rate. This could be exercising, running in place, dancing around to your favorite song, or other ways of moving your body that feel good to you. This burst of energy not only gets your body moving, but it also prevents the negative emotions from festering within.
A – Assess and act. Once you have released the anger with breathwork and elevating your heart rate, you’re more likely to have a clear mind so you can assess the situation apart from your emotions. As objectively as possible, consider what course of action you think would be best to address this situation. This allows you to consider your options and make decisions from a calm, centered place, rather than a triggered place.
Once you decide on your next move, act. Acting might be speaking up or writing a letter or getting allies or sponsors at work. And remember that sometimes acting might mean deciding to do nothing as a form of self-care. That’s okay too.
T – Treat yourself. Do something fun that brings you joy! Let this be something you might not regularly do for yourself so it feels like a special treat. This could be a spa day, planning a weekend trip with your girls, treating yourself to dinner, going to a concert to see your favorite artist. It doesn’t have to be expensive, but it should feel special to you.
H – Heal. Do the things that are soothing and nurturing for you. A bubble bath, a nature walk, journaling, meditation or simply turning off your alarm and allowing yourself to sleep in for once. Yoga is another powerful tool for healing – especially yoga nidra (which is the practice of deep relaxation) and restorative yoga (which involves slower movements that encourage you to be one with your body and your emotions). Healing offers you time and space to reflect and go inward.
E – Enjoy. In the moments when you are finally feeling good, make sure you really take the time to enjoy them. Savor every moment. Cherish it. You might even look in the mirror and say, “I feel really great today.” Allow yourself to really feel what it feels like to feel good so you can always get back to that place. You deserve it.
As a successful Black woman executive in corporate America, Zee Clarke used to think that high-stress levels and stress-related health conditions were a baseline requirement if she wanted to remain employed. Then the Harvard MBA discovered mindfulness, and it changed her life. Now she leads transformative workshops on mindfulness, breathwork, and stress management tools for BIPOC employees at organizations such as Google, Facebook, Visa, Ecolab, and more. Her book, Black People Breathe, will be released by Penguin Random House in 2023.