Anger is a big emotion that’s hard to miss, and oftentimes an obvious sign the person lashing out is under an extreme amount of stress. But there are other, much quieter ways of taking your stress out on others that can be just as damaging.
“These non-direct expressions of stress tend to be associated with other emotions, such as feeling overwhelmed, anxious, guilty or ashamed, which are more difficult and painful to both identify ourselves and express to others,” said Nora Gerardi, New York-based licensed psychologist and adjunct assistant professor at Queens College.
Because they’re harder to spot and the effects are less apparent, they can burrow into our day-to-day, making it harder for us to recognize when the key issues causing our stress aren’t being addressed.
“In the long run, such behaviors affect personal self-esteem, as well as trust, safety, and healthy communication within relationships,” said Carla Marie Manly, a California-based clinical psychologist and author of “Joy From Fear.”
To start turning things around, the best first step is to slow down and take notice of your patterns objectively. “Once we become better at witnessing our own stress-perpetuating behaviors — rather than being the victim of them — we can take small, concerted steps toward creating healthier long-term habits,” Manly said.
Here are some of the subtler ways you might be taking your stress out on others without realizing it:
1. You shut down and self-isolate.
This is a common coping technique for people who feel sensitive to their environment and others, and feel they can best regulate their emotions when they’re by themselves. You might go off the grid because you perceive your relationships with others add more stress to your life, or that you add stress to others’ lives.
“The idea of interacting with others adds stress, either because there’s internal pressure to attend to others, to be there for them, or external pressure to be vulnerable and honest, to reveal what you consider to be weaknesses,” said Yasmine Saad, licensed clinical psychologist and founder of Madison Park Psychological Services in New York City.
It’s different than “me time,” where you decompress solo and venture back out into the world once you’ve gotten some rest. It’s a deliberate avoidance of other people and conversations about whatever it is that’s stressing you out.
The people in your life might get worried and wonder if they did something wrong or are a part of the problem. Depriving them of the opportunity to be there for you might make them feel helpless and frustrated, and can lead to increased tension in your relationships.
The fix: “People who need to isolate themselves need to find a way to regulate themselves,” Saad said. Try creating time and space throughout the day when you’re by yourself, or schedule mini-retreats into your week so you don’t need extended breaks that cut you off from the people who care about you.
2. You specialize in one-sided venting sessions.
Sometimes it feels good to get it all out, especially if you leave the conversation feeling heard and understood. “Not only can venting help us feel less alone in our problems, but it can even help us process our feelings as we’re narrating them to someone we trust,” said Amanda Darnley, Philadelphia-based licensed psychologist and owner of Chrysocolla Counseling.
However, calling up a friend, immediately launching into your problems and ending the convo without returning the favor can be emotionally taxing for the other person.
“The person you’re venting to is holding space for your feelings, which are likely intense and some of the tougher ones to experience, like anxiety and anger,” Darnley said. “Doing this repeatedly could leave that person feeling drained —especially if it’s consistently one-sided.”
The fix: Get into the habit of respecting other people’s emotional boundaries. When you call a friend, give them a heads up that you need to vent and check first to see if they’ve got the time and energy for it in that moment.
Make sure the conversation is balanced — not just in both of you having an opportunity to let off steam, but in the convo being as much about venting as solutions. This will help prevent venting about the same situations incessantly and keep you both from getting stuck.
Also, thank your loved one for listening and allowing you to vent. “Make sure they feel appreciated,” Darnley said. “And if you don’t have time to ask how they’re doing during your discussion, schedule a time to circle back with them before you end the conversation.”
3. You heavily rely on your safe person.
People typically rely too heavily on one person because the alternative — relying on other people — creates anxiety. This “safe” person can be a spouse, friend, parent, sibling, friend ― any loved one who you lean on regularly.
“By relying on a person other than our safe person, we risk being criticized, turned down, or not getting the advice we want,” Saad said. “Fear of a negative outcome, taking risks and the unknown also contribute to this behavior.”
Your safe person may feel stressed out by the pressure of helping you, guilty when they don’t respond to your outreach, and frustrated by your behavior. They may absorb the stress of your reliance on them or feel powerless to improve your dynamic.
Over time, this coping strategy may create lasting damage to your relationship—and your safe person’s mental health.
The fix: “To avoid foisting stress onto the rock in your life, it’s important to establish a variety of support systems,” Manly said. “This may include creating additional safe friendships, journaling about your stress, finding a creative outlet, or turning to an online support group.”
4. You turn into a problem-solving bot.
When you feel like you’re at capacity, you might also feel as if you don’t have the bandwidth to offer emotional support to others. This can translate into your loved ones coming to you with how they’re feeling, and you offering solutions and suggestions, rather than really hearing them out. Your own stress essentially blocks the capacity to be present for how they feel or what they’re communicating.
