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Expressing Anger Assertively

Anger does not need to be aggressive or hostile. In fact, aggressive anger is more likely to create separation, division and pain. The assertive expression of anger on the other hand, holds the prospect of bringing people together, creating positive change and drawing healthy boundaries.

Not everyone will respond positively to either hostile or assertive anger. And we should not try to control others reactions. In fact, in expressing anger in any form we cannot hold onto a given outcome. When we need someone to respond in a specific way we are trying to manipulate or control them.

When we let others react without expectation we are more likely to stay clear as to what we want or don’t want. Staying clear allows us to dynamically work through the situation or make decisions that change the situation to create what we want or don’t want.

One approach to expressing assertive anger can look like this:

1. When this happened (action/inaction/behavior/)

2. I felt ….. (mad, sad, angry, excited, happy, tender)

3. Because… (the impact or effect of the action/inaction/behavior)

4. My judgment (or story) about the situation is…

5. What I want (or don’t want) is….

Notice in this approach the focus of attention is placed on behavior, impact and me (using I statements). People are more likely to get defensive when we make the situation about them personally.

As you take this type of approach to expressing anger you increase the odds you will create a healthy outcome for you and those involved.

I am designing a online 12 week training program that will support individuals in expressing and responding to anger in a constructive way. If you interested contact me at ted (at)

Anger as a Cover for Fear

Understanding and recognizing the signs of anger has been a focus of mine for a long time. Early on some of the causes of anger were elusive, at times unexpected and it seemed to show up for no good reason. Over time I came to see many of the patterns that can trigger anger in us.

One of the triggers of anger that I have come to recognize is fear. Not everyone responds to fear this way and even for those that do, they may not respond with anger to every situation where they feel fear.

For some, expressing fear can feel risky or vulnerable. If we speak our fear the other individual may have a reaction we do not want to experience. They may feel anger, fear, sadness, etc. and then respond to us in a way that we do not want. Instead of expressing the real feeling of fear we express anger, which might not feel as vulnerable.

For example, you and I disagree on a particular topic or issue. I feel strongly about my point of view and I want you to hear my perspective. While I want you to hear my point of view I also feel fear of telling you what I think. Now, to avoid feeling my fear of your reaction I get angry. In this situation my anger becomes a cover for my fear of your reaction. For me, my anger may feel safer than expressing my fear.

So what is the impact of using anger to cover for our fear? When this interaction is not resolved it can create a level of separation between the two individuals. On the other end of the spectrum, expressing our opinion, our fear or by working through the angry response down into the fear can create the opposite effect. By expressing what is true for us we create an opportunity to deepen the relationship. In our intimate relationships it can deepen and renew our intimacy and our level of attraction to each other.

The Art of Connection

Over the past weekend I staffed a men's weekend, a retreat of sorts, attended by a total of 70 men. As a staff member there is a lot of ongoing preparation and work to keep everything running smoothly.

With that many men and so much to do things can get intense, egos can come into play, wanting to take center stage. Surprising as this may sound, egos were kept in check and the weekend ran smoothly. It was a great weekend with these men developing connection and relationship while working together.

So what do I credit for these men being able to create a relatively ego free weekend?

Speaking up to tell what is going on for them, as it relates to themselves and others. What causes a lot of unnecessary tension and strife in any relationship is the tendency to make assumptions and to create stories about what the other person might be thinking. What I saw and experienced on this weekend were men speaking up about their reactions to others. It was about saying what was true for them, having integrity and being authentic, not in a hostile ego way but in a "this is what is going on for me" way.

Is it always easy to say what is true in a relationship? No, it is not. Sometimes it takes a lot of courage. And sometimes it is going to be messy and not end the way we would like it. So why would you want to take the risk of a messy and confrontational situation?

Because real connection and rich relationships come from speaking up rather than avoiding or withholding. Do you want to really enjoy a connection with another individual – take the risk of speaking up. I find that 90% of the time my relationships become richer, deeper and more satisfying.

Learning how or getting better at saying what is true for us is an art. It takes practice and like creating art – each attempt is likely to be unique and to turn out as we would like through our repeated practice.

Anger and Exhaustion

Anger is an emotion. And like any of our emotions, they can be influenced by our physical condition, out physical wellbeing.

It is a new idea for many of us to stop and pay attention to how we are feeling physically. Are we tired, exhausted, fatigued, burned-out, hung over?

I was well into my 30's before I made my physical wellbeing, beyond working out, a priority. Before that time I had the mind set of keep going, tough it out, your not sick or too tired until you can't get out of bed, etc., etc.

The result of pushing too hard for too long, not getting enough sleep on a regular basis, not taking down time to recharge, not stopping when we are sick can all lead to a higher likelihood of emotional overload. Once we hit emotional overload our ability to control the expression of our emotions can drop drastically.

Sleep, rest, breaks, down time all have an impact on our moods. Do you want to give more balance to your moods? Pay attention to how you feel physically.

Fear of Reaction to Anger

Anger can be healthy. Yes, it can also be destructive, hostile, and turned inward. But if there is healthy anger, the anger that is assertive and constructive, that can create and bring about what we really want in our lives, why don't we speak that anger?

There is more than one answer to that question. One reason is to avoid the reactions of others. I don't like to experience your (potential) reaction to my anger so I avoid speaking it to you. I would rather withhold what I really feel to keep the peace.

