If you’re the kind of person who likes to think of themselves as calm, cool, and collected, there’s a good chance you’re angrier than you realize (or want to admit).
Because anger isn’t a very socially acceptable emotion, many people end up masking it. And sometimes they’ve been masking their anger for so long—and are so “good” at it—they don’t even realize they’re angry anymore.
But here’s the problem:
No matter how good you are at hiding your anger, it will come out one way or the other.
As a psychologist, I regularly work with people who insist that they’re not angry, only to realize that many of their most unhelpful tendencies and habits are the result of unexplored anger.
Being angry isn’t a bad thing. But if you’re not self-aware enough to acknowledge it, the side effects can cause a lot of suffering for you and the people in your life.
Here are 5 signs you might actually be angrier than you think and a few suggestions for dealing with that anger in a healthy way.
1. Chronic Anxiety
Many people end up chronically anxious because they’re so afraid of their anger that they’ll take on any amount of stress in order to avoid it.
On the face of it, people who are chronically anxious look the exact opposite of angry. If anything they come across as meek, unassuming, or even pushovers.
But here’s the thing…
Just because you don’t look and act angry doesn’t mean you’re not feeling angry.
Anger is a natural human emotion we all feel as a result of injustice or boundary violations. For example:
- If a bully steals your lunch at school, it’s natural to feel angry about it.
- If you hear a news report of some innocent person being abused or taken advantage of, you’re going to feel angry about it.
- If your spouse sarcastically criticizes your outfit, you’re probably going to feel angry about it.
And more than just a sign that some injustice has been committed, anger is also fuel for rectifying it…
- Where would the civil rights movement be if no one got angry about slavery and racism?
- Where would democracy be if no one got angry at tyranny and fascism?
But a lot of people fear getting angry—or making others angry—so much that they take on huge amounts of stress and anxiety as a result of avoiding the anger.
For example, take the little boy who grew up with an alcoholic and abusive parent… He learned quickly as a kid that expressing his own anger and frustration only got him hurt and abused.
So now, even though he isn’t physically in danger anymore, he’s in the habit of ignoring his anger. As a result, he never stands up for himself…
- He takes on way too much work in his job which keeps him stressed and anxious. All because he’s afraid to express his anger about giving too much work.
- He remains in a verbally abusive relationship because he’s afraid of his spouse’s anger and the conflict that would ensue if he stood up for himself. So he’s always worried about upsetting his spouse.
- He even has a hard time disciplining his children when he needs to because he’s afraid of his anger and theirs. So he’s constantly stressed and anxious about the way his kids are growing up.
Anxiety is often the price of unacknowledged anger.
Just because you’re not angry with other people doesn’t mean you’re not angry. Self-directed anger is a real thing too—with plenty of destructive consequences if left unchecked.
A lot of people assume they’re not angry because they never get angry with other people. They’re nice, friendly, tolerant, empathetic, and even quite patient when it comes to other people.
And because they rarely get angry at others, they almost never look visibly angry:
- They don’t shout or scream
- They don’t act out or get aggressive
- They don’t lose their cool when things go wrong
But looks can be deceiving…
Some of the angriest people I’ve ever met look like absolute sweethearts to everyone else—even to the people who know them well like spouses or parents.
How is this possible?
For many people, their anger is self-directed and manifests as an extreme type of negative self-talk called rumination.
Rumination is the mental habit of intensely negative and unproductive self-talk about mistakes or errors in the past.
- An offhand comment by a friend at dinner triggers a memory of a mistake you made in the past and you spend the rest of your evening dwelling on that mistake and all the negative consequences in your life that came from it.
- Your manager at work gives you some specific negative feedback about a recent piece of work and you spend hours distracted by thoughts and of how you could have done better and why you’re always such a screw-up.
The key insight here is subtle but important:
While rumination often leads to sadness and shame, it’s usually fueled by self-anger.
Because most people identify with the consequences of their rumination habit, they don’t realize how important a role anger is playing in their life.
- Just because anger isn’t externalized or directed at another person doesn’t mean it’s not there.
- And just because your anger isn’t leading to destructive behaviors with others, doesn’t mean it isn’t leading to destructive behaviors with yourself.
If you struggle with rumination, self-criticism, or perfectionism, there’s a good chance that becoming more self-aware about your anger will help you escape the cycle.
3. Passive-Aggressive Communication
People become passive-aggressive when they experience intense anger but are afraid to acknowledge it.
When people are passive-aggressive it means that they act in an aggressive way in order to get what they want but try to hide it in order to avoid taking responsibility for the consequences of their aggression.
Here are a few examples to illustrate:
- Chronically being late for appointments or meetings but always having some excuse or another ready to explain it.
- “Having” a stomach ache right before you were supposed to meet up with that friend you don’t really like but feel like to have to hang out with occasionally.
- Doing work poorly around the office so that someone else ends up doing it.
The problem with this habit of passive-aggressive behavior is that it doesn’t really work—not in the long run…
- Eventually, you begin to be perceived as flaky, unreliable, and irresponsible by key people in your life. And as a result, your relationships suffer and you feel more and more isolated and alone.