“One of the foundations of strong and close relationships is emotional support,” Gerardi said. “If we don’t have the capacity to support others emotionally, the relationship can become strained and the person in our life might see us as unsupportive or feel like we don’t get it.”
The fix: Create rules for yourself, like making two statements focused on emotion (think: “That sucks” or “I feel you”) before any problem-solving.
“This sort of rule encourages us to zoom in on what the other person is communicating to us about how they feel,” Gerardi said. “It also reduces the impulsive habit of over-relying on problem-solving mode.”
Another rule might be that you need to ask if the person wants help with problem-solving first: “In general, people are more open to problem-solving when they consent to it, not when it’s forced on them,” Gerardi added.
5. You pretend to be fine.
Closeness requires vulnerability. If you’re pretending to be fine when you’re not, you’re sending a message to the people that care about you that you don’t trust them with your feelings or it’s not OK to be stressed or hurting.
Typically, negative or distorted beliefs about emotional vulnerability are at the core of this particular reaction to stress. It can leave your loved ones feeling confused about how to properly be there for you and potentially foolish when they make the attempt.
“If they detect the pretense, they might not know what to respond to—the real affect or the pretend one,” Saad said. “They might try to address your real emotions, but likely won’t succeed because you prefer to hide them.”
This might lead them to think twice about coming to you the next time they need help, or feel bad about needing help when they do.
The fix: Not wanting to be viewed as weak or incompetent for struggling and not wanting to burden others with our problems are just some of the ways our judgmental thoughts might lead us to hide how we’re really feeling or doing.
“Just because you’re thinking it doesn’t mean it’s true,” Darnley said. “It might help to check in with people that are close to you to see if they feel burdened when you’re honest about your feelings or ask for help.” Having other people reassure you that they appreciate the chance to help may weaken that judgement when it pops up.
If you’re still uncomfortable despite their reassurances, start with asking for small favors (such as having a friend pick something up for you at the store) or talking about small things that are bothering you (your inability to hang a straight picture), and slowly condition yourself to feel comfortable with letting people in.
6. You dump your problems onto other people.
Some people cope with stress by running away from the stress-inducing situation, which often results in leaving burdens in another person’s lap.
When you perceive yourself as not well-equipped to deal with stress and another person to be well-equipped, you might drop your problems on them as a way to not feel helpless and powerless, Saad said.
You might pull this off by venting your problems to someone else and asking them to solve them or find a solution for you, or act so distressed by your problems that the other person feels compelled to help, which leaves you feeling relieved.
Either way, “the dumped-on person may feel angry, overwhelmed, stressed and disappointed by the dumper’s habitual lack of responsibility,” Manly said.
The fix: Once a problem feels too large, a problem-dumper is likely to feel so stressed and overwhelmed that running seems to be the only choice. “Changing these dynamics involves learning to deal with foundational issues, such as procrastination and avoidance of personal responsibility,” Manly said.
This might involve making changes to the dynamics of your day so the anxiety doesn’t have an opportunity to fester — getting up earlier so there’s more breathing room between tasks, creating detailed schedules that break tasks down into tiny, non-overwhelming steps, and creating short- and long-term goals that specifically tackle your penchant for avoidance can all be powerful go-to tools.
And each time you solve a problem on your own or reach one of your goals, take the time to celebrate. Savoring the feel-good chemicals your brain releases can encourage you to keep up the good work.
7. You say yes to helping someone, then act resentful about it.
People-pleasers typically strive to reduce their fear of displeasing others by taking on too much. “Although this strategy works temporarily to reduce the anxiety of saying no, long-term damage results due to an upwelling in feelings of stress, resentment and overwhelm,” Manly said.
This might look like agreeing to help your co-worker with a project when you’re already overextended, then responding with an undertone of irritation or exasperation when they want to talk about your portion, or offering an assist to a friend, only to act miserable the entire time you’re assisting them.
“If you’re feeling resentful about your commitments, you likely didn’t give yourself enough space to really consider why you were saying yes in the first place and whether you had the time and energy to follow through,” Darnley said.
Holding onto these resentments for agreeing to help is just as unfair to the people in your life as it is to yourself. You’re sending mixed messages to the other person, who might be left feeling hurt by the way you’re acting.
The fix: Get into the habit of pausing before agreeing to someone’s request. A simple “let me get back to you” can offer up the space necessary for you to make an informed decision — and if you’re prone to feeling guilty when you say no, it can help you craft a thoughtful way to do it.
“Honor how you feel rather than how you should behave,” Saad said. If it turns out you don’t have the bandwidth to help right now, let them know your earliest availability.
If you’re booked solid, not interested in helping or don’t feel you’re the best person to help, offering up suggestions of other people who might be a better fit or other strategies for solving the problem can make you feel as if you’re setting a boundary while also not leaving your loved one in the lurch.