“Rage” is a Four-Letter Word

Rage is anger raised to a whole different order of magnitude. It’s what happens when anger gets out of control. You never hear about “road anger”—you hear about “road rage”. “Angry bull” doesn’t sound right—but “raging bull” does. We don’t “fly into being mad”—we “fly into a rage”.

Even if we can’t pinpoint the specific thing that’s causing anger, let alone verbalize it, anger is a small-scale fire compared to rage. But, left to its own devices, anger can easily morph into rage.

We respond with anger when our emotional well-being is threatened. It can be something as simple as a driver cutting you off when you’re trying to get to work. The feeling is that your trip to work is what’s important, and the other driver’s disruption of that trip is a direct attack on your desire to get there.

Or perhaps you spent an entire day preparing a meal for someone special, taking the time and trouble to make the dishes they like best, clean the house, put out fresh flowers. Then, they show up two hours late but never call to tell you they’re running behind, and once there, instead of acknowledging the effort you’ve gone to, they comment on the one burnt-out lightbulb in the hall chandelier.

Rage is what happens when the usual restraint we have on our expressions of anger completely goes away. It’s “REASONABLE ACTIONS GONE ENTIRELY” (punching walls, running other drivers off the road, shooting sprees in schools, throwing dishes). Or “RELENTLESS ANGER WITH A GENERAL EMPHASIS” (“I’m mad at everyone and everything”).

It’s difficult to know where the line is between anger and rage in other people, but we can try to find it within ourselves. Anger is not bad, and it shouldn’t be avoided, even if it’s unpleasant to experience it or express it. (I personally am not at all fond of acknowledging that something makes me angry, let alone expressing that anger to others, because I’m afraid that I might lose control of myself and cross over into rage, descend into pointless name-calling when what I should be doing is stating the situation or response that caused the anger in me.)

If you constantly walk around on a low simmer, then you’re more likely to reach the “rage line” faster than someone who only has occasional flashes of anger. And, as I said earlier, if you let your anger build without an outlet, or try to deny it’s there, then it has a high likelihood of turning into rage, or splintering into a whole bunch of other difficult emotional responses, like resentment, bitterness, etc.

Whether we’re angry at people or situations, actions or reactions, it’s what we do with the anger that’s important. Many times, we won’t have the opportunity to express it directly to the cause of it. (We can’t stop every rude driver and have a heart-to-heart.)

So first, “ACKNOWLEDGE” what’s making you angry as specifically as you can. So, instead of, “I’m mad at my brother-in-law!”, crystallize it into, “I’m angry because my brother-in-law returned the car I let him borrow without refilling the gas tank!”.

Second, “NOTICE” the underlying emotions that triggered the anger. So, your brother-in-law returned an empty car after you were generous enough to let him use it? That feels to you as if your generosity isn’t being appreciated and is just something that he can take for granted.

Third, “GIVE” yourself permission to be angry. Even if your anger doesn’t seem to make sense to someone else, it’s yours and you’re feeling it. Maybe the gas tank was empty but your brother-in-law got the car washed and waxed. It still doesn’t make you feel any better, but trying to deny you’re angry gets you nowhere, and besides, you’ll just have a bigger problem to deal with the next time your brother-in-law does something that pisses you off because you didn’t address your anger over this car situation. Anger grows exponentially, and if you’re not careful, it’s very easy to start dredging up incidents from weeks, months or even years ago in the heat of an argument, even if they have nothing to do with the current circumstances.

Fourth, EXPRESS” your anger in some way. With your brother-in-law, it may be as simple as asking, “Hey, why didn’t you refill the gas tank?” He may have some reason that, examined without judgment, makes sense. “Oh, I knew you needed it by two on Sunday, and we took a different route home to avoid construction and there weren’t any gas stations on the way.” (Pretty lame, but … ) Now, it’s your chance to say something like, “Well, it kind of bothers me that you brought it back empty when I loaned it to you with a full tank.” You’ve expressed your anger without attacking him, calling him names, or leaving things unsaid so they become fuel for future arguments.

One other note on expression. If you can’t do it directly (for instance if you’ve cut ties to the person you’re angry at, or if they’re dead, or if it’s otherwise impossible to be direct), find alternatives. Write it in a letter (which you can either choose to send or not). Imagine yourself talking with the person and saying everything you want to say. (The advantage of this method is that you can express yourself freely without the risks that might come up with a phone conversation, e-mail, written letter or personal meeting, especially since the other person can’t respond to you.)

Finally, “RESPOND RESPECTFULLY”, both to the other person and to yourself. This is often the hardest thing to do, but if you’ve gone through the other steps (acknowledging you’re angry, noticing underlying emotional content, giving permission to yourself to be angry, and expressing the anger in the most constructive way you can find), it’s a bit easier. You don’t have to agree with someone or like their choices to respect them. “Respect” simply means that you refuse to rob someone else of their freedom to make choices, and you accept that their differences are not a judgment call on your own decisions. So, if your brother-in-law says, “Here’s $20—sorry for not filling her up,” you can ask him for $30, or just say, “Thanks,” and decide not to loan him the car next time he asks.

The goal here is to get to a level of honesty with yourself about anger and deal with it before it becomes rage. And the fact is that many situations in life are long-term, so our anger is long-term. The “brother-in-law and the car” example from above is pretty minor compared to, say, a child choosing to drop out of school or join a gang, an ex-husband not paying child support, a hospital making an error and causing extra expense and pain for a patient, or any number of difficult situations.

You can’t just do a “ten-minute tidy-up” and say, “Oh, I’m not angry at anything!”. Believe me, I’ve tried, and it doesn’t work. You just get through one layer, have a respite, and there’s another layer underneath that comes up to the surface and demands your attention.

It’s all part of the lifelong process of self-discovery. One day, you may choose to do something about your anger. On another, you may decide you’d rather just let yourself stay angry instead. Both are valid choices.

Explore posts in the same categories: healing arts, psychology

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