Anger is a universal emotion. We all feel annoyed, frustrated or outraged from time to time. Yet there’s a common misconception about anger, that it usually manifests as shouting or violent behaviour. Anger is a lot more complex and nuanced than that. Anger is a feeling that can be channelled helpfully, or it can be expressed in ways that compound negative consequences. Often, we’ve learned how to express anger by the way we’ve grown up or by the lesson of ‘what not to do.’
According to Professor Ephrem Fernandez’s psychological research, anger can be categorised according to six spectrums, or dimensions of expression. These include:
The direction of anger (internal vs external)
The anger reaction (retaliatory vs resistant)
The mode of anger (physical vs verbal)
Anger impulsivity (controlled vs uncontrolled)
Objective of anger (restorative vs punitive)
Anger is neither inherently good nor bad – it’s simply an emotion. Emotions are part and parcel of being human, acting as in-built guides to alert us to our environment and how we should respond within it.
Anger is a healthy emotion to feel; everyone has the right to anger depending on their circumstances. Feeling angry might be particularly relevant and justified to the times we’re experiencing now- threatening situations (acute and chronic threats), civil and human rights violations, health pandemics, obstructed freedom of movement, loneliness, financial and routine changes- many of us might feel anger as a result of disrespect, confusion, uncertainty or frustration.
Anger is a helpful emotion for action and motivation- if something is not right, feeling anger can make us do something to change the circumstances. Anger, however, is different to and not the same as aggression or violence. Anger is a natural emotion, whereas aggression and violence are outward behaviours that are chosen, which serve to intimidate, belittle, and cause harm to someone else.
It’s how we manage our reactions and behaviours that stem from anger that can be the difference between creating positive change, or perpetually needing to deal with the unwanted consequences of an angry outburst.
Below are the 10 common types of anger expression. See if you can identify the ways you most commonly choose to react in anger and what core beliefs might underpin your view of emotions. Clarifying your beliefs about emotions, and your anger pattern type – and learning simple strategies to manage that type of expression – is the key to healthily expressing your emotions to help you get your needs met without violating others.
Assertive anger is a really constructive type of anger expression. If this is your type of anger, you use feelings of frustration or rage as a catalyst for positive change. Rather than avoiding confrontation, internalising anger, or resorting to verbal insults and physical outbursts, you express your anger in ways that create change and get you closer to having your wants and needs met – without causing distress or destruction.
Expressing anger assertively helps you address what you want, without transgressing other people’s rights and boundaries.
Management Strategy: Assertive anger is a powerful motivator. Use assertive anger to overcome fear, address injustice and achieve your desired outcomes in life.
Behavioural aggression is a choice to react physically toward the feeling of anger. This form of anger expression is physical and often aggressive, or at the very extreme end of the spectrum, violent. Aggression is behaviour that has an intended motivation to cause harm to someone else who doesn’t wish for it. This might look like breaking or throwing things, or physically intimidating or attacking someone.
Expressing anger by using behavioural aggression often has negative legal and interpersonal consequences, as this highly unpredictable and impulsive behaviour erodes your ability to form trusting and respectful relationships.
Management strategy: It’s worth noting that emotions, like anger, don’t automatically generate aggression or violence- take time to reflect on what might be the real motivation for you to choose aggression once you’ve felt anger. As you feel your anger rising, remove yourself from the situation if possible and use grounding self-talk (“take it easy, stay cool”) to regain control of your emotions or try a deep breathing technique until you feel yourself physically calm down enough to reconsider what is happening and what options you have of reacting differently.
If you’re someone who needs to let out frustration physically, consider going for a walk or run.
Chronic anger feels like an ongoing and general sense of resentment of other people, a sweeping sense of frustration with certain circumstances, or often anger towards oneself. It’s embodied by a sense of nagging and perpetual irritation: the prolonged nature of this type of anger can have profoundly adverse effects on one’s health and wellbeing.
Management strategy: Spend some time reflecting on the underlying causes of your anger. Your indignation might well be justified, though it likely does not serve you to be chronic and ongoing. If you can identify the source of your resentment, you may be able to resolve the inner conflict you’re experiencing by forgiving yourself and others for past transgressions. The process of forgiveness is powerful and empowering, and can help to resolve lingering hurt and frustration. Learning how to express emotions assertively can help greatly.
Judgmental anger is righteously indignant – this type of anger is usually a reaction to a perceived injustice or someone else’s shortcoming. What often underlies this is a core belief that you are either better than, or less than, others. Although judgmental anger assumes a morally superior stance of justified fury, it may alienate potential allies by invalidating their difference of opinion.
Management strategy: Commit to exploring the light and shade in different situations, as circumstances are rarely as simple as they seem on the surface. It’s healthy to gently challenge your own deeply held assumptions by opening up to other people’s perspectives. You can disagree and still gain valuable insight into possible solutions and perspectives to life’s challenges, without belittling others’ experience or damaging your own reputation by being condescending.
Overwhelmed anger is an uncontrolled type of anger. It usually occurs when we feel that a situation or circumstances are beyond our control, resulting in feelings of hopelessness and frustration. This type of anger is common when we’ve taken on too much responsibility, or unexpected life events have overthrown our usual capacity to cope with stress. Anger here is an emotion trying to alert us that we don’t feel like there’s enough in the tank to handle the stressors stacking up in front of us, even if we’re not finding the right words to put to it yet.
