People who struggle with anger issues complain of feeling out of control, risking meaningful relationships, and even risking arrest. They may describe themselves as aggressive-but the truth is often just the opposite. Along the spectrum of passive--assertive--aggressive, most anger management issues are rooted in passivity.
Passive people put the needs and wants of others before their own. They may have been taught that their opinions and needs matter less than others. Sometimes having an authoritarian parent can contribute to this, or just being a quiet child in a loud household can set the stage! This pattern of behavior becomes pervasive, and habitual. It happens in all areas of life, and is apparent in how we structure our interactions, carry ourselves, speak, and even where we look. Passive people tend to automatically defer to others in the room, allowing others to take the lead. In fact, they may be so out of touch with their own needs, feelings and wants that deference is just easier.
Passive people may speak their wants but with an apology, slumped shoulders, or my old stand-by, tacking a little laugh onto the end of everything I said. They may look away as they finish a sentence, or while making a request.
There are some upsides to passivity, to be sure. Passive people rarely have to accept responsibility when things go south, they can easily claim, "I didn't pick this, you did!" Being passive is also a way to avoid confrontation. If a person never asserts an opinion or suspicion, what is there to argue about?
There are a number of downsides to being passive, too. For our purposes here, I am going to focus on how passivity leads to the active aggression that can be so disruptive in our lives. This is different than being passive-agressive, which is the expression of hidden anger. Passive aggressive people lack emotional management skills, so express hidden anger through acts of nonconfrontational aggression. Active aggression, on the other head is all about the confrontation. Blow ups, punching walls, yelling, and fighting are all examples of active aggression.
As humans we have a need to be seen and understood. It is usually our own passivity that gets in the way of this happening. So, when we do something we don't really want to, or swallow some feeling we are having, we start a cycle of stress building. Here's the thing. We may not even recognize that we are doing it. It collects in us. Then the next time when we feel slighted we may engage in internal dialogue, or talk to ourselves-in fact we grumble, worry, script write, and amplify whatever happened to justify the strong emotional response we are having. And now We. Are. Pissed. We pop off, we explode. Sometimes this process is helped along by an emotional trigger, tiredness, alcohol or drug use.
If you are a passive person who has angry episodes it can feel confusing and like you have no control over yourself. The good news is that you do have control. Like so many things in counseling, managing anger is based in learning skills. Clients balk at this because it feels like anger comes on so suddenly. But, like the batter who mentally slows the pitched ball so they can see it all the way into the bat, you can learn to mentally slow the process of your emotional responses. And that is very good news.