Anger gets a bad rap. But most mental health experts would agree that it’s actually healthy. As clinical psychologist and author Harriet Learner writes in her book The Dance of Anger, “Anger is a signal, and one worth listening to.” But sometimes we hear the signal and channel it in ways that misconstrue what’s actually going on, making things worse and ruining relationships. So, understanding the way we typically act on anger helps us get to the crux of why our antennas are pointed up in the first place. And while a person can experience any numbers anger styles, here are the five most common ones, including how to spot them and what to do to make your communication effective and healthy.
1. Aggressive & Hostile Anger
In her book Honor Your Anger, psychotherapist and anger expert Beverly Engel says people with aggressive anger tend to express anger in a “direct but forceful way,” wanting to control people and situations, which can manifest in “not taking no for an answer.” This means using techniques to manipulate others into taking on guilt or backing down. Per Engel, signs of aggressive anger include sarcasm, humiliation, put-downs, complaints, threats and abuse. Sounds bad right? But here’s the thing: We’re all programmed to feel this type of anger in moments when we feel threatened. But those who have a primarily aggressive and hostile anger style often find their adrenaline shooting up in scenarios that aren’t truly threatening at all. In turn, they’re actually putting others in danger.
Example: After a day that just wiped you out, you come home and make dinner for the family. But after eating all the food you cooked up, the kids and your husband leave the table without helping to clean up anything. So, you march into the TV room, grab the remote out of your husband’s hand and slam it on the ground, sending the batteries rolling under the couch and scaring your partner and children. “I made dinner and I’m not cleaning it up alone!” you yell. The result? Your partner and children come help but are stunned and traumatized in the process.
Experiencing aggressive anger? For one—awesome job recognizing it instead of denying it. It may be an ugly blemish on your personality that you want to sweep under the rug, but if you don’t acknowledge it, you can’t address it. Make an appointment with a mental health professional—or use an app like TalkSpace—to understand where it’s coming from and how to channel that aggressive anger into healthy anger. In the meantime, try square breathing. Brené Brown swears by the mindfulness technique to remain calm and focused. In fact, it's been proven to lower the heartbeat and lower or stabilize blood pressure.
2. Passive Anger
Passive anger is avoidant anger. It’s also what Lerner dubs “Nice Lady” syndrome: “[In] situations that might realistically evoke anger or protest, we stay silent—or become tearful, self-critical or ‘hurt.’ If we do feel angry, we keep to ourselves in order to avoid the possibility of open conflict.” This lack of expression takes its toll, however. Lerner points out that when our energy is focused on protecting another person or preserving a relationship instead of addressing our own needs, we lose sense of ourself (otherwise known as de-selfing). In fact, Lerner says, “The more we are ‘nice’ in these ways, the more we accumulate a storehouse of unconscious anger and rage.” In other words, when you never address what you’re angry about, you become a ticking time bomb.
Example: After a day that just wiped you out, you come home and make dinner for the family. But after eating all the food you cooked up, the kids and your partner leave the table without helping to clean up anything. You’re angry, but you start the process of clearing everything up and your anger transforms into guilt—now you feel guilty for being angry at them for not helping. After all, your partner is the breadwinner and your kids have the pressure of school and homework. You spend the next hour and a half cleaning up dinner. When your partner calls from the TV room, “Hon, do you need any help?” you respond, “Nope! Totally fine!”
Experiencing passive anger? Though passive anger may not be as directly harmful to those around you, it’s corrosive to your sense of self and how you express yourself. You should be able to express your anger in a productive way, and maybe that starts with journaling. A journal is a safe place you can express yourself without the feedback you fear. As you work through your thoughts and emotions, see if you can bring them up to your loved ones in person using "I" statements ("I feel," "My concern is..." "I want...") If you feel like you can’t, it’s definitely time to talk to a mental health expert to develop productive ways to share your feelings.
