Managing Feelings — 13 June 2004
How to deal with rage

What do some drivers, some parents, some employees, some partners, some divorcing couples, and some victims have in common? They experience the feeling of rage. What causes these intense emotions and what can one do about them?

Most people believe that rage is the expression of amplified anger. Though it may seem that way, there is a distinct difference between feeling anger and feeling rage. Anger is the alert emotion in preparation for action about a perceived threat, while rage is the uncontrolled manifestation of extreme powerlessness. Anger is a self-preservation mechanism that can be very effective and helpful, while rage is the out of control, immature and dangerous reaction that is hazardous to the raging individual and sometimes to others.

When people are stressed to the point of feeling rage, they report feeling trapped, “done to”, victimized and powerless. They are so intensely affected by other people or situations that they are rendered incapable to staying logical and become ineffective in maintaining their power. They resort to physical, unacceptable and harmful ways to restore their potency.

These physical means may include: dangerously cutting people off in traffic, hitting or excessively punishing children, work or domestic violence, physical abuse or degradation of another being. Not all assaultive behavior is the result of serious disempowerment. Some sadistic, cruel and inhumane acts are associated with feeling superior to another being while reducing the abused individual to a category of a sub-human. The latter occur in extreme situations of hatred, ethnic cleansing, prejudice and war and are all inexcusable.

Under more common situations, rage plagues those who perceive their situation to be gravely shaming or discounting. In divorce cases, some spouses become enraged by the demands, actions or statements of their mates, particularly when it has to do with the children. Being divorced against one’s will is very upsetting and further being restricted from full contact with the children may be profoundly disempowering. The other spouse, the attorneys, the courts, and the law are seen as imposing powers capable of devastating the individual.

A few fired employees, who feel impotent about regaining their employment, may use their rage to harm others as a futile attempt to assert their power and value. Needless to say, this choice of criminal acts only further disempowers the enraged individual.

Domestic violence also stems from frustrated efforts to control another person and gain dominance. This too, is an illegal and unacceptable way to solve one’s powerlessness.

Some parents who get enraged by having their authority disrespected by their children, (or tell themselves that this is what is happening), may resort to excessive punishment or violence which is illegal, immoral and repulsive.

Emotions are natural by-products of thoughts. All emotions are acceptable, what we do with our emotions may not be acceptable. Rage is an out of control emotion that must NEVER be acted upon. By the time one feels the intensity and violent nature of rage, one must stop taking any rage actions.

A person feeling rage is an individual whose cognitive abilities are temporarily disabled and is reacting as a wounded animal. This person must withdraw from people and objects and take time to calm down, and restore his or her balance. Only when the intensity of the rage subsides, the ability to think and re-reason can resurface. No behavior should take place without the mind’s participation prior to action. New thoughts about one’s possibilities, options and power must replace the trapped and victimized notions that led to the rage.

People who rage are often unable to recall the content of the stimulus that led to the emotional outbreak. The reason is that a state of rage is in reaction to an internalized feeling of worthlessness, not necessarily to an objective threat. In trying to remember the incident, the outraged individual often says, ” I don’t know what I was thinking, I only know I became furious with this person.” This is akin to the reaction of a severely intoxicated person whose distorted perceptions may lead to utter loss of control.

Once a person acts upon his or her rage, this experience is likely to be repeated. Partners of raging individuals must demand that the raging person seek treatment shortly after the first episode. Excusing this event by explanations such as fatigue, stress, annoying mate, life’s cumulative difficulties or childhood trauma only assures the rage episode’s recurrence.

The recipient of the rage behavior becomes a victim by either being physically or emotionally wounded. No one should willingly accept being violated by another person’s lack of control.

A caveat, not all angry and wild behavior is a rage reaction. Some people get very angry about small inconsequential events. Their reactions may be greater than expected but are not irrational rage. It is important to be clear about the nature of the behavior prior to labeling it a rage reaction.

Some classical traits of rage reactions:

  • Extreme violent behavior that appears illogical to others.
  • Justifying the behavior by claiming feeling offended and discounted, when none of these perceptions are obvious.
  • Blaming others for one’s out of control actions.
  • Expressing deep disdain for others.
  • Lack of remorse for the harm done to others or property.
  • A sense of entitlement to future similar reactions if others “provoke” him or her.
  • Justifying the conduct by various causes. Not taking responsibility for oneself. Not expressing regret or seeking forgiveness.
  • Using the rage behavior as a tool to threaten others into compliance.
  • Forgetting the sequence or extent of one’s out of control conduct.

Many people who suffer from rage reactions are resistant to seeking professional help. This condition rarely rectifies itself without proper treatment. Those who resist help are likely to eventually come to the attention of the authorities and be made to comply with treatment by the courts. Those who seek help early and sincerely participate in their treatment, may avoid great pain and gain a healthy life.

June 6, 2004

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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