What Happens When Someone Takes Their Anger Out On You
Getting yelled at is not fun. Maybe you’re in a conversation that slowly gets heated, and the other person erupts in rage at you. Perhaps you walk into an office, expecting calm, only to have somebody yell at you. Maybe you want to try to solve a problem, and the conversation quickly escalates into shouting. What should you do when someone takes their anger out on you?
Almost always, the person that lashes out at you is somebody you know and have a relationship with. Their anger makes them unpredictable and challenging. These are everyday experiences that are usually uncomfortable and do not end well.
Do you know how to diffuse an angry person? Do you know what words calm an angry person? Knowing how to deal with angry people in life and at work is a crucial aspect of emotional intelligence and emotional competency.
The sad thing is that we are not taught what to do when someone takes their anger out on us. This is because our culture has a strong bias against emotional competency in favor of what I call fake rationality. The truth is, humans are 98% emotional and only 2% rational. However, our culture gives privilege to rationality over emotions, and we are not trained to be effective peacemakers when we are yelled at.
Instead, we revert to our childhood programming because that’s all we have.
As a professional mediator, I have studied anger, rage, and frustration. In my professional work, I deal with these emotions frequently.
It turns out that you can respond with calm to someone who is lashing out at you or taking their anger out on you. Once you understand what is going on and apply some amazing counterintuitive strategies, no angry person can ever ambush you again.
Unfortunately, without training, you may become reactive in response to someone who takes their anger out on you. We’ll talk more about this further into the article.
What is Anger?
Anger is both a fundamental affect and an emotion. Essentially, affect is the feeling of pleasantness or unpleasantness we experience every moment. Affect creates our reality and gives meaning to what is going on around us. It makes us pay attention to what is important. Do we approach or do we run? Affect is the physiological process that makes the decision.
Our emotions are based on affect. We are not born with emotions. Instead, as infants and toddlers, we construct emotion from affect. This process happens naturally from experience. Affect is categorized into many subdivisions of emotion.
For example, from the affect anger, we can experience a range of angry emotions from mild to intense.
- Riled Up
Anger serves an essential purpose: to tell us something is wrong. Sometimes anger is useful, and sometimes it is destructive.
Key Point: We are not taught what to do when someone takes their anger out on us.
What Does An Angry Person Need?
When someone lashes out at you, that person is unable to process his or her upset/pain in a healthy way. Sometimes, anger is not righteous, but is a reflection of deeper emotional wounding. When anger is righteous, it sends an emphatic message: “Pay attention to me. I don’t like what you re doing. Restore my pride. You are in my way. Danger. Give me justice.” Either way, anger and fury have five needs that must be satisfied. When someone takes their anger out on you, one or more of these needs is not being met.
Vengeance is the need to exact pain on another person. It is an anticipatory emotion in the sense that our brains release dopamine when we think about punishing our offender. The sad problem is that if we obtain vengeance, no dopamine is released, and we feel let down.
Validation is the need to be respected. All of us need dignity, and when it is challenged, we become angry.
Vindication is the need to be right and the other person to be wrong. Part of our sense of justice is based on a determination of who is right and who’s wrong. If we are right and falsely accused of being wrong, we become angry.
The Need to be Heard
The need to be heard is much more than just having somebody listen to our words. This need is genuinely met when emotions are heard by others. When we are not heard (called emotional invalidation), we become angry. The most important part of this article is understanding that if you can meet the need to be heard, you can calm an angry person in literally seconds.
The Need for Safety
Every human needs physical, emotional, and spiritual safety. If we feel unsafe, we will feel anger.
People Will Lash Out Unthinkingly to Get These Needs Met
Most people cannot self-regulate their emotions and lash out when stressed. Think of a broad rubber band. When it’s in a relaxed state, it can take stretching without strain. When it is stretched out to nearly its breaking point, the lightest pull might snap it.
Emotional elasticity is the same way. When rested and relaxed, people are elastic. They can take upsets and frustrations in stride. When tired and stressed, an insignificant event can set them off into a rage. When people take their anger out on you, they are probably in this inelastic state.
Anger is usually a deflection of painful deeper emotions and a defense mechanism against old pain. Unresolved childhood sadness, shame, abandonment, unloved, and rejection may create an emotionally inelastic adult prone to angry outbursts.
What is Aggression
Aggression is is a behavior, not a feeling. It may be protective, punitive, or predatory, and it may also be reactive or calculated. Unfortunately, we mistake anger for aggression and feel an urge to defend ourselves. Think of anger as the hiss of a snake and aggression as the strike of a snake. We should not fear the hiss, only the bite.
Key Point: We should not fear anger, which is only a hiss.
