The Three Faces of Anger: Which One Is Yours?

Anger is one of the most powerful emotions human beings love to judge... and ignore. Because we don't like to deal with anger, our psyches have developed subtle and creative ways to cope with it.
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Holding onto anger is like grasping onto a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else. You are the one who gets burned. -- Buddha

Anger is one of the most powerful emotions human beings love to judge... and ignore. Because we don't like to deal with anger, our psyches have developed subtle and creative ways to cope with it. Hence, it doesn't always show up as familiar short bursts of rage; it can be much more subtle or insidious.

We express anger using three primary styles. Some of us are short-tempered: quick to erupt when something goes "wrong" or when we don't like what's happening. This is the most obvious kind of anger, and most uncomfortable for us to deal with. Many people are afraid of the aggressive, "erupt like a volcano" face of anger and are not likely to speak their minds or feel safe around those who show it. This can leave aggressive people feeling lonely and isolated.

Others turn their anger inwards. They appear agreeable and even easygoing on the outside, but only because they swallow their true feelings. This passive face of anger often leads to serious health problems as their angry feelings turn inward. They are usually perceived as the "wallflower," and often do not get deeply engaged in life.

The third face is passive-aggressive anger. Frequently the most frustrating kind of anger expression, it takes some time to recognize. Passive-aggressive people seem calm and able to take things in stride; rather than speaking up, they simmer and hold on to their anger. Of course, they eventually do release it... by withholding information, letting their friends down, sneaking behind their spouse's back, or making their colleagues wait for something important. Passive-aggressive anger creates distrust and people learn not to count on them.

Whether we are in touch with it or not, overtly express it or not, the truth is that anger is a natural reaction living inside all of us. It surfaces whenever we feel betrayed, disappointed, frustrated, violated, abused, hurt, controlled, neglected, disrespected or merely challenged. Although we think we are reacting to these feelings, they are actually covering a deeper, primal fear or sense of personal threat.

Which face of anger do you show most often? Sometimes we have different styles at different times or places. For example, we might be aggressive at work and passive aggressive at home. To find out, take a look at the following list of tell-tale emotional signs.

If you express your anger directly and aggressively you may experience the following:

  • hot in the neck/face
  • increased and rapid heart rate
  • pacing
  • sweating, especially your palms
  • shaking or trembling
  • acting in an abusive or abrasive manner
  • beginning to yell, scream or cry
Emotionally you may feel:
  • resentful
  • rage
  • out of control
  • anxious
  • like striking out verbally or physically

If you express it passive aggressively you have learned not to allow yourself to feel anger. Your anger is likely to appear as follows:

  • Denial or rationalization about your behavior
  • Getting sarcastic
  • An impulse to get away from the situation
  • Rubbing your head
  • Becoming silent or withholding
  • Isolating
  • Compulsive eating, spending, cleaning or sex
  • Revenge fantasies
Emotionally you may feel:
  • Irritated
  • Resentful
  • Fearful
  • Dominated
  • Powerless
  • Sad or depressed
  • Guilty

If you express your anger in a passive and self-inflicting way, you may experience:

  • Clenching your jaws or grinding your teeth
  • Headache
  • Stomachache
  • Some form of self-mutilation; biting nails and picking on the cuticles, hitting something with bare fist, banging your head, etc.
  • Increased and rapid heart rate
  • Dizziness
  • Beginning to cry
  • Compulsive eating, spending, cleaning or sex
Emotionally you may feel:
  • Self-loathing
  • Stupid
  • Bad
  • Sad or depressed
  • Guilty

In addition to these faces of anger there is also a healthier, more balanced style we may express at times: the assertive style. Few of us are able to consistently respond assertively to anger, because we don't have many role models for this style. On the contrary, many of us were taught that expressing our negative emotions showed weakness, and expressing anger was particularly frowned upon. Not having the proper models or tools we developed one or more of these three styles as our adaptive mechanism.

Those of us who respond assertively when angry do not feel threatened by conflict and don't take it personally. They don't jump to conclusions; instead they seek clarification before reacting. Upon hearing something that sounds upsetting or threatening, they assume there is a misunderstanding and ask for clarification. They offer the benefit of the doubt and trust that it is possible to sort out any disagreement. Conflict-ridden situations transform to constructive dialogues that bring clarity for all involved. We all can learn how to become better assertive communicators.

It begins by identifying your face or faces of anger. If you can't figure it out on your own, ask someone in your life to help you recognize your style.

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