December 21, 2017 5:25 PM   Subscribe

How do you deal with a person who acts angry, sounds, angry, looks angry, but vehemently denies being angry?

I tried googling for articles, but all I could come up with were some descriptions of passive aggressive behavior. I didn't have success finding any advice for dealing with it in the flesh.

For example, imagine a scenario where you and a loved one are having a heated argument. You're upset, but you are fully aware that you are upset, and you even say to them, "I'm really upset, because _______." They feel blamed and get defensive, and perhaps they don't agree that you have a right to be upset. They start to behave as though they are angry, via their facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice. Also you've seen the full range of your loved one's emotions many times. You KNOW how they are when they're angry, and they're clearly angry right now.

You ask them why they are angry, and receive a snippy response, "I'm NOT angry." You feel that they're not communicating with you in good faith by refusing to be honest with you about their feelings. You wonder if they're really that out of touch with their emotions, or if this is a tactic to gain the upper hand - "I'm calm, therefore I'm in control, I'm perfectly logical and reasonable. You're upset, therefore you're hysterical."

You don't want to start the "You ARE angry," and "I wasn't angry, but I'm starting to be now because you keep insisting that I am," spiral. So what do you say or do? Is stepping away from the argument and coming back later the only solution? But that's also a classic avoidance tactic of passive aggressive people.
posted by keep it under cover to Human Relations (32 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Yeah you do just walk away because you can't make someone admit something they don't want to admit.

Honestly if you're at the point where you think your SO is using a tactic to make you out to be hysterical, the issue isn't the specific fight or the specific tactic. The issue is that you lack basic, fundamental trust in their honesty and willingness to act in good faith.

More practically, angry people often say and do stupid things. This includes claiming that they are not angry. And, frankly, if you are upset and you are asking why they are angry --- and your presumption is that they are angry for a reason that you find invalid or upsetting --- it seems like answering that question is a no-win situation for either of you.

Basically, you both need to figure out a way to have this conversation without being adversarial. This whole thing sounds miserable and like it stems from a total lack of faith on both of your parts that this situation could end up being win-win instead of win-lose. That is a bad road to go down, and the details don't really matter that much.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 5:33 PM on December 21, 2017 [8 favorites]

Best answer: I think people say this when they don't want to believe that they're angry but they're at least very unhappy about whatever's happening, they want it to change but they feel helpless and don't know how to change it. I think it's like a grownup form of a temper tantrum. I dealt with this the other day by getting up and just saying "You say you're not angry but everything about the way you're talking makes you sound angry. So if you're not angry then you have to change the way you sound right now." It made them shut up, if nothing else.
posted by bleep at 5:35 PM on December 21, 2017 [13 favorites]

Best answer: What is your need in this situation that the anger is getting in the way of? Do you need them to show you verbally and non-verbally that they hear you? Validate you? Make a change to their behavior? Apologize? Ask for what you need and if they can’t engage with the request at the moment, come back to it later when they are calmer. You can use I statements including how their tone or behavior is affecting you i.e. “I’m feeling distant from you right now because I was hoping you would hear me and apologize. I need to take some space right now. I would like to talk about this again later.”
posted by Waiting for Pierce Inverarity at 5:38 PM on December 21, 2017 [20 favorites]

Also, honestly, I am kind of an irritable person, and I really don't get legit angry with my SO or have heated arguments with them more than like twice a year. Walking away in the moment is not a big deal because I know that, ultimately, my concerns will be addressed and taken seriously.

If you don't have that underlying trust, it kinda doesn't matter what you do in each individual fight, because the individual fight is not the problem. The problem is you not being taken seriously and not feeling heard. That needs to be addressed when you're not also fighting about something else. If your SO refuses to take proactive steps to fix the fact that you feel unheard, this kind of pattern will keep repeating itself, whether or not he admits that he's angry.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 5:45 PM on December 21, 2017 [6 favorites]

To my mind this is gaslighting, and you can’t win (or more importantly, have a productive exchange) because they are being dishonest.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 5:52 PM on December 21, 2017 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Is stepping away from the argument and coming back later the only solution? But that's also a classic avoidance tactic of passive aggressive people.

