Updated: Jun 6
What comes to mind when you think of an 'angry person'? For many people, an image is conjured up of a loud, yelling voice, slammed doors, and broken dishes. It is true that these are some of the behaviours that can come along with experiences of unmanaged anger. However, anger is not always so dramatic, so readily noticeable, or so stereotypically presented. In fact, there are many different faces of problem anger. One style that can go under the radar is quiet anger. This is a form of anger in which anger may not be explicitly expressed but is nonetheless showing up. Quiet anger is often adopted as a reactionary style by people who recognize the harmful impact of the more visible aggressive in-your-face anger, ostensibly to avoid causing relationship and other kinds of problems. Unfortunately, despite these intentions, quiet anger ultimately takes a significant toll on relationships and the individual experiencing it. Quiet anger is problematic too. Let's take a look at why.
The Function of Anger
As a brief preamble, let's talk about the function of anger - the role it is supposed to play (riveting, I know!). What exactly is anger supposed to do for us? Every emotion we have has a function. Fear motivates us to move away from situations that are perceived to be threatening. Sadness can help others become aware that we need support and care. Sure, every emotion has a 'dark side'; fear or sadness can cripple us as much as they help us. But emotions do - in an ideal world - serve helpful functions for us. The 'dark side' of anger is clear. Where does the helpful part come in when we are talking about anger? The truth is, anger can be helpful. Anger is not just showing up to make us mad for the sake of being mad. When anger shows up
it can be a signal to us and those around us that our expectations and/or needs are not being met. When we are offered a salary than is less than we deserve, anger can motivate us to try and change the situation. When we encounter situations that are unjust and systems that are broken, anger awakens in us the will to demand change. Anger serves a function; there is a reason that anger is showing up. Those adopting an aggressive style are effective at communicating their needs and letting the other person know that there is a problem. In this case, the anger 'need' may be addressed. However, the style usually comes with many other consequences, including relationship harm, greater interpersonal distress, and in some cases, legal consequences too. On the other hand, if we experience anger and don't express it, we prevent an angry outburst - that much is true. Yet, if anger is communicating to us that there is a problem showing up, the problem remains whether we express the anger or keep it locked up tight inside. The need is still there and so is the anger. Anger still communicates to us that our needs are not being met. And if we're really honest with ourselves, we're still most likely acting with anger, just not in overt, obvious ways.
Anger does not always show up in the most in-your-face ways. Here are some of the many quieter, subtler, and no less problematic ways that anger can manifest as:
Giving someone the silent treatment
Maintaining emotional disconnection/distance
Choosing not to provide favours or help the other person
Brooding, dwelling, ruminating, or otherwise thinking angry thoughts, wishes, intentions, and desires
Avoiding people, activities, or certain conversation topics
Being 'short' with others
If the anger 'need' is not dealt with, the anger feeling remains. In fact, undealt with feelings can continue to compound upon one another such that each unaddressed slight leaves a person feeling more and more resentful over time. Often, this starts to colour one's interpersonal reactions in subtle ways. I may become increasingly 'gruff' and moody around my spouse. My spouse may have no idea why I have become this way, even if I "feel" like they should intuitively know what they have done wrong. If this pattern of behaviour continues over time, it's highly likely that I will eventually erupt in anger. I may respond to a situation that maybe would expectedly elicit anger at an intensity of 4/10 with 10/10 anger. Those around me may be confused, not understanding why I am so upset. They're missing the fact that I am not just responding to the situation unfolding in front of me, but the entire pattern and history of these kinds of situations, and the pent-up frustration and anger that has built up for me over time. When I choose not to respond to an anger-provoking situation, I simply am deferring my anger, not eliminating it.
Isn't Not Responding Good?
Some readers may question the idea of not responding to an anger situation. Isn't that supposed to be a good thing? After all, the most common anger management advice parents give their children is, "Just ignore them." The truth is, just ignore them can be great advice! As is not responding automatically. We can overreact automatically, but we can also underreact automatically. When our response lacks intentionality, we risk moving into patterns that can be quite unhelpful, even if from the outside it looks like we are 'managing' anger very well.
When I choose not to respond to an anger-provoking situation, I simply am deferring my anger, not eliminating it.
When it is helpful to 'keep things inside'
Sometimes, we may find ourselves experiencing a strong initial anger reaction that we then reconsider or reframe. For example, perhaps, I initially experience a burst of frustration when my friend cancels plans on me last minute. My anger communicates to me that my need for consideration and having commitments honoured are not being respected. Yet, after a brief moment, I may think to myself, "Hey, he rarely does this and I know he has a lot going on in his life right now. It's not a big deal." I recontextualize the situation and reconsider my needs. And so, I do and say nothing. This is unlikely to be problematic for me as I am not sitting around with unaddressed needs; my needs have changed. In contrast, say I have the same exact situation but I find it impossible to reframe or recontextualize the matter. This has happened five times in the last two months. I feel upset and think that my friend does not show any consideration or care about my schedule. And I continue to hang out with him while thinking and feeling this way, saying and doing nothing in regards to these thoughts and feelings. This is pretty likely to colour my friendship, don't you think?
Short-term vs. long-term situations
Keeping things inside may also be a workable strategy in short-term contexts. For example, if I'm driving and someone dangerously cuts me off, it is in fact probably most useful for me to let it go. I am almost certainly never going to see this individual again. This is not a context or a relationship in which I am likely to be able to effectively 'educate' this individual about safe driving. And any actions I do take - such as tailing this person and following them home! - are likely to escalate the situation and the problems that I will experience. The context of issues that take place in a long-term relationship is fairly different however. If I routinely come home to a mess in my room - and it bothers me - ignoring it and letting it go may not be as helpful to me. If I ignore it and let it go, then every single time I come home, the problem remains, and feelings of anger and resentment continue to grow. Sure, it is not likely to be useful for me to snap at my spouse, move into constant lectures and nagging, and starting a war over the issue. Yet, nor will it be helpful for me to ignore it and keep my feelings of resentment inside.
So what can we do?
We generally do not want our anger to take us in the direction of an automatic overreaction. We also do not want anger to take us in the direction of an automatic underreaction. Instead, as is often the case, the middle road may be best. The middle option here is assertive communication. This involves expressing our needs, telling the other person what is bothering us, how we are affected, and what we would like to happen - in a respectful, calm, and open way. Skillful communication allows us to work to get our needs met, while we maintain respect and sensitivity to the needs of other parties. Anger management skills can also help us learn new ways to work with difficult thoughts, feelings, and internal narratives showing up. With these skills in play, we can better discern our feelings and needs. We can figure out if this is an issue we can let go of or if not, consider how we can best collaboratively resolve the issue with someone else. Assertive communication does not guarantee that you will get what you want or need. However, it provides a more likely prospect than keeping things inside and certainly feels a lot better too.
Towards anger management
Quiet anger may not have the same intensity and obvious destructiveness that comes along with aggressive anger. Yet, it can be no less problematic. Just as with other forms of anger, psychotherapy and skills training can help. Approaches such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) can help you learn different ways to work with feelings of anger, learn problem-solving skills, and help you move towards getting your needs met. Mindfulness and stress reduction skills can help reduce general tension and irritability so that you don't constantly feel like you're one step away from exploding. Whether you're struggling with hot anger or the quiet kind, anger management counselling can truly help. To book a session with a Toronto anger management therapist or anger management therapy anywhere in Ontario, reach out below. We'd be happy to help you start managing quiet anger and living life with a bit more peace and calm, and a true appreciation of your needs.