I would rather allow you to overstep my boundaries. I would forgo getting my wants and needs met. I would rather not say what I like and don't like. I would rather live less than satisfied, maybe sad and depressed much of the time.

What I have really done is lowered the bar for both us. By not stepping up I play smaller in my life and you will do the same. The unexpressed anger does not just impact this moment, it impacts all aspects of our life.

One weak spoke on the wheel of the bike affects the entire wheel. It can set it off balance and potentially bends the rim – which could cause a crash if not fixed. We play a part in that crash.

Anger & Healthy Relationships

Anger is critical to healthy relationships.

When I say anger is critical to healthy relationships I am referring to constructive anger, assertive anger – anger that communicates boundaries, wants and needs, likes and dislikes. The anger I am talking about does not need to be yelled or intense. In fact, it may not feel intense at all, but it is intentional and has a constructive purpose.

When anger is blocked and it is not used to define boundaries, wants and needs, likes and dislikes – we create a disconnect within ourselves. The disconnect also creates separation from us and others, especially the individual we are withholding the anger from.

Withholding constructive anger lessens the ability of the individuals involved to create what they want (in all aspects of their life).

In close relationships, such as families, unspoken anger is like rusty iron that holds up a bridge. The more rust that corrodes the iron of the bridge, the more unsafe the bridge becomes.

Anger Can Be Like Cooking

Anger can be a natural and healthy reaction to a situation or person. And there are also times when we can create anger and build it up for other reasons (e.g., a cover for disappointment, sadness, grief, success) by our conscious and/or unconscious thoughts.

I like to cook. The majority of the time I do not follow a recipe and I rarely replicate the same taste twice. I mix together foods and spices based on what I think will taste good. The bigger the meal I want to create the more thought that I typically put into it, though with practice it gets easier to create a big meal with less thought. The good thing, most of the time my family enjoys what I cook!

We can create anger much like creating a meal. At some level we have chosen to be angry (otherwise we would figure out how to stop it). We go about our day, week, etc., looking for things (ingredients) to add to the pot of justification. Maybe it is the towel on the floor, garage door left open, talking too much/talking too little, not getting the sales, etc, etc. The ingredients from one situation to the next may be different, but the intent on creating anger is the same. 

The more thought (consciously or unconsciously) we give to finding things to be angry about the more likely we will be angry and the more likely the anger will grow. With practice creating justification for our anger can be second nature, much like cooking a meal – we can do it with our eyes closed, unconsciously.

You may not call it anger. You might use the word frustration or disappointment. The words mean less than what you choose to create.

Anger – Pointing Fingers

Aggressive anger is destructive. Who wants it in their relationships, really? Deep down, even with old wounds, no one.

So what now. You are in a relationship with someone that expresses aggressive anger. Anger that hurts.

Yes, we can stand back and point the finger at that individual and say they have a problem, that is the easy part. The hard part is doing something more than just pointing figures. Doing something to stop or remove hurtful anger from our life can take courage. It may turn our life upside down for some time. It could change many things that you hold dear to yourself.

The question: Is there anything more important than you to you? What about your value and worth?

What if you laid out what you want and need and what you are not willing to accept? What if you (learned to) drew boundaries with your own assertive anger?

Make a commitment to yourself  and follow through on your word – your commitment to you.

Live your life full out! Let go of who you were and get on with being who you are and who you want to be.

Faces of Anger

Ok, there is the feeling or emotion of anger, but what do you picture when you think of anger?

At one time the only picture that came to my mind when I thought of anger was "aggressive anger". It tended to look out of control and destructive. Meant to intimidate, cause pain or damage someone or something.

In addition to aggressive anger there is "passive aggressive" anger, the anger that is not direct and assertive but round about and hostile. It is not outwardly aggressive in the direct way but it can be equally destructive as the aggressive anger expression

Another expression of anger is the "passive anger". Opposite of aggressive anger, the passive anger can fold in on itself. Instead of the individual getting bigger, they shrink away. It may not be obvious on the surface but there is typically a drop in energy. They are left finding other round about approaches to getting their needs met that can be ineffective and costly in time and energy.

The anger that is the most effective in creating a constructive outcome is the "assertive anger". It is clean and direct, with a positive intent. It can create healthy boundaries, bring clarity, communicate wants and needs. Assertive anger is powerful – a power meant to create versus the intent to hurt and destroy.

The true, most powerful and constructive expression of anger is the assertive anger. Using this approach over the others is a choice – albeit one that may take practice for those of us less skilled!

An Anger Stigma

With most things in life, too little or too much can have undesirable consequences. The expression or lack of expression of anger is no different, too much or too little can have undesirable and even more, harmful consequences.

Anger is a feeling/emotion. It does not need to be stuffed down or expressed through hostility. In it's purest form, anger is a healthy and powerful emotion.

For some individuals, expressing anger to create positive outcomes and consequences is a challenge. They have learned behaviors or have inherent traits (or both) that impact how they express or manage their anger. A learned behavior may be more obvious, you see tendencies in the family or social environment of some unhealthy anger withholding or expression. An inherent trait might be they experience their feelings as very strong and overwhelming, bringing anger out by the truckload.

In both of these situations there is a learning opportunity. Learning that can change the trajectory of an individuals ability to express or manage anger to create positive outcomes.

Instead of labeling the emotion of anger as good or bad, we can look at what we can do to express anger in a constructive way that create positive outcomes.