Stepping away from an argument when you're not responding well because things are too heated, and then coming back to the issue when you are calmer, is not a passive-aggressive avoidance tactic. It's a very reasonable and effective thing to do.
posted by ManInSuit at 5:54 PM on December 21, 2017 [49 favorites]

Best answer: I'd say, "I'd like to know how you feel, cuz I care about you and would like us to find a solution together."
posted by Eevee at 6:31 PM on December 21, 2017 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Perhaps they're not out of touch with their emotions, but rather have a different relationship to the word "anger" than you do.

It took years of therapy for me to realize what I was calling frustration, disappointment, or any number of euphemisms, was actually anger. Thanks to my family of origin, I felt major discomfort with the word anger and would not have ever considered myself angry. I would be frustrated, but not angry. To me, anger was not a productive emotion.

I have negative associations with the word anger. I believe somebody from MetaFilter recommended this book, When Anger Scares You: How to Overcome Your Fear of Conflict and Express Your Anger in Healthy Ways, and I've learned that what I previously associated with the word anger was actually rage.

I'm not trying to make excuses for anybody. I'm a firm believer in open and honest communication, but that can be hard sometimes. I don't think it's inappropriate to pause, take a walk, and say "It feels like this got heated. Let's take a break and let things cool off a bit."

Your perception is one of anger, and theirs is different. And that's okay. There are no wrong emotions.
posted by nathaole at 6:36 PM on December 21, 2017 [25 favorites]

As you've noted, arguing about how someone else feels doesn't really move anything forward. Instead of naming their emotion, maybe name your reaction. This is a good time for "When you [xyz], I feel/react/etc [123]." Where [xyz] are their behaviors, not emotion, in the moment. This isn't about what the name of their emotion is but how it shuts down communication and acts as a barrier.
posted by I'm Not Even Supposed To Be Here Today! at 6:45 PM on December 21, 2017 [6 favorites]

Telling people how they feel and telling them you know best about how they feel, no matter what they say, is worse than any theoretical dishonesty in their refusal to disclose the emotion you're convinced they feel. if it's a good behavior competition, which it sounds like it is.

if you don't like the other person stomping around or slamming doors or shouting, address that; those are objective (except the shouting, because really angry people will shout without knowing it, and deny it. but the rest of it.)

but just don't ever get in an argument about someone else's emotions and expect to win. If you want someone to admit they're angry, you can always win by persisting until they do in fact become angry. but that is not fair.
posted by queenofbithynia at 7:41 PM on December 21, 2017 [21 favorites]

Best answer: You should definitely not tell people how they feel. However, I do think that this (denying anger that you are clearly communicating) is a gaslighting tactic. There is not a lot you can do when someone shuts down like that, but you can take care to be sure you are being fair with your words. Ask questions instead of telling:

"How do you feel about what I just said?"

Describe a behavior, and ask plainly for a different behavior that would be better:

You rolled your eyes and sighed at me. Could you instead tell me what you are feeling?"
posted by pazazygeek at 8:29 PM on December 21, 2017 [4 favorites]

Hi. I’m the kind of hothead who doesn’t respond well to having my anger pointed out to me, pretty much for the reasons queenofbithynia outlines above.

Here’s my best effort to make this relatable to a more even-tempered person: you know how it feels when you’re having a GREAT hair day and wearing your best outfit and you have a spring in your step and some jerk says, “YOU look TIRED”? It’s a crummy feeling. But it’s certainly not better to hear on those days when you’re at the end of your laundry cycle and you need a shampoo and you’re a bit hungover and you got three hours’ sleep last night and dreamt about work the whole time. Even worse, though, is when you’re having that kind of day and doing your best to hide your misery, because you have to give an important presentation or something, and the same jackass says “YOU look TIRED” right before you go up to deliver it.

Now, you might be the kind of person who says “OMG Becky from Marketing, you’re so right! Here, have a prize!” But most people don’t like having that sort of thing pointed out to them. It’s embarrassing when someone else tells you you’re not creating the illusion of poise you thought you were.

