Lesson 4 of 7 - optimize your relationships

Options for
 Managing Hostility

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Experts Council

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The Web address of this article is https://sfhelp.org/relate/hostile.htm

Updated  02-11-2015

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      This is one of a series of lesson-4 articles on satisfying relationships. This article offers perspective on "hostility," and proposes effective ways to respond to it in yourself or in another person.

      This article assumes you're familiar with...

  • the intro to this Web site and the premises underlying it,

  • self-improvement Lessons 1-4

  • premises about using anger and frustration constructively

      Is significant hostility from - or toward - another person stressing your life? If so, this article suggests options for understanding and managing "hostility" effectively.

colorbutton.gif  Hostility 101

      How would you define hostility (or animosity) to a young person? How would you illustrate it? If there is a hostile person in your life, what traits of theirs justifies that label? Would anyone currently label you as hostile?

      Let's say that hostility is an attitude of scorn (disrespect) + rejection + dislike or hatred of one or more people and a conscious intention to hurt them. The latter can be covert (like gossip and slander) or blatant (like verbal or physical fighting or a legal suit). Because hostility is an emotional reaction between people, it is rarely affected by logic or "clear thinking." Does this match your experience?

      In some combative situations (like sports competitions), the opponents can try to outperform each other ("win"), but they may not be "hostile." In other combats (like wars), opponents vow to injure, kill, and capture the foe. In other words, aggression and competition may or may not be "hostile."

      To manage hostility in yourself or others, you need to know what causes it. Let's explore common surface causes, and then the underlying primary causes.

Surface Causes of Hostility

      Picture your favorite hostile person, and see if any of these describe her or him:

  • S/He feels threatened, humiliated, scorned, ignored, attacked, manipulated, and/or injured by you and/or someone else;

  • S/He resents you or another for an imagined or real behavior or attitude (like superiority, distrust, rejection, dislike, or disrespect);

  • S/He covets something like your possessions, relationship, traits, social status, looks, job, family, and may feel "entitled" to them but unable to attain them;

  • S/He feels you have threatened or hurt someone s/he cares for, and s/he seeks "revenge;"

  • S/He strongly disagrees with key values you hold (like religion, evolution , abortion, or bigotry), and resents your disparaging him/her or supporters about this;

  • S/He feels personally and/or socially rejected (excluded) by you or someone else.

  • S/He feels you don't listen to her or him on important matters, and/or you are "unapproachable."

      Can you add other surface causes of hostility and animosity?  Try out the idea that none of these are the real sources of a hostile attitude. These typical surface (secondary) factors are genuine stressors - and they are each symptoms of some…

Primary Causes of Hostility

      1) Typical hostile persons have inherited significant psychological wounds from early-childhood neglect, abandonment, and abuse. They don't (want to) know this - or if they do, they don't know what to do about it.

      Psychological wounding typically promotes impulsivity, anger, sarcasm, ignoring long-tem consequences, disrespect, arguing, selfishness, focus on the past, envy, entitlement, righteousness, rigidity, superiority, reality distortions (like denials), bigotry, dishonesty, blame, self-justification, and an inability to see one's self as half the problem.

      2)  Typical hostile people are unaware of effective communication skills (symptom: repeated dynamics like these vs. win-win problem-solving). They are often unaware of how they try to fill their social needs, and how their way often makes things worse.

      3) These two factors combine to promote mutual dislike, disrespect, and distrust, which powerfully inhibit effective problem-solving, forgiveness, and genuine co-operation.

      Do these causes seem reasonable to you? can you think of other primary causes of a hostile attitude?

      So what can you do with this knowledge?

colorbutton.gif Manage Your Own Hostility

      If you suffer outbursts of rage and hostility at times, you have powerful options to curb those intense feelings. If you don't, read the following as possible advice to others whose anger and frustration "get the better of them."

      Feeling the need to "get even," get "revenge," "strike back," "not be walked on," or to "show someone how it feels" happens when one or more of your ruling subselves think that threatening or hurting someone is the best way to protect you. That's usually a reactive Inner Child and/or a Guardian subself (a "false self") who distrusts your true Self to keep you safe.

       To guard against acting impulsively and regretting it... 