- What’s more, on a deep level you perceive yourself this way too. The result is chronic low self-esteem, shame, and self-loathing.
The only way out of this cycle of passive-aggression is to practice being more assertive. This means learning to acknowledge your anger and frustration and act on it when appropriate. But to do it in a way that’s both honest to your own wants and needs but also respectful of those of others.
Becoming more assertive doesn’t mean denying your anger. It means acknowledging it and validating it so that you can deal with it in a healthy way instead of it “coming out” in unhealthy ways.
Venting, complaining, bitching, whining… call it whatever you want. But at the end of the way, if you’re doing it a lot, you’re probably more angry than you realize.
Do you vent a lot with friends, family, or coworkers? If so, that might be a good indicator that you’ve got a lot more unacknowledged anger and frustration in your life than you realize.
See, for a long-time, the way psychologists thought and talked about anger was that it was a kind of toxic substance that had to be released or else it would be harmful. As a result, the idea of “venting” your anger became popularized and encouraged by a lot of therapists, counselors, and advisors.
Unfortunately, turns out the whole cathartic theory of anger is a complete myth. And worse than that, simply venting your anger only intensifies it in the long run.
Instead, the healthiest way to deal with anger is to acknowledge it, validate it, act on it assertively if you need to or just let it be if you don’t.
This means that if you’re the kind of person who vents a lot, or if you would label yourself a chronic complainer, the better strategy is to A) get better at acknowledging your anger or frustrations, and B) Either do something about them or let them go.
We like to vent because it gives us the illusion of working on things. But it doesn’t actually address the issues making you frustrated in the first place. And even though it might feel good in the moment to vent, it only keeps those flames burning longer in the end.
Remember it’s perfectly healthy to feel frustrated and angry. But how you deal with those feelings can be healthy or unhealthy.
Many people mask their anger by expressing it in the form of coolly intellectual criticism of others.
If you tend to be overly critical or judgmental of other people, that might be a sign that you’ve got some unacknowledged anger to explore.
Here’s how it works…
- Often people feel bad about themselves in some big way—maybe they’re afraid to make a big life-change, for example, even though they know it’s the right thing for them to do.
- This pain or inadequacy hurts, of course. But over time, what’s even worse, is the guilt and shame they feel for not doing anything about it even though they know they should.
- Eventually, this guilt and shame become self-directed anger and resentment. But still, they feel stuck…
- So in order to temporarily alleviate all of this negativity, they resort to criticizing or judging others as a kind of coping mechanism for their own low self-esteem.
- Because when you criticize someone else, you implicitly communicate that you know better, which temporarily makes you feel good about yourself.
- Of course, in the long-run, this judgmentalness becomes one more thing to feel bad about yourself for.
The thing is… many people who are in this habit of being judgmental of others, look the opposite of angry—they seem cool and detached in an intellectual or hyper-analytical way.
But here’s the thing…
This cool intellectual criticism of others is often just a mask for our own insecurities and self-directed anger.
You can only deal with your insecurities and self-anger if you are aware of it and are willing to explore it. And your habit of being critical of others may not subside until you address this core motivator for it.
All You Need to Know
There’s nothing wrong with being angry. It’s a normal human emotion and has a great many important functions. But if you’re in denial about your anger that’s when you can get into trouble.
These 5 signs are useful indicators to help you explore the role that anger may or may not play in your life:
- Chronic Anxiety
- Passive-Aggressive Communication
12 CommentsAdd Yours
As always great article! Thank you, it helped me recognize my own anger.
Nevertheless, I was hoping you could address in more detail the subject of how to deal with anger. What would be the healthiest way to deal with it? You mentioned to acknowledge it, validate it, and act on it assertively. Would you care to elaborate on it?
I’ve got just the thing 🙂
This article is all about practical ways to manage anger in a healthy way:
How do you differentiate resentment from anger?
The article you point to on managing anger in healthy ways seems to deal with the anger of the moment, and the resulting aggressions – something “hot”.
Whereas the “anger” of this article points to 5 ways the repressed anger is going underground. This seems to be more long term anger, something simmering, not from the moment now, but from the past that continues to get enacted in the now. Dealing with this underground anger from the past seems different to me than dealing with the heated anger of the moment. The latter is needed to preempt aggressions, but not sufficient. The underlying from the past and its triggers remain.
The trouble of course is when dealing with the anger from the past assertively is not an option, nor is accepting it. And when people also recognize that anger is unproductive, they end up stuck. Anger useless, not accepting, no access to repairing – then what?
I think these two articles might address what you’re asking about better:
Thank you Nick ..you have no idea how deeply your sound advice helps …
You always have the best articles!
Aw, thanks Rachel! 🙂
Wow, this is so dead on, it’s scary…
What an eye-opener this is! Thank you!
Never saw it this way before. Thank you very much Nick for the insight.
Forgive my forwardness here but, I’m really looking forward to having a little chat with you if you don’t mind
I think of folks in retail or customer service work. They have to deal with others frustration and angst. I have a few friends who are quitting just to save their sanity. This article is a beginning, and I hope more articles like this could be written to calm down a country in disregulation.
Thanks, Nick. Very useful article. I was able to connect myself to many points & shall take the remedial step for myself.