Anger is the feeling we have that tells us that something is wrong. That wrong could be a threat, an inefficient thing or a situation of powerlessness. This feeling can prompt several different responses, a spectrum of inaction (passive, passive aggression) to action (assertive, aggression, getting out).
Last time [link] we looked at understanding anger – what is the feeling for and how do we judge what it is trying to tell us.
In this post we look at our responses to anger.
In the next post [link], we will look at what you can do when you realise your anger is not helping you.
Responses to Anger
Belo is a diagram model that helps understand anger responses. As the threat approaches (crossing boundaries) we should have an escalating response to that threat.
Passive means no direct action is taken. This phase is preparing for a worsening of the event and induces mild stress to the self.
Generally we have a passive response when we feel that it will take more energy to fix the problem than the problem deserves, or that the problem will leave on its own, or that we just simply can’t actually do anything that would have a positive outcome.
Passive aggressive also means no direct action is taken to the perceived threat, however indirect action is present. This phase is trying to non-directly tackle the problem or vent off stress to manage the self.
Either a perceived power imbalance between you and the threat exists (eg the boss is telling you to do a rotten job) or the effort required to fix the problem (quitting) seems worse than putting up with the problem or there is some other reason not to directly address the perceived threat. Yet the stress has built to the point where something needs to be done. This introduced the idea of venting.
When we feel powerless against the problem, we will find ways to demonstrate power in some way, even if that is going to penalise us later. We will do the task poorly, or promise to do the task and not do so, or undermine the thing in some other way. This gorilla tactic is about non-direct confrontation to prove that we have a say, even though we don’t.
So I can’t yell at the boss, because the consequence of that would be me losing my job and I really need my job. I can, however, take it out on Alex, who has done something that I can justify venting my aggression at. Alex, of course, doesn’t feel they deserve this. And they are right, because the thing that I am actually upset with isn’t anything to do with Alex, and the excuse of my aggression is a flimsy lie to justify my action. I have transferred my anger at my boss to an innocent bystander.
Often we take out work aggression on family, or family aggression on friends. A key element of who we pick to transfer our anger to is that they seem less powerful than the source of the anger, and we feel that we have a safer venting ability with them – that is, the consequence to our action will be less. We either hope that the victim of theis transferred aggression will understand, or feel sufficiently powerless that they will just put up with it.
Debriefing is about talking about the problem to anyone and everyone. This is actually somewhat useful as a mechanism as it increases the chances of finding a solution that we haven’t thought of. There is also a chance that someone that we grumble to will directly fix the problem for us.
Often, though, we aren’t looking for solutions, we are looking to vent our frustrations in a non-aggressive way. We are not receptive to solutions, only sympathy.
When we grumble to someone else and they fix our problem for us, we learn that we can’t fix the problem ourselves. Instead when next we have a problem, we grumble yet again. When this doesn’t work, we feel trapped and helpless. We have accidentally taught ourselves learned helplessness.
When we can’t grumble, don’t dare transfer aggression, or do a gorilla tactic to sabotage the problem, we may find ourselves trying to release stress in another way. We can’t direct the damage out there, so we internalise it.
Self harm can be done in a number of ways. It can be substance abuse, diet abuse, tissue damage, social harm, financial harm and so on. The common element to all of these is it is bad for the self.
This harm expresses or relieves the internal pain in an external way that isn’t supposed to affect another. The worse the self harm, the more it indicates the stress that the self is under such that this is the way to vent that strain.
On the one hand this is a useful way to relieve the stress before it becomes explosively bad – suicide or murder – but on the other hand it delays actually solving the problem such that self harm is not needed. One should not stop self harming if the trigger problem still exists and no ameliorating actions have been put in place. Also note, this is not black and white – go see a professional and get good advice about your situation, how to reduce the problem and how to reduce your self harm.
Being assertive is all about having the confidence to be forceful and powerful in your position and pushing a solution forwards in a non-aggressive way.
This should be the first method of resolving the problem use employ.
If the cause of your anger is another person, then surely they should be intelligent, capable and willing to resolve the problem with you. This “surely” has a number of assumptions built into it – assuming the other person has the capacity to understand the problem, the insight to recognise their share of the responsibility of the problem and the willingness to do something about the problem.
When this assumption is correct, then working with the other person to resolve the problem is relatively simple and effective. However the other person may not be as willing as you are to take on their share of the burden, or willing to acknowledge how big of a problem there really is, leaving you to be the one to shoulder the solution and the consequences of it.
Assertiveness is used to not allow the other person to shirk their responsibility. Clearly you need to have a good idea about what is your responsibility and what isn’t, what you should do and what you shouldn’t, and what you are willing to accept and what you aren’t. Knowing these things allows you to more confidently confront the other person and push your agenda forwards.
It is important to remember that you are supposed to be working collaboratively with the other person towards a solution rather than finding ways to blame the other person for everything that has gone wrong. There is a big difference between recognising an error and finding fault in a person.
“When you did this thing, the result was bad” versus “you are bad for doing this thing”.
