When we are in conflict with others, often our default pattern of reaction tethers us into a repetitive cycle of withdrawal-frustration-rage. The pervasiveness of this unhealthy reaction pattern is evidenced across a multitude of situations —
• Beating and sexually abusing a young First Nation’s girl and then leaving her for dead
• An elderly Alzheimer patient killing another patient
• A mentally ill man severing the head of someone sitting next to him on a bus
• A “gang war” between two motorcycle clubs
• Religious terrorism and society’s violent responses to it
• War as a means of controlling others’ behaviours
As a global society, I think it is fair to say Life is giving us every opportunity possible to learn a better way to manage anger before it turns into rage. A positive first step for all of us is to stop suppressing emotions like resentment, hurt, tears and frustration. In recent conversations with those who default to rage during times of conflict, I discovered a simple truth—“Rage-ers” do not know what rational anger is. They have no experience with it. Furthermore, their suppression of anger and other emotions has cheated them out of experiencing the benefits of anger.
Anger is a useful emotion. Rage—anger taken to its extreme—is not. Anger is an internal warning to us that either a person or event triggered our reaction to something we do not agree with or enjoy. When we are able to express our anger rationally, such as in the example below, we can begin the negotiation process of meeting our own needs as well as the needs of those we interact with.
“When you attempt to control me by manipulation or coercion, I feel angry. If you
wish something from me, I would prefer that you ask me directly for what you want.”
Rage, on the other hand, is an irrational reaction of pent-up unexpressed anger. The following truth is worth repeating. What I have learned from those who perpetuate the pattern of withdrawal-frustration-rage is they do not know what healthy anger is. They call their rage anger. However, rage and anger are not the same emotion.
In fact, those who project rage onto others, first may experience withdrawal and frustration. But then they skip right over anger and jump immediately to rage. Their withdrawal and/or accommodation to others’ needs builds over time until their frustration and resentment climax into an aggressive explosion. As a result of skipping over and suppressing their feelings of anger, they do not experience healthy anger or its transformative outcomes.
The outcome of rage is two-fold. Firstly, the aggressor releases the pent up emotion but never deals with the underlying cause so is doomed to repeat the pattern in future conflicts. Secondly, the receiver bears the brunt of the attack and either withdraws to escape the abuse or attacks back in defense. In the latter case, the rage escalates creating more psychological and often physical damage. Neither approach (withdrawal or attack) deals with the source of the pent-up rage and enables the perpetuation of the unhealthy pattern.
In last week’s blog, I suggested an approach for those wanting to de-escalate their rage. Below is an approach for those on the receiving end.
- Intervene early by calling for a Time-out. Don’t wait to do this until after the rage has started. It is too late then as an enraged person is not in control of their emotions. You can recognize when rage is building in someone by listening for the change in their tone of voice.
- If the other person is unable to or won’t stop their raging, immediately remove yourself from the situation. Do not allow yourself to be physically or verbally abused. You may have to leave your home or workplace rather than just go to another room. By the way, I have tried asking the enraged person to leave but it does not work. Remember, they are not rational or in control so you are the one who needs to role model the appropriate behaviour.
- After each altercation, and when calm and reason have returned, ask the person to write you a letter addressing their feelings about what happened. This breaks the pattern of withdrawal and suppression and allows a safe way to express emotion.
- Once you receive the letter, find an agreeable time to have a conversation about what both of you are feeling. Again, you will need to role model a healthy way to discuss rage. You might start by using the following formula for effective dialogue—
“When you (describe the behaviour you witnessed)”;
“I feel (describe your feelings)”;
“I would prefer (describe what you want to experience).”
For example: “When you get so worked up that you attack me verbally, I feel frightened and angry to be on the receiving end of such abuse.” “ I would prefer, that we agree on an approach that allows us to discuss our anger calmly and reasonably.”
A long-term enraged pattern of withdrawal-attack can be transformed into healthy expressions of anger. Both parties involved need to invest patience and loving kindness while committing themselves to practicing new approaches. What’s in it for you is calm, peacefulness both within yourself and within your social network. Just as rewarding is the accomplishment of breaking the generational and cultural pattern of rage and abuse.
For more information on mastering extreme emotions, click here.