Have you heard the terms “reactive abuse” or “reactive anger” making the rounds on social media? Are you wondering what it actually means?
Are you curious if passive-aggressive anger factors into this?
Or maybe you want to know: can anger ever be healthy?
I have received a number of emails asking me to clarify all of these terms, so in today’s episode, I break down what reactive abuse/reactive anger is, what passive-aggressive anger is, and what healthy anger might look like.
If your relationship with anger has been tenuous, or if you are seeking clarity on an abusive situation, this episode is for you.
Prefer the audio? Listen here.
What is Reactive Anger, or Reactive Abuse?
Let’s say you are in an abusive situation with a narcissist. It’s the night before an important event, and the narcissist picks a stupid fight with you out of the blue. Eventually, they provoke you to the point where you scream back, throw something, or otherwise react to how they treated you.
The narcissist then turns the narrative around and says you are the abusive one. In their mind, they are now fully absolved of anything they did previously.
They roll over and quickly drift off to sleep while you are left seething, ruminating, and unable to sleep.
When people say “reactive abuse” or “reactive anger,” this is what they are referring to.
From a therapeutic standpoint, the term “reactive abuse” blames the victim and isn’t accurate.1 When you are in an abusive situation and you are the one being abused, your provoked actions are considered “self-defense.” You are defending yourself against the abuse. Getting into a narrative about “mutual abuse” lets the actual abuser completely off the hook.
It is easy to get sucked into an abuser’s narrative when you are under their control because this type of manipulation is stealthy. Be aware if this is happening to you, and, if you can, figure out how to extricate yourself (safely!) from this situation. Many times it will only get worse.
If You’re In An Abusive Situation…
Please note: if you are currently in an abusive situation, do not do anything quickly. Your safety is most important. Check out this blog I did on how to safely leave an abusive relationship instead. If you are in America, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233) or visit their site here.
Do not reveal your plan or threaten to leave. Keep all of the details private and enroll others you love to help, regardless if they are aware of the abusive situation.
What is Passive-Aggressive Anger?
With passive-aggressive anger, rather than talking about abuse, we are talking about people who cannot express their anger directly and who are not in touch with their anger.
Often, those who are passive-aggressive feel threatened by their anger. In my twenties, I was one of those people (and I know I was not abusive). I was threatened by my own anger and terrified of anybody else’s anger.
I remember telling my college boyfriend, “Hey uh, anger could be a deal breaker for me.” He replied, “Wait a minute…you’re telling me I can never be angry in this relationship? That seems unnatural.”
He came from a fairly healthy family system and was not an angry person, but I was extremely phobic of anger because of the family system I was raised in. Anger was a forbidden emotion, and no one modeled how to healthily express it.
Passive-aggressive anger also occurs when you disavow your own anger and do something to provoke anger in someone else, forcing them to feel your anger and their anger.
This is a complex psychological, vibrational, energetic concept, and it happens often relating to lateness, so let’s take a look at how it might play out.
The Relationship Between Passive-Aggressive Anger and Time
If you are an “early” person and your partner is a “late” person, your partner probably knows making you late provokes an angry, frustrated, or irritated response in you.
If they know this, then why are they late so often? you wonder.
When they are late or make you late, they may be disavowing their anger and doing something that pisses you off, which forces you to express your anger and their anger (because they are unconsciously too afraid to express their own anger).
I know it sounds complicated. A real-life example might help:
I married Vic, a widower with three teenage sons, who, on the surface, never seemed to get angry with me. It was like his anger was too threatening to him. After a few bad experiences with women who found the whole “package deal” overwhelming, he seemingly didn’t want to jeopardize our relationship by being angry or annoyed with me.
Early on, Vic and I also had disordered relationships with time. I liked to be waaaay early, while he was often late. And when he made me late, the anger I felt was amplified – like it was more than just my own anger.
My therapist helped me realize my anger was amplified because I was expressing Vic’s disavowed anger (the anger he felt threatened by) and my anger.
Once I understood the connection between passive-aggressive anger and time, I ran an experiment: what would happen if I let go of being “on time” to a wedding we were attending?
An hour before we had to leave, I was ready to go. Vic, on the other hand, decided to take a trip to Home Depot. 👀
Since this experiment involved not saying anything about time, I stayed quiet, even though I knew he wouldn’t be back in time.
