Even if you have a great home life and work at some super-nice business, like, say, the Cozy Time Tea Factory or Tiny Puppy Pavilion, you’ll probably have to deal with aggressive people from time to time. The Simpsons says it best: Some people act badly because they’ve had a hard life or have been mistreated. But some of them… are just jerks.
Whether you’re dealing with an overstressed person who’s taking their anger out on you or someone who was simply born an a-hole, you don’t have to be miserable because of the aggro folks in your life. I interviewed therapists and experts on the best ways to deal with aggressive people, and they shared tips on how to keep your sanity when the tempers around you run high.
Don’t Take It Personally
“It’s easy to take aggressive people and the way they act personally, especially if you are not aggressive yourself,” says Celeste Viciere, LMHC, author and host of Celeste the Therapist podcast. But Viciere explains that your actions are not the cause of their aggression. “Many times, if a person comes off as aggressive with you, they are like that with everyone.”
Even in the workplace, you can’t let someone else’s aggro behavior impact your self-esteem. For example, let’s say you made a mistake at work. Your boss has every right to bring it to your attention and ask you to not repeat it, but they do not have the right to scream at you or become hostile. If your boss decides to have a yelling fit, you have to do your best to detach from that aggression and remind yourself that their anger is not about you.
Of course, if a meaningful person in your life is bullying you, it can be very hard to not take that personally. But see if you can slowly change your thinking patterns when that person gets aggressive. If they say something mean, ask yourself, Do I really think that’s true? Usually, the answer is no. So you can remind yourself that you are definitely not an “idiot” or whatever other insensitive word they chose to use and try to move on with your day.
This isn’t to say that an aggressive person can’t make you mad or sad. If someone yells at me, I usually scream the F-word in my brain a few times and then cry about it later. It happens. But you don’t have to treat their abuse as a true personal attack.
“When there is an incident, it’s really hard not to be bothered by what has occurred. Remind yourself of your own positive traits, strengths, and abilities,” says Angel M. Hoodye of Flourishing Hope Counseling. “The incident does not define you. The negative behavior by your supervisor is not a reflection of you or your capabilities.” This is equally true whether you’re experiencing aggression at work, at home, or at a knitting group. Wherever you find an aggro person, take the time to remind yourself that their insensitive words are not the truth.
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Don’t Let Aggression Trickle Down
A study in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that aggressive behavior tends to trickle down. Let’s say a boss yells at you, which pisses you off—but you can’t yell at the boss unless you’d like to give the unemployment line a try. So you hold in all that anger and wind up taking it out on someone else. The study found that employees of aggressive bosses tended to act more hostile toward their family than employees in more pleasant workplaces.
Aggression begets aggression. Honestly, this trickle-down probably explains why your boss likes to take things out on you: Viciere says that people in charge are often subject to an array of pressures that the other employees aren’t aware of. Or your boss could be going through something awful in their personal life. Unfortunately, sometimes they decide to direct their frustration toward the next people down the line, which means an unhappy workplace for you.
This can happen in families or groups of friends too. As a kid, when I got mad at my mom, I’d take it out on my sisters (not a move I’m proud of). When a certain friend starts acting aggressive, sometimes it’s easier to let that anger out on another friend, rather than confronting the person who started the aggro chain.
Now, this doesn’t excuse anyone’s overly aggressive behavior, but knowing where it comes from can help you from taking their anger so personally. Also, it’s a good reminder to control your own aggression, so you don’t accidentally become a jerk to the innocent people around you.
“An aggressive person may not realize they are coming off in an aggressive way, but it’s important that you relay how their behavior affects you,” Viciere says. “Set up a meeting and tell them, ‘When you do X, it makes me feel Y.'” Viciere recommends keeping your tone cool and collected so the aggressive person doesn’t see your conversation as a kind of attack.
Of course, use your judgment here. If you think the aggressive person genuinely means well but is still hurting feelings all day, it might be good to try to talk to her. But if she’s just abusive or hot-tempered, your little heart-to-heart might not turn out well. If you’re dealing with an angry boss, sometimes addressing them directly isn’t an option, so it’s best to go to HR to share how their aggressive nature is affecting your work.
Speaking about your feelings is a great way to set boundaries and let people know when they’re being hurtful. But what do you do in the moment? I’ve definitely been on the crap end of some yelling sessions where raising my hand and saying “your tone right now is hurtful to me” would not have worked in my favor.
If someone is yelling or being blatantly aggressive, try to keep your emotions out of it (for the moment) and ask questions, Hoodye says. “Use words like team, us, and we. This creates a sense of unity.” Even in the heat of the moment, Hoodye recommends asking:
- How can I/we improve?
