How To Express Anger Healthily And Improve Relationships
Anger is a reaction of frustration, annoyance, irritation, hostility or rage. It is classed as a secondary emotion as it is a reaction to primary emotions which a person does not want to experience. The emotion beneath anger, is a vulnerable feeling like sadness, shame or fear. For example, if you make a small mistake at work but your first reaction is irritation at a colleague for pointing the mistake out, then you are able to avoid feelings of embarrassment which are more painful to bear.
"Feeling fear and sadness is quite uncomfortable for most people; it makes you feel vulnerable and oftentimes not in control. Because of this, people tend to avoid these feelings in any way they can. One way to do this is by subconsciously shifting into anger mode. In contrast to fear and sadness, anger can provide a surge of energy and make you feel more in charge, rather than feeling vulnerable or helpless. Essentially, anger can be a means of creating a sense of control and power in the face of vulnerability and uncertainty." - Psychology Tools: What is Anger? A Secondary Emotion, Kim Pratt
A person who expresses anger in dysfunctional ways has an inability to process, deal with and express vulnerable emotions. This is most often learned in childhood, as a result of watching adults use anger as the primary way of expressing emotions. Or being exposed to verbal or physical abuse on a regular basis and punishment whenever expressing strong emotions with no explanation or coaching as to how to deal with emotions.This results in an adult who is on high-alert for danger, highly reactive and with a fear of other peoples emotional reactions. This causes the two primary dysfunctional ways to express anger; anger towards other people and passive-aggression.
What causes anger towards others?
Anger towards others takes the form of verbal or physical abuse. The ability to be aggressive is an evolutionary trait contained in the oldest (limbic system) area of the brain. This part of the brain quickly decides if we should fight, take flight or freeze in life and death situations. However, in today's society we are rarely in life and death situations, yet some people seem unable to override or dial down the aggressive response. This is due to a combination of nature and nurture. People that are highly aggressive have normally witnessed frequent anger in childhood, been a victim of abuse or not learnt how to process painful feelings. There is research that illustrates that certain inherited genes and hormones also lead to higher levels of aggression and low impulse control. This issue affects men more often, which may be caused by higher testosterone levels, increasing the desire for dominance and other social norms surrounding men. For some men anger may have been the only emotion they were allowed to show as a child. Phrases like man up and big boys don't cry are often directed at boys.
"The difficulties in my family, the sexual abuse I suffered, the feelings of instability and inadequacy, the normal struggle of being a kid who was picked last and picked on - all of it came out in ways that were physical and brutal. Even though I vented my rage on the playing field, it didn't mean that the roots of that anger weren't equally dangerous. I was a kid, and I had no idea what to do with all of that rage. I had two options: I could leave all those painful feelings bottled up inside, or I could use them as fuel to punish other people." - The Mask Of Masculinity, Lewis Howes
Anger towards others becomes a form of release, to try to escape the pain and vulnerable emotions inside. Those big emotions of fear, sadness and pain are going to find some channel to be released. If not turned inwards to self-destructive behavior they will be turned outwards.
"Behind their masks of pseudo invulnerability and the drama of action, the one full emotion boys are "allowed" to express within the narrow bandwidth of developing masculinity - Anger - it is often hard to hear boys' stifled but genuine voices of pain and struggle, their yearning for re connection." - Gender Issues: Modern Models of Young Male Resilient Mental Heath, William Pollack
There has been a lack of education about how to constructively express vulnerable emotions like embarrassment, guilt or fear. Being emotionally uneducated in this way leads to hiding these emotions with anger. If emotions are abandoned in such a way, there is a lack of sense of self, or feeling of emptiness. If you feel no compassion for yourself, you will not feel it for other people.
"It was almost like I was dying - in this lifestyle, you’re dead and your emotions are dead - there is no life. I was in a state of death and I didn’t care about dying; that’s the only way you can live that life if you’re already dead. You can only take another life when you’re already dead inside. You don’t value your life so it’s easier not to value the lives of others." - Growing Up In Gangland, Jermaine Lawlor
What is passive-aggression?
Passive-aggression is a way of indirectly expressing anger, that slowly erodes relationships and can be hard to identify. It is the result of having parents that were very controlling, or that punished or rejected the child if they tried to express strong feelings. This form of anger is often experienced in the workplace, were direct anger would not be tolerated. It is displayed through a variety of different actions that are designed to prevent the other person from getting what they have asked for without directly saying no. It can be used to attempt to control, to illicit a desired response or prevent having to face conflict directly.
Because you can’t have an honest, direct conversation with a passive-aggressive partner, nothing ever gets resolved. They say yes, and then their behavior screams no. They try to sabotage your wants, needs, and plans using a variety of tactics. We all engage in some of these behaviors some of the time, but when there’s a pervasive pattern of multiple symptoms, it’s likely that you’re dealing with passive-aggression. - Is Your Partner Passive-Aggressive?, Darlene Lancer, Psychology Today
Typical examples of passive-aggression:
Constantly forgetting to do something that was asked of them.