The norms might vary based on industry/subculture/privilege dynamics, but in a nutshell you have these options when you notice that someone seems upset:

1. Do your best Miss Cleo and guess out loud how they’re feeling and keep pressing them until they admit you’re right, or
2. Ask how they’re doing and let them decide what they want to reveal; be prepared to accept “I’m fine” at face value if they’re the type who can’t pokerface and hates themselves for it. They might not want attention right now.

Nothing is foolproof, but a gentle “hey, something on your mind?” is far less likely to exacerbate an irritable mood than “u mad, bro? No for real, u mad?”
posted by armeowda at 10:05 PM on December 21, 2017 [15 favorites]

It's not necessarily gaslighting -- gah, I hate how overused that phrase is now. Gaslighting is deliberately messing with someone to undermine their sense of reality. If someone honestly is in denial about being angry (examples of which are above), this might have the effect of making someone doubt themselves (as gaslighting also does) without being gaslighting.
posted by salvia at 10:18 PM on December 21, 2017 [22 favorites]

You might try other ways of describing the behavior, if appropriate: "hostile", "adversarial", and "resentful", in different situations, are ones I've tried with someone who similarly denied being angry.
posted by XMLicious at 10:32 PM on December 21, 2017

Honestly, to me this would just be a shorthand for "that's not where I want this conversation to go, but I'm too worked up to spell that out." Also any question that starts with "Why are you [commonly-perceived-as-negative thing]" can be frustrating or feel like an attack of sorts or a demand for you to justify yourself, and when you're angry it's hard to also have the patience or calmness to process that well. Maybe ask them "do you feel angry about this?" or, gently, "it looks like this is rubbing you the wrong way." Or just "what do you think?"

"Why are you angry?" is also a tricky question in that the way you ask it is as important as the words. Could it be that you're asking it in a way that makes it sound like being angry in this situation would be ridiculous, or contemptible? ("Why are you angry?") It also really can be a loaded question, because as someone said above a lot of people conflate anger with rage and associate it with negativity and weakness, and that question can feel like an accusation or a transfer of focus from the thing that is the problem (in their mind) to making them the problem. (And as someone else said above, labeling other people's feelings is its own way of you claiming control over the situation.) You said they're feeling prickly and defensive to begin with. "I'm not angry" sounds like an automatic prickly and defensive response to me.

Finally, he might have too much past experience with people who really did use that question as an attack and just be very sensitive to that question.

I also agree with Rock 'em Sock 'em that thinking of your partner's responses in terms of tactics is problematic (and to me raises the question of whether you yourself try to think tactically during arguments, and whether your partner might see the question as a tactic on your part?)

and I agree with salvia that gaslighting is the name of a very specific and calculated type of abuse that is worth not conflating with other things
posted by trig at 11:31 PM on December 21, 2017 [3 favorites]

Best answer: How do you deal with a person who acts angry, sounds, angry, looks angry, but vehemently denies being angry?

Take them at their word, and do whatever it takes to avoid finding yourself on the receiving end of something they would consider "being angry".

Some people have experienced being so overwhelmingly angry as to put them completely out of control in the red mist. Insisting to such a person that they are angry, when they would rate what they're feeling as at worst irritated, is like trying to persuade somebody who eats whole habaneros for fun that whatever KFC puts on their chicken is spicy.

So as others have said above, how you deal with that person is by giving them honest feedback about how their current behaviour is affecting you. Complain not about the (perceived) anger, but the (manifestly obvious) yelling and snarling.

It's perfectly fine to be irritated, annoyed, frustrated, bored, fed up or angry. It's not perfectly fine to manifest these feelings in ways that hurt people who love you.

And for what it's worth, you can also count me among those who consider walking away from a yelling match as a sign of competent adulthood, not passive aggression. Any heated argument that doesn't get settled to the satisfaction of both parties within fifteen seconds is an unproductive use of time. Disagreements within an intimate relationship are bound to occur, and occasionally those disagreements will get heated; but the underlying issues typically don't get properly attended to until both partners are able to talk them out with their full powers of reason available to them, and that really can't happen while the limbic system is hogging the brain's blood supply.
posted by flabdablet at 1:33 AM on December 22, 2017 [10 favorites]

As stated above, many people have different associations of the word angry. So what you or I perceive as an angry stance might not be what they perceive as angry. You can walk away if the situation is getting heated, or you can note the behavior and describe how it makes you feel: "Tabitha, your arms are crossed and your voice is getting very loud and there's venom dripping off your fangs. It makes me feel like you're angry," and if Tabitha says, "Sorry! I'm going to see the dentist about the fang dripping later and I have a cold that's why I can't hear myself yell--I'm so terribly sorry; would you care for some tea?" then you know it's miscommunication and it's all good.

