Personality

Is There an Angry Personality?

How we can learn compassionate assertiveness.

Posted Nov 30, 2020

In our era of pop-psychology, when partners are eager to go on the Internet to diagnose each other with personality disorders, I’m asked all the time about “the angry personality.”

Neuroticism is a personality trait but not anger. Only when aspects of neuroticism – frustration, envy, jealousy, guilt, depressed mood, loneliness – are blamed on self or others, do they produce anger. Blame is a learned coping mechanism, not a personality trait.

While there’s no “angry personality,” the following attitudes and habits are correlates of chronic anger and resentment.

Entitlement

My rights and privileges are superior to those of other people. In relationships, my right to get what I want supersedes your right not to give me what I want.

Focus on things out of personal control

In traffic, they focus on the way the highway should have been designed, how the lights should have been synchronized, and how other people drive. In relationships, they focus on manipulating their partners' behavior and attitudes.

External regulation of emotions

They try to regulate their emotions by controlling their environment.

Emotions are not in the environment. Emotions are in us, and that’s where they must be regulated.

External locus of control

They believe that their well-being, indeed their fate, is controlled by powerful forces outside the self, and damn it, they’re not going to take it.

Refusal to see other perspectives

They perceive different perspectives as ego-threats.

Low tolerance of discomfort

Discomfort is typically due to low physical resources – tired, hungry, sleep-deprived. They confuse discomfort with unfair punishment. As with many toddlers, discomfort quickly turns to anger.

Low tolerance of ambiguity

Certainty is an emotional, not an intellectual state. To feel certain, we must limit the amount of information we process. Ambiguity necessitates processing more information, which they see as a potential ego-threat.

Hyper-focus on blame

They’re more concerned with attributing fault for problems than solving them. This makes them powerless to improve their experience.

Those they blame live rent-free in their heads and dominate their thoughts and feelings.

Fragile ego

Anger evolved in mammals as a protective emotion. It requires a perception of vulnerability plus threat. The more vulnerable we feel, the more threat we’ll perceive. (Wounded and starving animals can be so ferocious.) In modern times, the threats we perceive are almost exclusively to the ego.  

The perceived need for so much protection weakens the sense of self, making it reactive, rather than proactive, impulsively seeking temporary feelings of power via the adrenaline of anger, rather than acting in long-term best interests. When the behavior of angry people turns out to be in their long-term best interests, it’s usually accidental.

None of the above is a personality trait. All the above are learned habits and attitudes. Unlike personality traits, habits and attitudes are amenable to change, with practice.

We can learn to improve, rather than blame. In relationships, we can learn binocular vision – the ability to see both perspectives at once – instead of devaluing other perspectives.

In family relationships, we can learn compassionate assertiveness – standing up for our rights and preferences, while respecting the rights, preferences, and vulnerability of loved ones.