What’s Your Anger Style?

Sixteen ways to manage your frustration, whether you have a quick temper or a biting sense of humor.

  • Jenna McCarthy

Anger Style: Explosive

What it looks like: "If you leave your jacket on the floor one more time, I'm leaving you!" It may take a lot to push you over the edge, but when you get there, the earth shakes and people run for cover.
Why you might do it: If you were never taught how to deal with irritation, you may habitually swallow it until you can swallow no more. Eventually your top will blow. Some people are anger junkies, who get off on the adrenaline rush of an emotional explosion, not to mention the fact that the onslaught can mean they get their way―at least in the short term.
The damage: It is virtually impossible to feel empathy and anger simultaneously, so in the heat of the moment, you are more likely to say and do overly harsh things that you later regret.

How to Turn It Around
  • Wait it out. "Research has shown that the neurological anger response lasts less than two seconds," says Ronald Potter-Efron, Ph.D., an anger-management specialist in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and a coauthor of Letting Go of Anger. Beyond that, it takes a commitment to stay angry. Mentally recite the Pledge of Allegiance or count to 10 and see if the urge to explode has diminished.
  • Own your emotions. A simple rephrasing of your feelings can help you feel more in control. "I'm really upset by your behavior" is much more effective and empowering than %#*&@!.

Anger Style: Self-Abuse

What it looks like: "It's my fault he doesn't help me. I'm a terrible wife." You find a way to make everything your fault, every single time.
Why you might do it: Somewhere along the line, your self-esteem took a beating and you decided that sometimes it's just safer and easier to be mad at yourself than at someone else.
The damage: Constantly turning angry feelings inward can set you up for continued disappointments and even depression.

How to Turn It Around
  • Question yourself. Every time you feel the urge to assume blame, start by asking yourself, "Who told me I was responsible for this?" Then ask, "Do I really believe that?" Instead of accepting all responsibility, thank yourself for recognizing the pattern in the first place.
  • Work on your self-worth. Make a list of your positive qualities. Developing a genuine sense of worthiness is a critical step in overcoming self-blame. Seek out a professional if you need more help in working around this issue.
 

Anger Style: Avoidance

What it looks like: "I'm fine. It's fine. Everything's fine." Even when there's a fireball of rage burning in your gut, you paste on a happy face and dodge any display of irritation. This isn't passive aggression; it's buried aggression.
Why you might do it: "Women in particular are told over and over again to be nice no matter what. Get angry and you could lose your reputation, marriage, friends, or job," says Potter-Efron. If you grew up in a volatile or abusive home, you may not believe anger can be controlled or expressed calmly.
The damage: The primary function of anger is to signal that something is amiss and encourage resolution. By ignoring that warning sign, you may end up engaging in self-destructive behaviors (overeating, excessive shopping). You're also basically giving the green light to other people's bad behavior or denying them the opportunity to make amends. How can they apologize if they don't know you've been hurt?

How to Turn It Around
  • Challenge your core beliefs. Ask yourself, "Is it really fine for my employees to leave early whenever they want? For my partner to go golfing every weekend?" If you're honest, the resounding answer to these questions is probably "You know what? It's not fine." Recognizing that something is wrong is the first step to setting it right. 
  • Step outside yourself. Imagine that a friend is the one being abused, overworked, or neglected. What would be the appropriate way for her to respond? Make a list of actions she might take, then ask yourself why it is OK for her, but not you, to react that way. 
  • Embrace healthy confrontation. Someone ticked you off? Tell the person―in a positive, constructive way. Yes, he or she might be surprised, possibly even (gasp!) angered, by your words. And you know what? He or she will get over it. "Avoidance often does more damage to families and friendships than any expression of anger," says Potter-Efron.

Anger Style: Sarcasm

What it looks like: "It's OK that you're late. I had time to read the menu―40 times." You find a roundabout way of getting your digs in, with a half smile.
Why you might do it: You were probably raised to believe that expressing negative emotions directly isn't OK, so you take a more indirect route. If folks get mad, it's their fault, not yours. After all, you were just kidding. Can't people take a joke?
The damage: Even though couched in wit, your cutting comments can damage your relationships. Although some people insist that mockery is a form of intellectual humor, the very word sarcasm is related to the Greek word sarkazein, meaning "to tear flesh like dogs." Ouch.

How to Turn It Around
  • Give it to them straight. "Sarcasm is passive-aggressive communication," explains Todd. Find words to express how you feel head-on. You might explain to a tardy friend, say, after you're seated, "I wish you would try to be on time, especially when you know we have limited time."
  • Be firm and clear. This is especially true with children, to whom a gentle "Jumping on the furniture is not acceptable" sends a much clearer message than the snarky "Don't worry―we just happen to have $2,000 set aside for a new sofa."
  • Speak up before you get bitter. Exercising assertiveness prior to arriving at your breaking point can help prevent a sarcastic streak from popping out.
 

Anger Style: Passive-Aggressive

What it looks like: "Oops. Did I delete all those old baseball games from the TiVo?" You don't hide or swallow your anger, but you express it in an underhanded way.
Why you might do it: You dislike confrontation, but you're no pushover, either. "People become 'anger sneaks' when they believe they can't stand up to others," says Potter-Efron. Some people who are cautious by nature turn to this style when they feel pushed outside their comfort zones.
The damage: You frustrate people. Todd puts it another way: "You're living your life around making sure other people don't get what they want, instead of striving for what would make you happy." The bottom line: No one wins.

How to Turn It Around
  • Give yourself permission to get angry. Tell yourself that anger is your psyche's way of saying you're tired of being pushed around. A mantra: Assertiveness is fine; aggression (passive or otherwise) is not.
  • Advocate for yourself. Instead of "forgetting" to turn in your report at work or showing up late to meetings, gather your courage and tell your boss that your workload has gotten too heavy or that you're having an issue with a coworker. It won't be easy, but neither is looking for another job.
  • Take control. If you turn to passive aggression when you're uncomfortable with what's expected of you, it's important to do something to take the reins of your situation. Unable to manage the house or the finances solo? Rather than doing a haphazard job of it (subconsciously, of course), tell your partner how important it is that he contributes.
     

Anger Style: Habitual Irritation

What it looks like: "I am sick and tired of you borrowing my stapler! Get your own!" This is often less a reaction to events and more a default option. It's always on unless you consciously turn it off.
Why you might do it: If your discontent dwells directly below the surface and is constantly seeping through, there's probably resentment, regret, or frustration boiling beneath. Maybe your coworker got the promotion and you didn't. Or your marriage is falling apart and you're not sure why.
The damage: If you're always ready to blow, friends, family, and coworkers may take great pains to avoid upsetting you. Or they may avoid you altogether. The most likely result? No progress―you stay stuck in the same vicious cycle.
How to Turn It Around
  • Get to the heart of it. What are you really mad about? If you dig deep, you'll realize it probably isn't about a stapler―or dirty socks on the floor, or an empty milk carton in the refrigerator, or any of the other small things that make you so frustrated. Consider professional intervention if you can't get to the bottom of it on your own.
  • Tune in to anger clues. Become aware of the actions and feelings associated with your irritation. When you're enraged, do you ball your hands into fists? Pace around the room? Grumble, swear, or grit your teeth? As you identify and experience each physiological response, make a mindful effort to do something―anything―else.
  • Visualize peace. Try this technique to stop rising anger before it overtakes you. Imagine your breath as a wave, a surge of color, or even a breeze. Watch it come in and out; optimally each breath will be deep and quiet. Hear yourself speaking calmly and softly to yourself and to others. Your anger reflex should diminish another degree each time you do this imaging.