Why You Get Upset When Someone Yells At You
Your Emotional Responses When Someone Lashes Out At You
When someone takes their anger out on you, you may feel
- Shame, humiliation embarrassment
These are all feelings that were programmed during childhood. You carried these feelings and reactions into adulthood, even though they no longer apply. These feelings do not serve you anymore. Recognize them for what they are: old childhood reactions.
Key Point: Childhood programming makes us cringe back when someone takes their anger out on us.
How to Remain Calm When You Are Yelled At
Accept that you will feel strong emotions when you are being yelled at. Even if you are taken by surprise, if you know that you are likely to become emotionally reactive, you can be prepared. The moment you start feeling reactive emotions when someone takes their anger out on you, validate those feelings by naming them silently to yourself.
For example, you might say to yourself, “I’m feeling angry, disrespected, pissed off, scared, and anxious.”
Don’t worry about labeling your feelings correctly. When you start this process, you are keeping your prefrontal cortex in control of your limbic system. You must ignore the anger and yelling directed to you while you do this. The emotional labeling process only takes a few seconds and is the only sure way to remain calm
Key Point: Label your feelings and emotions as someone takes their anger out on you.
These 3 Amazing Strategies Will Calm Any Angry Person in Seconds
I have done extensive research and field-testing to find ways to defuse anger and rage. There is only one set of strategies that returns predictable results. These are the strategies that I teach to murderers who wish to become peacemakers and mediators within their prisons. They have been acid-tested in the harshest conflict environments you may imagine.
Strategy #1: Ignore the Words
As weird as this seems, ignoring angry words and treating them as noise is the only way you can protect yourself from your own emotional reactivity. Also, when you ignore the words, you free up space in your head to engage the next two strategies. When someone takes their anger out on you, you know what is going to be said. You’ve heard it all before. Don’t worry about missing something important because anger is like a old broken record that keeps repeating itself.
Strategy #2: Read the Emotions
You might not believe this, but you are an expert at reading other people’s emotions. Reading emotions is an innate skill that every human being possesses. The problem is we don’t practice it. The good news is that the skill does not atrophy. All you have to do is remain in silence as you ignore the words. The other person’s emotions will immediately become visible to you.
When someone is taking their anger out on you, their emotions will be obvious. Here’s a checklist:
- Not heard
- Fear, scared, frightened
- Shame, humiliation embarrassment
This list will cover every situation where someone is yelling at you.
Strategy #3: Reflect Back the Emotions with a “You” Statement
As those emotions are revealed to you, reflect them back to the other person with a simple “you” statement.
For example, “You are angry.” “You feel disrespected.” “You are anxious.” “You are pissed off.” “You are frustrated.” Keep your reflections very short and very direct.
Here’s the checklist again as a series of “you” statements.
- You are annoyed
- You are frustrated
- You are angry
- You are anxious
- You are disrespected
- You are not heard, being listened to
- You are unsupported
- You are fearful, scared, frightened
- You are shamed, humiliated embarrassed
- You are sad
- You feel abandoned
You may combine emotions into one reflection, such as “You are frustrated and angry.” Generally, just reflect two or three emotions at a time. Pause. Then reflect a couple of more emotions.
Watch for the cues of de-escalation:
- A verbal assent with a head nod
- Dropping shoulders in relaxation
- A sigh of relief
When these occur, the situation is calming down. These relaxation responses occur unconsciously so watch for them carefully. They are your indicators that you are on the right track.
You might be wondering why reflecting back emotions is so powerful. It ha to do with how our brains are hard-wired. Although it might seem obvious to you that the person raging at you is angry and frustrated, that person’s prefrontal cortex is completely shut down. As a result, that person has no control or ability to self regulate his or her emotions.
You are literally lending your prefrontal cortex to the person screaming at you for the time it takes his or her prefrontal cortex to regain control.
Brain scanning studies have shown that when you reflect back the emotions of an angry person, that person calms down almost immediately. The prefrontal cortex will come back online as the emotional centers of the brain deactivate during this emotional reflection process.
As a side benefit, when you are focused on the angry person’s emotional experience, you protect yourself from your own reactivity.
Key Point: Ignore the words, Read the emotions, Reflect the emotions with a simple "You" statement.
"When someone takes their anger out on you, put their feelings into words to calm them down." Doug Noll
What Doesn’t Work When Someone Lashes Out At You
Don’t Use “I” Statements To Defuse Anger
The almost universal advice about empathic statements is to use an “I” statement to calm anger and rage. For example, you might be advised to say something like, “I think you are very angry.” AS you have proably experienced, using “I” statements does not stop someone who is taking their anger out on you. It just makes things worse.