Management strategy: It’s critical to reach out for help if you’re experiencing overwhelmed anger. Work on expressing to others-family, friends and professional colleagues- that you’re feeling overwhelmed and need some support. Try ask for what you need that could support you- whether it’s help with babysitting, taking a family member to their medical appointments, getting a couple of hours off to go get professional support, a quiet night in without a to-do list or an extension on a work project. By alleviating potential sources of stress, you’ll regain a sense of emotional and behavioural control again.
Passive-aggressive anger is an avoidant type of anger expression. If this is your usual mode of anger expression, you likely try to evade all forms of confrontation, and may deny or repress any feelings of frustration or fury you’re experiencing. Passive-aggressive anger may be expressed verbally, as sarcasm, pointed silence or veiled mockery, or physically in behaviour such as chronic procrastination at work. Sometimes people who express anger passively aren’t even aware that their actions are perceived as aggressive – this can have dire personal and professional outcomes.
Management strategy: Learn assertive communication techniques, and explore your fear of confrontation using ‘What if?’ scenarios. By developing your ability to articulate your frustrations and confidently face a range of fears, you’re more likely to get your needs met in both personal and professional relationships.
Retaliatory anger is usually an instinctual response to being confronted or attacked by someone else. It’s one of the most common types of anger, and is motivated by revenge for a perceived wrong. Vengeful anger can also be deliberate and purposeful. It often aims to intimidate other people by asserting control over a situation or outcome, yet may only serve to escalate tensions.
Management strategy:Whether your urge for retaliatory anger is impulsive or intentional, it’s important to pause and think before you act upon it. Will your angry retaliation improve the situation, or only worsen relations? Retaliation is a choice, and cyclical anger seldom dies off in a tit for tat scenario. By choosing to diffuse the immediate conflict you can avoid the unwanted long-term consequences of revenge.
Self-abusive anger is a shame-based type of anger. If you’ve been feeling hopeless, unworthy, humiliated or ashamed, you might internalise those feelings and express anger via negative self talk, self-harm, substance use, or disordered eating. Alternatively, you may find yourself lashing out at those around to mask feelings of low self-worth, increasing your sense of alienation.
Management strategy: Learn about cognitive reframing techniques and use them to challenge and transform any self-defeating, distorted thoughts and feelings you’re experiencing. Mindfulness meditation can also help centre you in the present moment and deal with any impulses to engage in self-harming behaviours.
Verbal anger is often seen as less dangerous than behavioural anger, but it can be a form of emotional and psychological abuse that deeply hurts the target of one’s anger. It is aggressive or even violent in that there is a motivation to release it by causing harm to someone else who doesn’t wish for it. Verbal abuse may be expressed as furious shouting, threats, ridicule, sarcasm, intense blaming or criticism. If you’ve lashed out at someone verbally it’s common to feel ashamed, apologetic and regretful afterwards.
Management strategy:Even if the words are on the tip of your tongue, take a breath before you speak. Then another one. As tempting as it may be to blurt out the first angry response that comes to mind when you’re upset, the key to effectively managing this type of anger is simply delaying the impulse to lash out. With practice, you can curb any tendency towards verbal abuse and replace it with assertive anger expression (See Type 1).
Volatile anger seems to come out of nowhere: if this is your type of anger, you are very quick to get upset about perceived annoyances, both big and small. Once you’ve impulsively expressed your anger, you often calm down just as quickly. Unfortunately volatile anger can be incredibly destructive, as those around you may feel they need to walk on eggshells for fear of triggering your rage. Volatile rage impacts your ability to form and maintain long-term relationships, as others require stability and trust to form meaningful connections with you. If left unchecked, volatile anger may eventually lead to violent outbursts.
Management strategy:Identify the signs and physical symptoms that precede a volatile outburst, and use relaxation techniques (such as deep breathing) to stop your anger from escalating.
There are many other forms that anger can take, but these are the types that most people commonly use when they’re feeling upset and frustrated. Anger management is a fascinating area of research – there’s a strong body of evidence that the practical strategies mentioned above plus others are effective tools for expressing anger and other emotions healthily without causing damage to yourself or others, and regulating behaviour so that it is constructive.
If you’d like some targeted, intensive support to help you express your anger in more constructive ways, you’re welcome to check out our specialist anger management counselling services.
Types of anger research resources:
Deffenbacher, J. L., & McKay, M. (2000). Overcoming situational and general anger: A protocol for the treatment of anger based on relaxation, cognitive restructuring, and coping skills training. New Harbinger Publications.
Elison, J., Garofalo, C., & Velotti, P. (2014). Shame and aggression: Theoretical considerations. Aggression and Violent Behaviour, 19(4), 447-453.
Fernandez, E. (2008). The angry personality: A representation on six dimensions of anger expression. International Handbook of Personality Theory and Testing, 1, 402-419.
Mikulincer, M., & Shaver, P. R. (2011). Attachment, anger, and aggression. Human Aggression and Violence: Causes, Manifestations, and Consequences, 241-257.
Marcus Andrews is the founder and director of Life Supports, which was established in 2002. He has extensive professional experience working as a counsellor and family therapist across a broad range of issues. The core component of his role at Life Supports involves the supervision of other counsellors, including secondary consultations. Marcus has worked in many sectors, including private, government, non-profit, health, forensic and community practice.