Having a Bad Day? How To Recognise and Not Redirect That Aggression

Redirected aggression: what the psychology is behind it, how it shows up in our lives and how we can defuse it. 

What is it?

Redirected aggression is ‘the targeting of an innocent bystander in response to one’s own pain and injury’. (Barash & Lipton, 2011) As with retaliation and revenge, redirected aggression is likely to occur when one being feels hurt or wronged by another person or situation, either emotionally or physically.

Retaliation is prompt, proportionate and unconscious, with pain immediately reflected back onto the perpetrator – you hit me, so I hit you.

Revenge is delayed and deliberate with much prior contemplation and is often disproportionate to the original event – you hit me, time passes, I plan and execute several blows.

Retaliation and revenge have obvious and significantly negative social implications, such as legal action and prosecution. If you hit someone or take the law into your own hands, you are likely to face criminal charges. Redirected aggression, however, is much more commonplace and insidious – you hit me, and instead of hitting you back, I take it out on someone else who is completely unrelated to the original incident. Because of this, it can have a wide-ranging and profound impact on our daily lives.

We all know redirected aggression when we see it, often as someone simply ‘having a bad day’. A person who cuts in front of us whilst driving may have suffered a relationship breakdown the night before. The shopper who rams into us with their trolley might have just had someone else barge into them. A stranger suddenly shouting at us may be defending a legal dispute and feels unfairly treated by others and by life itself. 

However, redirected aggression can also appear in a more subtle and passive aggressive way – we sometimes don’t even realise it is happening until we leave a situation feeling somewhat bruised. Consciously or not, after experiencing interactions like these ourselves, we will often then take the redirected aggression on into our own lives: we may snap at our colleagues or shout at our loved ones at home, or we may even be annoyed with the dog.

Experiencing redirected aggression has a ‘pay-it-forward’, knock-on effect, which is potentially then passed from the bystander onto others, and beyond. The cyclical nature of redirected aggression means we may not be the source of it, but after experiencing it, we may then direct it onto one, two or multiple others that we happen to interact with. Think, for example, of the employee who may come into the workplace angry after a fight with their partner. They may snap at their colleagues and push past them aggressively, which in turn will cause the co-workers to feel sad, angry and distracted. These colleagues are then likely to take such feelings into their own professional and personal lives, repeating the cycle.

Underlying redirected aggression is emotional and physical pain of varying degrees. Anger and aggression may appear to be dominant, but underneath these emotions may reside feelings of fear, shame, powerlessness, sadness, and victimisation. Using redirected aggression sends the message: I may be down, but I’m not out! It is human nature that when we feel bad, making others feel bad makes us feel momentarily better, casting off the negative and uncomfortable feelings we may be experiencing about ourselves onto another person.

Redirected aggression can be aligned with behaviours such as bullying and victimisation, often directed to those who may appear to be in some apparently less powerful position to the aggrieved party, such as a position of service, or assistance. Worse, because we are more inclined to think we can automatically demand respect from those in positions of service to us, we are more likely to unleash our aggression onto them. We would be less inclined to use it on those we deem to be dominant to us, physically or organisationally, which is why redirected aggression can be particularly commonplace in the home environment and workplace, and is widely experienced by workers in service and customer-service based roles. For instance, a customer may be trying to return a product that is faulty to a service desk. Instead of engaging with the worker’s attempts to offer a replacement or a refund, they may be rude and yell at the worker, in turn making the employee frustrated with their colleagues or other customers and beyond. So what can we do to stop it?

Identifying and diffusing redirected aggression

Recognise the signs, whether you are the redirector or the bystander:

• Sniping and rudeness.

• Shouting or an unnecessarily raised voice.

• Physical aggression.

• Any response that is disproportionate to the immediate event.

If you find yourself redirecting aggression onto a bystander, recognise that this is about personal responsibility:

• You must remember that you and only you are in control of your actions. 

• You can halt the act at any time you choose.

• Find a healthy outlet, such as exercise or walking.

• Apologise immediately for your behaviour and sincerely employ ‘it’s not you, it’s me’, which can go some way to repair an interaction.

Keep in mind that every act has consequences and what might feel good in the moment, can have more damaging and widespread implications further down the line for you and others, leading to enduring fear and shame.

If you are the bystander to redirected aggression (especially if the incident is more than a passing comment or gesture):

• Remember that it’s not about you – it’s about them.

• When speaking, be sincere and keep your tone positive but firm.

• Employ active listening and repeating back without taking on responsibility for the other party: ‘I hear that you’re feeling frustrated by x…’ 

• Avoid passivity or fawning (being too nice) as this may prolong the experience of redirected aggression and may have a negative impact on your own wellbeing after the fact. 

You can also deploy physiological and psychological tools to repel redirected aggression and stop it from affecting your own psyche:

• Breathe! This is an invaluable tool that helps to regulate your emotions and your physiological body.

• Remain calm and centred – this will help you to de-escalate and not feed into the situation. 

• Visualise a sheet of glass or a wall between you that their words and energy are simply bouncing away from.

• Visualise your own or someone else’s aggression melting away from your body.

 Endeavour to learn from those who wrong you or redirect aggression towards you by turning your attention inwards, away from them to nurture your own inner experience. Doing so is healing, calming and stops you from taking on another person’s energy – ultimately, redirected aggression is about an inability to deal with our own feelings and bodily sensations.

Awareness is a great precursor to change: if we can practice awareness of something in our experience and become familiar with our response to it, we can identify the moment it occurs to diffuse and choose a different response. Recognising that we have this choice is restorative to our own sense of power, as rather than being a victim of someone else’s redirected aggression, our autonomy is returned to us, by us, which means that we no longer feel the urge or need to redirect onto someone else. 

Where we can step up into awareness of what’s true for us in the moment, identify the signs and recognise that this is what is happening in our experience, we can stop redirected aggression in it tracks and even completely diffuse it. Such behaviours allow us moments of great personal insight and self-reflection – regardless of whether we are the redirector or the bystander.

Putting these aspects into practice in the workplace for service-based staff may help reduce workplace angst, reduce stress or conflict and also lead to better outcomes with colleagues and customers both in the immediate and long term. On a personal level, such tools can only help enhance our experiences of life and each other, deepening our understanding of ourselves.

Reference:

Barash & Lipton (2011) Payback: Why We Retaliate, Redirect Aggression, and Take Revenge

© Dr Maddie Smith (2022)

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