If Tabitha instead leans towards you with more venom from her fangs and screams, 'I TOLD YOU I WASN'T ANGRY!!" then just take a break.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 2:37 AM on December 22, 2017 [4 favorites]

In the heat of the moment I sometimes display emotions I’m not aware of. Usually I’m trying to process a lot of stuff or I feel threatened. It’s usually better for me to take a breather and ground myself before coming back to the subject.
posted by bunderful at 7:35 AM on December 22, 2017

If couples counseling is an option, this is precisely the kind of thing that the John Gottman style of counseling is good for.
posted by matildaben at 7:58 AM on December 22, 2017

Clearly the word "angry" has bad connotations for them. They don't want to be angry. (only mean/irresponsible/over-emotional people are "angry", not me, of course not!) So don't use that word, just ask how they're feeling. You've just said you're upset about X and you're asking for their support/help/etc, and they're acting threatened and defensive and heated. At this point you'd normally say "why are you angry?", but that's a loaded question - you're asking them to justify their negative emotion, as if they have no right to be feeling that way (or at least not as much as you do) and as if you don't see what they could possibly be upset about. So no wonder they'd try to that they're really angry.

So anyway, you say "I've told you what's going on with me - how are you feeling about this?" And then they can use whatever synonym for angry they want, and you're not putting words in their mouth. The thing I'm assuming here is that you really wanted to know why they were angry and you were really settling in to listen to them as they explain their feelings to you, that you weren't just asking as a rhetorical question in support of how you have a bigger right to be angry than they do (see above)
posted by aimedwander at 8:13 AM on December 22, 2017

I distrust them.
posted by craven_morhead at 8:50 AM on December 22, 2017 [2 favorites]

I think flabdablet is spot on. People who have serious problems with anger, who experience what I would personally term “rage”, often don’t view anger in the same way as other people. They are often struggling to avoid that rage, and don’t understand that for people who get less angry, even what they would call low-grade irritation is still anger and can be intimidating.

Rather than say “you’re angry”, I would focus on the specific things that are bothering you, using other words. But also, it’s possible you’re simply not compatible if your reactions are this different.
posted by corb at 8:55 AM on December 22, 2017 [3 favorites]

You avoid people like that to the best of your ability because any attempt to reason with them, relate to them, or communicate with them will always be percieved through their passive aggressive viewpoint and projected onto you and your motives. And you can't change that, only they can by taking responsibility for their own s**t.
posted by OnefortheLast at 9:10 AM on December 22, 2017 [2 favorites]

You ask them why they are angry, and receive a snippy response, "I'm NOT angry." You feel that they're not communicating with you in good faith by refusing to be honest with you about their feelings. You wonder if they're really that out of touch with their emotions, or if this is a tactic to gain the upper hand - "I'm calm, therefore I'm in control, I'm perfectly logical and reasonable. You're upset, therefore you're hysterical."

I think it's important to distinguish that there's not a one-size-fits-all strategy for dealing with emotions. It's a bit of a fallacy that open communication is the only way for someone to process their emotions. It is completely valid for someone to process their emotions internally. In the same way that you, in this scenario, feel "shut out" the other person may feel they're being "invaded". I think it's a mistake to dismiss that out of hand.

So to directly answer your question, I think allowing the person some time to cool off on their own is a good strategy to try. Now, if this is an every day occurrence, and there's never any reconciliation or analysis, yeah, there are bigger problems afoot. But, if someone just wants to be left alone to process their own emotions, I don't see anything wrong with that, and do see something wrong with 'forcing' them into analysis.
posted by so fucking future at 9:13 AM on December 22, 2017 [5 favorites]

It's a bit of a fallacy that open communication is the only way for someone to process their emotions.