- What would we have liked to happen?
- What are your expectations?
Sadly, you can’t ask these questions in a super smart-ass tone, as fun and tempting as that would be. But if you genuinely try to change the conversation so you understand the motives and expectations of the aggressor, that will likely diffuse some of the anger. It shows you’re not taking things personally and want to make this relationship work to the best of your ability. Also, when someone’s yelling just to yell and you ask calm, focused questions, it takes the wind out of their sails.
Don’t Fuel the Fire
I once had a very aggressive boss who was always trying to get a reaction. He’d be mean or rude just to see people get mad or scared, and at first, I took the bait. He’d do something outrageous, I’d be cowed by it, and he relished my reaction. Then I stopped reacting. He’d say something mean, I’d give no emotional response, and he’d walk away. Soon enough, he stopped trying to get a reaction from me, and I was able to work in relative peace.
Not every aggressive person is out to get a rise out of you, but generally, remaining calm can work in your favor. “When the person comes at you in an aggressive manner, do not feed into the behavior. Use healthy communication skills,” Hoodye says. “Talk in a calm voice, stand at a comfortable distance, smile when appropriate, and display that you are listening to their concerns.” When you stay professional, it can make the aggressive person feel how unprofessional their behavior is.
To further calm the fire, Hoodye says, “Acknowledge their possible feelings. This helps the person to recognize you understand where they are coming from in regard to a situation. Then share some of your own insight.” By keeping calm, you may be able to instantly diffuse the situation and still be heard.
On the other hand, you might stay cool as a cucumber, and the aggressive person will still go off. That’s fine. It’s not your job to calm them down. But if you stay collected, you aren’t adding any fuel to the fire. At worst, the screaming match will end earlier than usual.
Of course, this is hard. I know that “stay calm” is a rough and annoying thing to hear. But it’s not about never feeling mad or upset. It’s about putting that aside for a moment to get through a difficult situation. You can get as mad as you want later when you’re around better people and in a safer scenario.
Talk It Out and Walk It Out
When you’re dealing with an aggressive person, that’s prime time to turn to your friends. “You gain wonderful insight when you turn to your support system. Tapping into your resources of support can help clear up the muddy waters of negativity,” Hoodye says. “You are able to regain your strength, hash out the issues, and process what you have experienced with the aggressive person. The support of your support system might be just the boost you need to get back in the saddle.”
When you can’t go to your friends, take it outside. “If you can, go for a quick walk. Get some fresh air, a glass of water, and some sunlight,” Hoodye says. “Walk it off and get back in the game. Don’t let someone else’s negative attitude cloud your judgment about who you are or your capabilities.”
I used to think the whole “go for a walk” advice was stupid. My skin burns at the idea of sunshine, I’m not outdoorsy, and I love sitting, so walking always seemed like more a chore than a solution. But I started doing it recently, and turns out all the experts are absolutely right: Moving around outside gets you out of your head in a way you can’t do sitting at home or in the office. The combination of physical activity and new surroundings tends to give you a better perspective on your problems. So even if you just do a lap around the block, it’s worth braving the outdoors for this free moment of clarity.
Fighting back probably sounds like the worst possible idea, especially in a work setting, but a study from Ohio State University showed that fighting back often makes employees happier. The study found that people who fought back against hostile bosses were happier at work, had lower levels of stress, and had higher job satisfaction than people who simply took the abuse. Plus, they felt that “fighting back” did not prompt retaliation or hurt their career.
Now, we’re not talking about people screaming, “See you in hell!” and setting off a smoke bomb every time their boss was an a-hole. For the study, “fighting back” meant ignoring the bosses’ comments, acting like they weren’t listening to hostile statements, or turning in half-assed work. So, you shouldn’t scream back or hurl insults. But, if you “fight back” in these more passive ways, you might end up feeling better about yourself.
Overall, the study found that a completely non-hostile workplace was the best bet for everyone… which, sure. But if you can’t manage that, a little bit of fighting back may not be too bad.
You can do the same thing if you’re dealing with an aggressive family member or friend, especially when it comes to straight-up ignoring rude comments. This is much harder to do with people you really care about, as opposed to random officemates, but the idea of standing up for yourself will often help with any kind of aggressive person.
Of course, if you can get an aggressive person out of your life, do it. Since that’s not always possible, at least you have a few tools at your disposal to keep aggression from ruining your own mental health. Because you’re not at fault for someone else’s hostile behavior. Always remember: Some people are just jerks.
Amber Petty is an L.A.-based writer and a regular contributor to Greatist. Follow along as she shares her weight-loss journey in her new bi-monthly column, Slim Chance. Follow her on Instagram @Ambernpetty.