Being late often. Rather than saying they don't want to go somewhere they will be late to show their displeasure.
Doing an unsatisfactory job. Often the task is done so badly that they won't be asked to do it again.
Withholds or gives the silent treatment often. Whilst they might not express their anger, they will show it by shutting you out and withdrawing attention.
Being vague or unclear. Will procrastinate, not make decisions and try to avoid being pinned down to any responsibilities or agreements.
Using sarcasm or making backhanded comments.
Backstabbing. Being nice to your face but not behind your back.
Will never directly express anger to you. They will appear to be calm, stone faced or stoic.
Passive-aggression leaves the person on the receiving end feeling angry or powerless. An angry reaction to passive-aggression effectively expresses the passive-aggressive's anger for them, and allows the passive-aggressive person to feel justified for their actions. Much of what the passive-aggressive person is doing is subconscious, meaning they are not directly aware of doing it or what triggers the behavior. It could be that the way a husbands wife asks him to help clean the kitchen reminds him of his controlling mother, which pulls him into old behavior he learned to try and protect himself from his mothers criticism. Similar to anger towards others, there is pain and fear underneath the passive-aggressive persons behavior. They were not given the emotional toolkit to deal with vulnerable emotions and are in fear that their needs are not valid or acceptable.
If you are on the receiving end of this behavior do not react or be tempted to take over their responsibilities. However, if you don't address their behavior in a non-confrontational way they will keep doing it.
"A 45-year-old college instructor in Hawaii recently broke off a long relationship with a man she said was a 'wonderful, devoted listener, an extremely sensitive person.' On one occasion, she said, he gave away her seat on an airplane while she was finding a storage compartment for her luggage, saying he thought she had taken another seat. On others, he would arrive home early from work and finish off meals they normally shared, without explanation. And when he was in one of his moods, the listening ceased; she may as well not have been in the room. 'The challenging thing was, you never know what you did wrong,' she said. 'That's the difficulty, all these scenarios, I could not point to what I did. I never knew." - Oh, Fine, You're Right. I'm Passive-Aggressive, Benedict Carey, The New York Times
Expressing anger healthily
Resolve trauma - Consider what you experienced during childhood. If there is unresolved trauma, work with a psychotherapist or counselor that will help you understand the root causes.
Find a safe physical outlet - Go for a walk, meditate, exercise to physically express the anger. Sometimes just going into a room on your own and screaming or yelling will start to release the anger.
Identify the emotion behind the anger - Is it fear that your feeling, fear of being rejected or abandoned? Or is it something like sadness, sadness that your not being understood or listened to? When you don't project the anger onto someone else or blame them for it, it will give you the chance to sit with it fully and discover what is beneath it.
Be assertive - Try not to cast judgement, make people feel scared, guilty or blame others for making you feel angry. Focus on the specific behavior that has triggered your anger. Describe how that behavior affects you and ask how you can work together to resolve it.
Set boundaries and ask questions - If you are on the receiving end of anger, do not put yourself at risk and set boundaries. No one has the right to be abusive to you in any form, make it clear that you will only deal with them when you are both calm. If you are dealing with passive-aggression, try to gently probe to find if something is driving their actions. Instead of assuming the worst, invite open communication and for what they are feeling.
"If your boss says, “Leaving early again today?” every time you go home before 5:30, but is never straightforward about wanting you to work later, don’t apologize or make an excuse. Be upfront and ask if you need to stay late. It may be that he or she really does need you at work later, but it also may be that the boss just wants you to feel guilty because that makes them feel more in control." - Dealing With Passive-Aggressives Without Losing Your Mind, Andrea Brandt, Psychology Today
Kim Pratt, Psychology Tools: What is Anger? A Secondary Emotion, Health Psych - https://healthypsych.com/psychology-tools-what-is-anger-a-secondary-emotion/
Lewis Howes, The Mask Of Masculinity - 31 October 2017, https://www.maskofmasculinity.com/
William Pollack, Gender Issues: Modern Models of Young Male Resilient Mental Heath - Oxford University Press 2009
Jermaine Lawlor, Growing Up In Gangland, The Sun - https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/5987640/london-violence-crime-stabbings-gang-members-jermaine-lawlor/
Darlene Lancer, Is Your Partner Passive Aggressive?, Psychology Today - https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/toxic-relationships/201706/is-your-partner-passive-aggressive
Benedict Carey, Oh, Fine, You're Right. I'm Passive-Aggressive, The New York Times - https://www.nytimes.com/2004/11/16/health/psychology/oh-fine-youre-right-im-passiveaggressive.html
Andrea Brandt, Dealing with Passive-Aggressives Without Losing Your Mind, Psychology Today - https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/mindful-anger/201711/dealing-passive-aggressives-without-losing-your-mind