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Anger vs. Aggression: Know the Difference

Updated: May 12, 2023

"But you are human, and you will make mistakes. You will misjudge. You will yell." Ta-Nehisi Coates

I facilitate anger management groups, and yes, we have lively discussions. I suppose you think these groups must be tense. Yes, at times, they are, and time-outs are necessary. Anger management is among those topics that encourage self-reflection related to temperament. At the beginning of each session, I take the time to remind the group members of the purpose of anger management. I clarify terms related to anger management. Yes, it leads to a debate because members struggle with the difference between anger and aggression early in the process.

What is anger?

The responses to the question, what is anger? Often, group members describe anger as an action rather than an emotion. Once we clarify, anger is an emotion. I use Reilly and Shopshire's operational definition, “anger is a feeling or emotion that ranges from mild irritation to intense fury and rage.” I use this working definition because it helps group members recognize that anger escalates. There is an opportunity to decrease anger before it reaches intense fury and rage. I find it helps if they realize the situation that provokes the anger may start as a mild irritation.

Also, to establish accountability for expressing their anger and dispel the idea, they move from zero to sixty. The zero-to-sixty mindset typically overlooks there is a starting point leading up to fury and rage. The starting point is the appraisal of the situation that triggers the anger. Your assessment helps you to decide your response to the anger-provoking crisis. Sometimes, group members overlook the underlying feeling for the fit of anger. Finally, the anger iceberg depicts some underlying emotions associated with anger.

What is Aggression?

Once we have exhausted (literally) the definition of anger, we address aggression. I also use Reilly and Shopshire's operational definition for aggression, “aggression is a behavior that is intended to cause harm to another person or property.” There is a misconception about aggression and what counts as aggressive behaviors—one of the misconceptions centers around the notion that aggressive behaviors can be verbal and non-verbal. It is common to hear the question, what do you mean aggression can be verbal? The definition says nothing about aggression being verbal. Yes, the description does not address verbal aggression; it only addresses physical aggression. Remember, aggression is also about the domination of the other person. Pay attention to the word “intended” and consider how words are weaponized to hurt a person. The point here is aggressive behaviors manifests in different ways.

Examples of aggressive behaviors:

  • Reactive aggression - acting on impulse

  • Proactive aggression - a planned attack to get even, dominate, hurt, or destroy

  • Hostile behaviors that violate the rights of other

  • Derogatory name-calling

  • Using words to inflict emotional pain

  • Yelling and screaming at the other person

  • Punching or kicking holes in walls

  • Destroying property (smashing car windows, pouring bleach on your partner's clothes ... breaking their favorite possession)

  • Making threats to harm another person

  • Using Intimidation and giving ultimatums

  • Brandishing weapons and making threats

  • Physical restraint

  • Choking, slapping, punching … kicking

  • Physical fights

You can be angry without being aggressive. In a future post, I will explore the effective use of anger management strategies to reduce the likelihood of aggressive behaviors. The list of aggressive behaviors provided is not exhaustive. There are other ways in which aggressive behaviors manifest. For example, what are some of the methods you have seen others use to express aggression?

P.S. Anger is not necessarily a negative emotion. It's how one expresses anger that may be problematic. Anger management is not about eliminating anger; instead, it's about learning proper self-regulation.

Stay Naturally Curious


Reilly PM and Shopshire MS. Anger Management for Substance Abuse and Mental Health Clients: A Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Manual. DHHS Pub. No. (SMA) 02-3661. Rockville, MD: Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, Substance Abuse, and Mental Health Services Administration, 2002.

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