Sure enough, he came back an hour later with wood on top of the car, and he still needed to shower and put on his tux.
At this point, I did not care if I missed the wedding. I had committed to no longer doing this dance with him.
He told me he got stuck behind someone going slow, and I said, “Hey babe, don’t worry about it. We still have plenty of time. Everything is ready for you upstairs. Go take a shower.”
(We did this dance so often, and he continued justifying why he was late even though I wasn’t even acting mad!)
We eventually left and made it to the wedding on time. But as we drove, I floated the idea my therapist had about why he makes me late. He was skeptical. I said, “Either way, we have a great relationship, and I am not fighting with you about time for the rest of our lives. I am not interested in having silent car rides because I am pissy and withdrawn in anger. I can barely handle my own anger – you have to handle yours. Let’s figure out how to not have this conflict about time.”
We committed to becoming more aware of our disordered relationships with time and agreed to support each other. If I started spinning out about time, Vic reminded me, “We have just the right amount of time, don’t worry.” (If we did.) And if he wanted to head to Home Depot an hour before we had to leave for something, I would say, “Do you actually have time to go?” and he would reply, “Probably not.”
But if my therapist hadn’t explained passive-aggressive anger to me, I don’t know if we would have gotten to the bottom of this confusing dynamic.
If you’ve been on the receiving end of passive-aggressive anger, you know how deliberate it feels. I use lateness as an example because it is common. Thousands of my clients have fought about time with a partner or sibling, so maybe you can relate.
Hopefully, this real-life example illustrated what passive-aggressive anger is, but if you need more information, download the guide for additional resources.
What Does Healthy Anger Look Like?
I want to talk about healthy anger because I know I am not the only person who was raised in a family system that had a disordered relationship with anger.
Mine happened to be disordered as nobody was allowed to be angry, but yours might be different. Maybe everyone was angry all the time, maybe people were quick to get enraged about things, or maybe they held it in and were sarcastic and passive-aggressive.
Remember, passive-aggressive anger happens when we aren’t direct about our anger, but we express it because it has to come out. Feelings do not go away because they are inconvenient or we don’t like them. Your body, mind, and emotional self do not care. Your feelings are still there. As I love to say, we can either talk it out or act it out. We do not, as human beings, have the power to make feelings disappear.
Back to healthy anger: this means you have the ability to, in the moment, tell someone you are pissed off, you didn’t like their tone of voice, or you didn’t appreciate the action they took.
If you were not allowed to be angry growing up, you probably found ways around this. Your anger may have turned inward, morphing into depression. For me, it was sadness and upsetness because those were acceptable emotions. But it wasn’t satisfying, because saying, “I was upset about what happened” is not the same as “I was pissed off about what happened.” When you misname your emotions, you cannot be accurately and succinctly known or understood.
If you ignore your anger, it will get a hold of you or become something else. It can also show up in your body as physical ailments. Shoving our anger down is not good for our physical wellness, and it is also stressful to deny it or suck it up and continue to “take one for the team.”
Want to develop a better relationship with your anger and discover your downloaded anger blueprint? Download the free guide for greater clarity around your anger.
For a recap on reactive anger/reactive abuse, passive-aggressive anger, and healthy anger, and for an assessment of your feelings about anger, make sure you download the guide.
Again, if you are in a dangerous situation with a physically, emotionally, or verbally violent/abusive person, slow it all down. Please read the blog on how to safely leave an abusive relationship. Do not do anything to put yourself in danger because your safety is my priority.
I’m curious: what are your thoughts about reactive anger, passive-aggressive anger, and healthy anger? Do you struggle with your own anger? What’s in your downloaded anger blueprint?
I hope this added value to your life, and as always, take care of you.
For me, instead of waiting for my husband to get ready for a party or a wedding, I decided to show up alone. I do not like being late to functions, so showing up alone, and being on time was ok for me. It was also, ok for my husband. Even my kids liked things being this way. We show up on time, you met up there when you are ready. It seems rather disfunctional, but it worked for me.
Hi Tricia, so glad you found a compromise that works for you and your family. ❤️ Thanks for sharing and for being here.