3. Passive-Aggressive Anger
It’s the emotional paradox that keeps on giving. Contrary to in-your-face aggressive anger, passive-aggressive anger is delivered indirectly. See, passive-aggressive people don’t necessarily want to avoid conflict, but they also don’t want to blow up or lose their cool. As Engel writes, this anger style could be manifested through “silent treatment, withdrawing affection and attention, gossiping, tattling and refusing to cooperate.” All of these methods are affective but still clandestine. It’s almost like incognito anger—it’s definitely there, you can feel its presence, but you can’t always see it. In a way, passive-aggressive anger is a lot like gaslighting. You’re doing one thing, but saying another, destabilizing your target. It may seem harmless, but as Dr. Andrea Brandt, a marriage and family therapist, writes for Greater Good Magazine, “Unfortunately, it makes it much harder to reach resolution and closure, because the anger is always simmering, never rising to the surface to be confronted.”
Example: After a day that just wiped you out, you come home and make dinner for the family. But after eating all the food you cooked up, the kids and your partner leave the table without helping to clean up anything. You are furious that they would leave all this work for your, so you start the process while muttering, “I can’t believe this.” From the TV room, your kids ask, “What can’t you believe, Mom?” And you respond, “Nothing,” and go on to hide all the leftovers your kids and partner discussed packing for lunch the next day.
Experiencing passive-aggressive anger? Just because it’s passive doesn’t mean it’s harmless—to you or your relationships. If you’re bottling anger up and dressing it up as something else, try doing the opposite: Address the elephant in the room. And not over text, which for passive aggressors can be a minefield. (A study from Brigham Young University found that women in relationships who try to work out their differences or apologize via text message tended to report higher levels of unhappiness.) Instead, try "I" statements. These are expressions that begin with "I feel..." that will help you get the ball rolling. It’s also probably a good idea to address it with a mental health expert who can help you channel your anger into something positive.
Often confused for passive-aggressive anger, Simon Grant explains in his book Anger Management that projective-aggressive anger is when you project your anger onto somebody else, in order to get that person to act on or express their anger for you. Jedi mind trick? It’s actually less magic act and more deep-seated emotional gymnastics. For example, Engel writes: “[Sometimes] a projection can be an exaggeration of something that has a basis in reality. So, for example, your partner may be a little irritated with you in the first place, but you accuse him of hating you.” Engel explains that projective aggression comes from a profound fear of being found out: “Projecting their so-called negative traits and feelings, such as anger, onto other people is a way to maintain the perfect image they’ve worked so hard to create.”
Example: After a day that just wiped you out, you come home and make dinner for the family. But after eating all the food you cooked up, the kids and your wife leave the table without helping to clean up anything. You’re angry, but you quietly and meekly say to you kids, “It’s nice to help clean up, guys.” Your wife, sensing your anger, acts on it for you: “Go help mom clean up now!” she yells. Your kids react negatively to being yelled at and you turn it back on you wife saying, “See what you did?” successfully projecting your anger on a bystander.
Experiencing projective-aggressive anger? Though it may be harder to pinpoint this type of anger, if you feel like you’re passing your anger around like a hot potato and can't quite grasp what you're feeling or how you want to address it, take a beat to own the moment and ask for space. Try something like, "I'm feeling upset about this, but if it's OK with you, I'd rather talk about this later tonight." Projective aggressors have trouble putting their stamp on their own anger, but this way, you can collect your thoughts, give yourself time to think about them and then address the issues. It’s also not a bad a idea to speak to a mental health professional to help you unravel your fear of anger and let you hold it and understand it yourself.
5. Assertive Anger
Considered the healthiest form of anger, people with assertive anger styles openly express themselves while simultaneously respecting those around them. Christine Hammond, MS, LMHC, has a checklist of assertive anger examples, which include:
- When frustrated, expresses it without blaming others
- Doesn’t make threatening or intimidating remarks
- Is honest about feelings of anger without being forceful or meek
- Seeks to resolve conflict mutually
- Accepts responsibility for mistakes
Example: After a day that just wiped you out, you come home and make dinner for the family. But after eating all the food you cooked up, the kids and your husband leave the table without helping to clean up anything. So, you walk into the TV room, ask them to turn it off, and say calmly, “I know we’re all exhausted from a long day, but it hurts my feelings that no one offers to help clean up after we’ve all enjoyed a dinner I made. So, I’d appreciate it if you can pause this and help me.”
Experiencing assertive anger? Good job! So many of us struggle with expressing our anger in productive way, but you’ve nailed it. Keep up the great work.