Recall the last time somebody used an “I” statement on you? How did it make you feel? You probably felt patronized, disrespected, or manipulated.
Here’s the secret: Only use “you” statements to defuse, calm, and de-escalate anger directed at you.
Don’t Take Premature Responsibility…The Anger Is Not About You
Most people are programmed as children to take immediate responsibility for any wrongdoing. That programming is intense and uses shame as a social control mechanism.
When someone is screaming at you, you will default to this programming unless you are aware of it. Usually, you are not the cause of the anger, so taking premature responsibility to appease the fury will not work.
Even if you are at fault, you must de-escalate the rage before apologizing and making things right.
Sometimes, you are the closest, most convenient target of someone else’s anger. Sometimes, you are the safest target for the rage. In either case, it’s not your problem.
Generally speaking, getting angry in response to someone yelling at you is counterproductive. However, there are times when counter-anger can be very effective as a shock treatment. As long as you can control your counter-anger and use it as a tool, you are fine. If you cannot control your anger, do not let yourself go there in response to someone who is screaming at you.
Rationality, Explanation, Excuse, Justification
Never try to calm someone by being rational. When someone is yelling at you, that person’s prefrontal cortex is shut down. Trying to use rationality, explanation, excuse, or justification will only make the person more incensed. What is needed is deep emotional listening, as described above.
Sometimes, you might find yourself as having less power than the person who is yelling at you. Your natural instinct might be to appease the more powerful person. Angry people need safety. When you appease, you show weakness and make the anger more intense. This is why you should never try to appease an angry boss.
Another normal reaction to someone who is shouting at you in anger is to simply withdraw emotionally. This is a defense mechanism that worked well in childhood but will fail with adults. Your lack of reaction will only make the problem worse because you are not listening.
Trying to Problem-Solve Too Early
Many people jump to problem-solving as a means of dealing with someone who is angry. Remember the five needs of fury. You must satisfy those needs by listening deeply to emotions before you can even begin to think about problem-solving. The reason people go to problem-solving is to soothe their own anxiety in the face of the angry outburst. Early problem-solving will escalate the shouting more quickly than just about anything else.
Key Point: Do not reflect emotions using "I" statements.
Putting It All Together
Here’s how you respond when someone takes their anger out on you. For this example, let’s assume you have an angry boss.
You walk into your boss’s office, and before you can say anything,
“Where is that report I requested. I can’t believe what a complete incompetent you are. You can’t do anything right. I have to micro-manage everything about you. I’m wondering why you should even keep your job!”
Thinking about what you have learned in this article, what is the first thing you must do?
Hint: label your own emotions and feelings silently to yourself to keep yourself from being reactive.
To yourself, you say, “I’m surprised and pissed that this buffoon is challenging me. He had the report on his assistant’s desk before noon yesterday. I feel disrespected, betrayed, falsely accused, and demeaned. I’m shocked. I feel threatened, anxious, and fearful.”
You might notice that, as you read this, you became escalated and anxious at the outburst. Notice how labeling your own emotions calmed you down, even if this is just an example?
You say to your boss, “You are angry and frustrated. You don’t feel supported. You don’t feel respected. You are deeply concerned and stressed.”
“Damn right I feel that way! When are you going to get your act together and get that report to me?”
You say, “You are worried you will not get your report. You are frustrated and pissed off.”
Your boss says more calmly, “Yes, I am.”
You say, “OK. You feel thwarted and unsupported.”
“I noticed that your assistant Sara is not here today.”
“Yes, she had to run across town for me this morning.”
“Did you check her desk before you came in here?”
“No, why should I?”
“Excuse me one moment.” You go out to Sara’s desk and find the report right where you left it yesterday afternoon. You pick it up and return to your boss’s office.
“Here is the report. It has been on Sara’s desk since I left it with her yesterday at noon. Will there be anything else?”
Your boss just stares at you in embarrassed silence.
“Then I will excuse myself.”
You might think that you could defend yourself against the unjust accusations, deny the insults, become defensive, try to appease the anger, explain that you left the report outside yesterday, or any number of other responses.
None of them would have done any good defusing the outburst. Instead, you worked with your boss’s anger and frustration, de-escalating the rage quickly by reflecting back the emotions. When calm was restored, you retrieved the report and excused yourself.
Your natural impulse in responding to someone who takes their anger out on you is to fight back or run. Succumbing to either impulse typically makes things worse. When you learn how to label your own feelings silently and reflect the feelings of the enraged person yelling at you, you gain tremendous power. You cannot be intimidated. You no longer fear anger and rage. You are in complete control every time someone yells at you.