Note: In this post, when we talk about "safety," we're referring to emotional safety. If someone's anger makes you feel physically unsafe, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.
What do you do when someone takes their anger out on you? How do you handle angry people? And why do people get angry in the first place?
It's natural to have lots of questions when faced with anger, but often what we're searching for isn't answers—it's safety. Anger threatens our sense of emotional security, leaving us feeling uncertain about our relationships with others.
When someone you love takes their anger out on you, it can be frustrating, saddening, or even frightening. At that moment, what you need is a way to strengthen that sense of emotional security. Let’s explore how you can create safety when someone takes their anger out on you.
Why People Get Angry
Anger is a challenging emotion to understand. The first spark of anger reaches our brains before we're even aware of it, which makes anger challenging to control and difficult to pinpoint the cause of our anger.
A common misconception is that our anger is caused by another person's words or actions. However, the trigger that makes us feel angry is not the cause of anger. To understand the causes of our anger, we have to look within ourselves because anger is often caused by underlying issues, such as anxiety. "Angry people" may be unwilling or unable to address their issues and, therefore, tolerate a state of anger instead.
Related reading: "Learn to Regulate and Express This Intense Emotion Effectively."
Sometimes, people take their anger out on someone completely uninvolved with the situation or underlying issue that triggered the angry feelings. The innocent bystander is usually a safe person like a spouse or friend. This display of anger is called "displaced anger," and it can happen when we lose sight of the real cause of our feelings and therefore neglect our responsibility to care for those we trust.
There is nothing inherently wrong with feeling angry; we all feel anger at times. Anger is a natural but intense feeling; it is a protective emotion when we're feeling threatened, hurt, or powerless. If anger is suppressed or repressed and isn't processed in healthy ways, it can grow out of control and be expressed in hurtful ways. When anger is displaced, it can turn into aggression, which becomes a threat to others and erodes trust in relationships. That’s because when anger becomes aggression, it becomes hostile, destructive, or sometimes violent.
Related reading: "People Who Lash Out in Anger Need Compassion—and Boundaries!"
How to Create Safety in the Face of Anger
One of the most important ways to cope with another person's anger is by addressing our own emotions. If we have unresolved emotions, another person's anger can be more challenging to deal with.
Many of us (especially women) learn from a young age that anger is "bad" and should be ignored and repressed rather than expressed. However, when you acknowledge and honor your own anger, you get more at ease and confident with responding to others’ anger. So, how can you effectively honor your anger in a way that prepares you to deal with the anger of others?
Related reading: "How to Respond When Someone Is Upset"
Cognitive restructuring is a behavioral technique that involves replacing angry thoughts with more rational ones and can help you regain control of your emotions when angry. For example, the thought, "She's so stupid!" can be replaced with the healthier perspective, "She made a mistake, and mistakes are human," which is more likely to deescalate your own feelings of anger.
Depersonalization and Empathy
Depersonalizing another person's anger also helps us cope better. Then we can generate empathy for the person’s emotions more readily. When we understand why another person is angry and realize it often has nothing to do with us, it becomes easier to acknowledge their emotions and help the other person feel understood. When someone feels seen and understood, emotions will usually dissipate.
Setting Healthy Boundaries
Finally, setting boundaries for effective communication in the face of anger allows the other person to feel understood while protecting your own sense of safety. Try saying simple statements that protect your personal energy, such as:
- "I see that you're angry; please talk to me when you can speak without yelling."
- "Let's both take time to calm down before we continue this conversation."
- “You have a right to be angry. Would it help to talk or would you like to be alone?”
Related reading: “Using Boundaries and Empathy to Deal with People’s Anger Effectively”
Getting Additional Help
Protecting your sense of emotional safety is of the utmost importance in the face of anger.
Learning to set effective boundaries and protect your sense of emotional safety when dealing with anger takes time. Our 2-week Healthy Boundaries, Happy Life mini-course can help. For additional resources, you may also wish to visit the American Psychological Association.
Also, remember that there is a fine line between displaced anger and abuse. We all occasionally express our anger in healthy ways, but no one should ever hurt you or threaten you when they are angry. You deserve to live a life free from violence and abuse. To learn more about domestic violence versus healthy anger, visit loveisrespect.org.
To get support, contact us at Heartmanity at firstname.lastname@example.org or (406) 577-2100.