I can personally attest that this is correct.

The single most effective way that I process anger is by noticing when it's building up to an extent that's affecting my judgement, then going for a brisk uphill walk until my adrenal glands have stopped flooding my bloodstream with fight-or-flight hormones.

This works every time, it works faster than anything else does, and I know this. So if I'm already angry and I'm prevented from walking it off (or from burning it off with some more productive form of physical activity such as splitting logs or digging holes) - for example, by having somebody I care about demand that I give an account of myself and express severe distress if I'm disinclined to do so - then the ensuing frustration makes the anger intensify, not dissipate.

Anger can be a great motivator, but it really does get in the way of resolving genuine interpersonal issues. Walking away from a shouting match should only be read as passive-aggressive if it's consistently used as an avoidance technique for the serious heart-to-heart cards-on-the-table discussion that's the only way these issues ever actually get properly dealt with.

And for what it's worth, passive aggression is not the only such avoidance technique in common use. Nobody gets to claim the moral high ground by turning every discussion into a yelling contest and then complaining when their partner walks away.
posted by flabdablet at 9:55 AM on December 22, 2017 [2 favorites]

"I'm calm, therefore I'm in control, I'm perfectly logical and reasonable. You're upset, therefore you're hysterical."

This is the point where it crosses a line into gaslighting IMO. You might find DARVO to be a useful acronym.

In my experience, all you can do is avoid people in this kind of state, but I also associate that kind of persistent denial of emotions with people who take their emotions out on others. If you can articulate "I'm mad" it shows a level of higher order thinking that is either lacking in the moment or generally. And you can't expect any progress or truth or light to come out in such a situation.

posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:57 AM on December 22, 2017 [3 favorites]

Also, leaving is not passive aggressive. "I need to take some space. I'll be back in ten minutes/an hour/a few days" is not passive aggressive at all. It's honest and much more productive than swimming upstream against someone else's anger.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:59 AM on December 22, 2017 [2 favorites]

Also much more productive than swimming upstream against one's own.
posted by flabdablet at 10:00 AM on December 22, 2017 [2 favorites]

You're reading into their denial of anger that you ate not being allowed to be upset. Why can't they just be upset as well? What is to be gained by your labelling their negative emotion for them, in a way they don't feel is genuine?

If you disbelieve their view of themselves and extrapolate that they must be doing the same to you, the perceived anger is a symptom of a larger disconnect.
posted by RainyJay at 11:53 AM on December 22, 2017 [2 favorites]

Best answer: " I'm not angry! "

" I hear you. I want to understand how you do feel. How do you feel right now? "

Hopefully they will share. If they will not, then wait until a few days later and do:

" Remember when I thought you were angry, and you said you weren't, but couldn't describe how you did feel. Looking back, can you tell me how you were feeling? "

And if they still won't or can't tell you:

" Here's the thing: if I can't tell how you are feeling, and you won't or can't tell me how you are feeling, then I have to go by your behavior, and you were behaving exactly like angry people behave. You need to think about that, and either help me understand how you were feeling, or change your behavior to reflect how you're feeling so I can understand it. Until that happens, when you act that way, I'm walking away without another word. "

Then do so.
posted by davejay at 1:56 PM on December 22, 2017 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I have used, "well, maybe you're not angry, but you're yelling at me, so I'm done with this conversation."

Which sometimes gets, "I'm not yelling at you! I'm just... I'm being loud because the fan is on! And the TV!" And so on.

And I tend to say, "it sounds like yelling. I don't want to be yelled at. We can talk later when you don't need to yell."

The key part: Don't focus on their emotions, which you presumably can't be certain of. Focus on their actions. Yelling, scowling, waving hands around, cutting you off before you finish speaking, growling, whatever - point to the physical indicators rather than the emotional causes.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 2:12 PM on December 22, 2017 [6 favorites]

Is stepping away from the argument and coming back later the only solution? But that's also a classic avoidance tactic of passive aggressive people.

Insisting on continuing an argument when it would be better for both people to take some time to cool off isn't helping anyone.
posted by yohko at 4:43 PM on December 22, 2017 [4 favorites]

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