Often when people talk about having an “anger problem” what they really have is an aggression problem. What’s the difference?
I have often found that people whose aggressive behaviour lands them in trouble actually have very good reasons to be angry… but there is a problem with their anger being directed at the wrong people and being expressed in the wrong way.
Anger is an emotion that motivates us to take action. Our response to anger falls on a scale ranging from passivity at one end – taking no action and pretending we weren’t angry to begin with; and aggression at the other end – raging, shouting, punching, throwing …
Responding to anger passively gives us no resolution of the anger. The anger hangs around and has a tendency to build up, like pressure under the earth’s crust that will eventually build up enough to burst out in a catastrophic, violent volcano that wipes out innocent bystanders.
Responding to anger aggressively may make us feel better in the moment, but later there is often guilt, regret and other consequences of the harmful impact of aggression.
If we respond to a cause of anger passively we ignore our own wants for the sake of avoiding conflict. We treat the other party as more important than ourselves and let them have their way so we don’t have to face the discomfort of conflict.
If we respond to a cause of anger aggressively we think only about our own wants and try to end conflict as quickly as possible with force, igoring the wants of the other party.
Both passivity and aggression involve poor distress tolerance – we believe we can’t cope with our anger, so we try to bottle it up with passivity or quickly discharge it with aggression.
In between passivity and aggression on the spectrum of responses to anger sits a skill known as assertiveness. When we are assertive we treat both our own wants and the wants of others as important. We don’t flee conflict, but apply skills of communication to engage in conflict non-aggressively and seek to optimally meet the needs of both parties. We speak up for ourselves, but we also listen to others.
Three steps of assertiveness
The first step to assertiveness is being able to honestly express yourself. This means instead of saying, “You are a selfish and ungrateful pig who never treats me with respect!” (which is almost certainly an exaggeration, no matter who it is said to), you say, “I feel disrespected and angry because you didn’t call to tell me you would be late for dinner tonight” (if that is what you are actually upset about right now). You don’t need to justify your anger with the entire sum of every injustice you have ever suffered … the situation that has upset you is justification enough.
The second step to assertiveness is to facilitate communication that might allow the problem to be resolved. The other party may make this impossible by being defensive, refusing to listen or refusing to communicate their position. If so, you have done what you can and, at the very least, you’ve let them know how you feel, and why.
The third step to assertiveness is to maintain boundaries – don’t allow the discussion to be dragged into old history, unrelated complaints or strategies intended to emotionally manipulate you and invalidate your complaint. (“Oh yeah?! Well how dare you complain I’m late when only last month you made us late to the concert because you forgot to fill the petrol tank on the car!”) How can boundaries be maintained? By any method you like to bring the discussion back to the issue at hand. It could range from simply repeating your original complaint and ignoring the attempted diversion to explicitly pointing out that they are getting off-topic and offering to discuss those concerns after the current issue has been addressed.
Being assertive doesn’t guarantee you get what you want
No matter how skilled you are at practising assertiveness, the other party may be unwilling to participate in a mutually agreeable resolution. Assertiveness is not magic. But even when the outcome isn’t as favourable as you might have liked, there is great benefit in knowing you did your best, and expressed yourself. The alternatives were to be passive and unheard, or aggressive and remorseful.
For the most part, anger that is directed to assertiveness is harmless anger. Not only that, it can be helpful anger: Anger that leads to assertiveness is anger that had you stand up for something that was important to you without hurting people. If someone does end up hurt, that is probably a result of their own mishandling of conflict.