Anger, Aggression, Passivity, and Passive-Aggressiveness

All anger comes from demands we make of ourself or others.  Think back to the last time you were irate.  Was it because something didn’t go your way?  Did someone behave badly towards you?  Did you do something you thought you shouldn’t?  Perhaps, some injustice occurred on a national level.  In each situation your demanding something be different was the cause of your distress.

Whatever the reason for your anger, it’s imperative to let yourself feel it.  This may be especially hard for women, as our culture still fears and frowns on women’s rage.  But that need not deter you because feeling anger doesn’t mean expressing it to others.  Acknowledging your reaction allows you to understand yourself better, and to see which things push your buttons.

People used to think there were only two ways of dealing with anger: express it or suppress it.  Giving vent to one’s rage usually results in short-term gain (immediate emotional relief) and long-term pain (difficulties in your relationship).  Suppression also provides short-term gain (denial means not feeling the corrosive emotion) and long term pain (when the consequences of not voicing your thoughts and feelings come back to bite you).  Luckily, there are other options; namely, change your thoughts so fewer things incite your ire, and learn to respond assertively instead of passively or passive-aggressively.

Once you recognize that all anger is born of demands you can start questioning them.  First, ask yourself what your demand might be.  Let’s say, it’s, “My boss shouldn’t have promoted that bozo over me.”  Helpful questions to yourself might be: “What law of the universe says my boss shouldn’t do what she wants?  Isn’t she in charge?  Must I like and agree with every decision she makes?”  Then, answer the questions: “She has every right to promote whomever she wants.  I may not like it or agree, but she’s the boss.  If I think my work is undervalued I can look for another job, or work harder to get more recognition.”  The bottom line is: people are going to do what they want to, not what you think they should. You can’t change them, but you can change your attitude.  Practice questioning your demands and see how much more you accept life as it is rather than railing against reality.

One of the most prevalent misconceptions about assertiveness is that it’s aggression.  That couldn’t be further from the truth.  Assertiveness is simply saying what you want in a gentle, but forthright way.   Imagine your friend asks if you can go out with her.  You want to spend the evening at home.  You say, “Thank you for inviting me, but I have other plans.”  Your other plans might be watching paint dry.  It’s immaterial.  The point is you just asserted yourself.  You did what you wanted to, rather than giving in and then resenting your friend.  Typically, your friend will try to convince you to go out with her.  This is where people usually crumble, because they think they have to come up with a different answer since the first one obviously didn’t work.  Not so.  The first answer was fine, your friend simply ignored it.  All you have to do is repeat exactly what you said the first time.  You may have to repeat it again if they can’t take no for an answer, but you don’t need to re-invent the wheel each time.

Passivity is a sure-fire way to end up brimming with resentments because you’re always capitulating to someone’s else’s desires.  The antidote to self-effacing behavior is to practice assertiveness.  Ask for, at least, one thing you want every day.  This may be at home, work, or at the grocery store.  When you practice assertiveness you burn new neural pathways in the brain.  In time, these become so strong they actually end up overriding the old ones.

Passive-aggressive behavior is more subtle, but you know it when you see it.  It lets people get their anger out while maintaining an unassailable position.  For example: your friend says she’ll be happy to get you your favorite bread when she goes to the bakery, but she forgets. You can’t really blame her or get angry because you’ll look unreasonable.  After all, she just forgot.  She didn’t do it on purpose. (This isn’t passive-aggressive if it happens once in a great while, but if it’s a pattern she’s probably getting her anger out unconsciously.)   Other passive-aggressive behaviors include whispering to make it hard for people to hear you, walking two steps behind someone no matter what their gait, getting sick when you promised to do something you don’t want to do, slamming cupboards and doors and saying you’re not angry,  hurting someone’s feelings and then getting angry at them for not being able to take a joke, always being late, or forgetting things that are important to others.

If you find yourself acting in these ways and want to stop try being more assertive.  Practice asking for what you want, telling people what you think in a kind and direct way, and keeping your comments short and to the point. Over-talking when you feel uncomfortable, or put on the spot may be your natural defense mechanism, but resist it.

Copyright Nicole S. Urdang

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Nicole Urdang

Nicole S. Urdang, M.S., NCC, DHM is a Holistic Psychotherapist in Buffalo, NY. She holds a New York state license in mental health counseling and a doctorate in homeopathic medicine from the British Institute of Homeopathy.