If you are too passive in your approach, you permit the other person to make the problem yours and therefore the solution yours to do. If you are too aggressive, the other person may try to resist you or will leave out of fear. Assertive is that bit in between being passive and being aggressive (not to be mistaken for the passive aggressive phase) where you stand up for yourself but are also willing to acknowledge that you can change things too.
Beware of losing focus on the problem. If the other person is manipulative they will seek to find fault in you about things that are not relevant to this problem to distract from the things they have done that have contributed to this problem. So while it is important to recognise that you will need to make some changes to resolve this problem, it must be focused on this problem and balanced with what the other person has done and will do about this problem.
I’ll write a post about more on this soon.
When the cause of the problem is a non-animal, such as a defective item, then calming down and finding a logical solution to the problem is highly effective. For example, computers don’t respond well to violence. They just break or ignore your swearing. However a logical solution will exist- replace a part, try a different command, re-install the program, upgrade the machine etc.
If none of these work, then consider a new plan. For example, I may be frustrated that it will just take too long to get from this part of my holiday plan to a thing that I want to see. No logical solution will fix that – some things are just not feasible. So either I need to sacrifice some of my holiday elsewhere to make this work, or give up seeing this side line thing.
Aggression is the solution to solving problems when we can’t reason with the cause of the problem, or can’t find a reasonable solution. It is a solution that either threatens to use or actually does use violence.
Aggression should be the last ditch effort to solve a problem, or a solution born of desperation.
Direct Physical Threats
Previously I talked about a dangerous dog attacking. Passive won’t work – I’ll get bitten. Passive aggressive won’t work – I’ll get bitten. Assertiveness won’t work – I’ll get bitten. Aggression is my solution.
There are stages to aggression.
The first part of aggression is looking like we are ready to do violence. This means seeming bigger (standing taller, hands on hips and elbows out, puffing out the cheeks slightly), sounding more menacing (deepening the voice, being louder), using threatening body language (raising a hand, looming over another, getting into their personal space) and some other body language means to communicate that you are not only ready for violence, but that you will win.
If this bit is done successfully, the fight is over before it begins and you won.
Using the dangerous dog example, using my angry voice I scream at the dog. This comes out more as a roar than a high pitched scream. The roar indicates ability to do harm, the high pitched scream indicates being a victim. This is still about bluff.
Humans respond more to promises of harm. If the other person believes they will be hurt and tunes into that future pain, they may rethink their action. This is about bluffing the person into believing the fight is not worth their effort, that they will experience more harm than the good they are hoping to achieve.
Again, if this bit is done successfully, the fight is over before it begins.
Demonstrations of Violence
Demonstrating violence on things around you show your ability to do harm if needed. This can be foot stomping, banging on things, breaking an item near you, slamming doors or knocking furniture over. This shows not only a willingness to create damage, but an ability to do so as well.
As a worst case scenario, you are in for a fight. You have not managed to fend the dangerous dog off with threats of violence and it is actively trying to bite you. Now you need to use your body to minimise harm to yourself and cause harm to another. There are excellent self defence courses you can go to in order to learn the most effective ways to remain safe, do escalating damage to another and stay within the legal limits of the law for self defence.
I am certainly not going to cover that here.
If the threat of direct physical violence to you is not present – there is no dangerous dog or human – then aggression is not your solution. But it may feel like it is.
We often substitute a feeling of powerlessness with aggression. If a bit of effort doesn’t resolve the problem, then more surely will. We want to escalate the effort until the thing is fixed. Consider trying to get a thumb tack into the wall. If the wall is harder than expected, then the thumb tack doesn’t go in by just pushing it, so we want to get a bigger thing, like a hammer, to hit it in. If that doesn’t work, we reach for a bigger hammer.
Often the solution isn’t try harder. It is try smarter. The smarter idea for the thumb tack is not to use a sledge hammer (you’ll just squish the thumb tack), it is to instead pre-drill the wall. Perhaps a thumb tack isn’t the solution you should be using on this wall.
Working with government agencies can be a nightmare of red tape and powerlessness. We think the solution should be simple, but we have to fill in form after form after form. We do all the things we are told, despite the contradictions, and still get nowhere or are told we are ineligible. We have tried to be passive (comply with the forms), assertive (work with the front desk staff) and now we feel aggression is our best answer.
The temptation is to yell, be belligerent and create a problem.
The actual solution is that you need a new plan. A bigger hammer won’t solve the thumb tack in the wall. Instead, using a smarter tool or change the thumb tack. In this case, go to the complaints line and then the should that not work ombudsman. Becoming aggressive to the front desk staff just won’t work.
There are times to tactically lose your shit. That is, snap a bit, look dangerous, clearly regain control of yourself and be reasonable again. This shows the other person that you are pissed off, but trying to be reasonable. Now is the time to say something like “I get that you can’t help me, and I know you want to, and clearly this should be a reasonable thing. So, what can I do now? Where further can I take this?”
Sometimes it is important to relay to the other person just how angry you are. However if they fear you, you are probably not going to get what you want. Instead it is about appropriate levels of display. There is a huge difference between a clear and crisp swear word, a pause and a retry versus knocking the staff members monitor off the table. Don’t do the latter.
In the next article [link], we will look at what you can do to manage how you feel.