      Short term, breathe, remind yourself you have a wise leader available to manage the situation (your Self). Firmly tell whatever subselves are giving you the aggressive thoughts and feelings to STOP! Tell them to stand down and trust you (your Self) to handle the situation. Expect them to resist, and repeat this as often as needed.

      When your tr3ue Self is guiding you, take time to identify what you feel.

  • if your subselves feel threatened, identify what they fear and review your options to reduce the threat;

  • if they feel angry, explore whether they're hurt by the other person/s behaviors. Often, hurt follows  scorn, disrespect, and/or rejection;

  • if subselves feel frustrated, identify what specific primary needs are being blocked, and evaluate your options. Choose a mutual-respect attitude, and use these seven skills to assert your feelings and needs and handle expected "resistances" from the other person/s. If you have trouble doing this, a false self still controls you and/or you need to study Lesson 2.


  • study and apply Lesson 1 to free your Self to guide your other subselves in all situations;

  • study and apply Lesson 2 to upgrade your communication effectiveness - specially your assertion and empathic listening skills; and...

  • intentionally evolve and live by a healthy personal anger policy that uses natural anger and frustration energy to solve problems.

      If you know anyone who is ordered to - or chooses to - attend an "anger management" class, consider giving them a copy of this article. Their class will probably not teach them Lessons 1 and 2 basics. 

      The second thing you can do when you're aware of the primary causes of hostility is...

colorbutton.gif Respond Well to Others' Hostility

      This brief YouTube video about "difficult people" previews some of what you're about to read. It mentions eight self-improvement lessons in this Web site - I've reduced that to seven.

      When you're with a hostile adult or child, what do you usually feel? Common reactions are alertness, annoyance, anxiety, and the need to "calm them down" - specially if the person has a history of violence. You also may feel concern ("What's wrong?") and a wish to help.

      If the hostility is directed at you or someone you care about, you may feel threatened, defensive, reactive, resentful, intimidated, paralyzed, guilty - and/or hostile yourself. How would you describe your normal reaction to incoming hostility and aggression? Does your reaction help fill your and the other person's current needs?

      If your true Self is guiding you, you're most apt to view the other person with compassion, vs. disrespect. You'll see them a someone who is wounded and unaware thru no fault of their own. That will help you decide calmly how to best respond. You can learn to...

  • breathe well, and mentally review your rights to prepare for any needed assertions;

  • check to see that you have a genuine mutual-respect attitude. If you feel superior or inferior, a false self controls you. You face and body language will probably conve2y your attitude;

  • identify what you need now (e.g. select from the following options, leave, and/or call for help);

  • calmly ask the other person what, specifically, do they need from you now;

  • listen empathically to the other person without debating, arguing, or agreeing with them. This is essential, for otherwise the person's raised E(motion)-level will prevent them from hearing you;

  • assert any needed limits and consequences calmly and firmly (e.g. "I need you to lower your voice and take a breath."), and handle expected resistances with respectful empathic listening.

  • apologize, if you've hurt, misjudged, or offended them; 

  • call for help and/or leave if the other person is out of control and violent.

      If you practice these steps and pay attention to the results, they'll become automatic. Notice the difference between these true-Self options and common responses to hostility like raising your voice, threatening, blaming, insulting, bringing up he past, generalizing ("You always / never..."); name-calling, numbing out, trying to reason, explaining, lecturing, pleading, crying, whining, giving in, "getting physical," etc.

      Think of the last encounter you had with a hostile adult or child. Can you imagine trying some version of the steps above with her or him? What do you think would have happened? How would you have felt?

       Bottom line - when someone intends to injure you for whatever reason, you have many ways to respond. The worst thing you can do is "hurt them back," which amplifies your conflict. The single most important option to develop is top keep your true Self in charhe of your other active subselves. S/He will know how best to respond! 

      Did the adults who raised you model and teach you options like these? Are the young people in your life learning to practice them? If not - who should teach them?

colorbutton.gif Recap

      This Lesson-4 article defines hostility as aggression + a wish to scare or hurt another other person. It proposes common surface and primary causes of hostility, and options for managing your own animosity and reacting productively to someone else's hostile attitudes and actions.

      Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your true Self, or ''someone else''?

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        Also see these examples of communicating effectively with a hostile person.

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