Imprisoned in South African jails for 27 years, Nelson Mandela found himself seething with rage. But as a keen reader of Marcus Aurelius and Seneca, he knew the emotion would cloud his focus on his goal – the end of apartheid in South Africa.
Mandela practiced mediation to discipline himself, and embarked on a campaign of cooperation with his captors. He learned their dialect of Afrikaans and made great efforts to bond with the wardens. You might find it hard to agree with this strategy, as Mandela’s fellow inmates did. But it worked.
Anger as an emotion is not something we should stop ourselves from feeling, or be ashamed of. When converted to positive energy, like Mandela learned to, it is the driving force of self-actualisation and change. At times anger, in its way, has had a tremendously positive effect on history. On a more everyday level, arguments amongst families and lovers, while sometimes uncomfortable, can help them understand each other better.
But when anger is merely expressed, ‘let off’ like steam in an adrenalin-fuelled outburst, it serves little purpose. At The British Association of Anger Management, we call this ‘rage’. Rage is comparable to a psychosis because it takes over the rational mind. Control is lost. Common sense goes completely out of the window; consequences be damned.
Rage has a biological purpose and, certainly, will come in handy when fighting for your life or your freedoms. But in everyday situations at least, it is a disproportionate response.
Traditionally we associate ‘rage’ with violence and it can certainly lead to that. But it can also simply be a troubling state of mind. And right now, it’s said we’re in an ‘Age of Rage’. More than one in four people say they are concerned by how often they get angry. Over half of Americans say they had experienced stress the previous day, while 45% felt ‘worried’. This anxiety is one of the driving forces behind the Age of Rage. Other powerful emotions such as grief, guilt, or a bruising to our self-esteem, can get in the mix, too. But so can simple, daily irritants. A The Sunday Times survey cited rush hour commuting as the number one cause of stress in Britain, above paying bills or worries about children. (Find more of these facts ‘n’ figures here).
We live in a highly accelerated society that gives no time or space to manage our feelings: especially deep emotions such as grief, shame, guilt, fear and heartbreak. That same life pace deprives us of sufficient human connections, plus the empathy to express those feelings and be understood – or at least feel heard. All the deprivation leads to an unhealthy ‘compression’ of our negative emotions, and a creeping sense of isolation.
But we are still not compelled to manage that rage and learn how to use it to survive. Unlike Nelson Mandela in jail, or a veteran front line soldier for example. Instead, regular people like you and I don’t have the essential need, or the opportunity, to learn to use our rage. And rarely are we presented with an opportunity to decompress, unless we search for an outlet such as therapy.
When I work with anger management groups, my first aim is to help them decompress that external rage so we can get to the hurt that is causing it. The source is so often the inability to express or manage their compressed feelings in a way that is not judged or exposed. Instead they resort to rage. And we see this happening across society.
‘Not being aware of the consequence of our aggressive actions’ – rage – is nothing more than a temporary lack of empathy and compassion. We are so possessed by our own feelings that we neglect those of everyone else. And it is our feelings about ourselves that are most likely to lead to rage: perhaps we are angry with ourselves for not fulfilling a commitment, other emotions participate such as shame and pride, and the compression tightens ever further. Screaming at ourselves simply wouldn’t have the same cathartic effect as dumping our emotional load on someone else. So we act out, and become enraged. The rage is considered ‘blind’ because, unconsciously, we know it’s not their fault.
A sense of being controlled by situations one cannot change can also create compression. This is perhaps what we see taking place in the riots across America here in the summer of 2020. Essentially, I believe the rioters are expressing a deep-set grief. The truth is that those setting fire to cars and breaking windows return home, having decompressed, in fear for their actions. We can remember this sometimes when possessed by rage, and acknowledge that if we slow down the pace we can catch ourselves. The riots themselves began to seem more like acts of grieving rather than rage as the days progressed and decompression took place.
And it all comes from trying to avoid the social discomfort of letting feelings take their course, or taking our time to live through those emotions. Those are the states of mind that shape the code of aggressive behaviour in human beings. People simply don’t know the consequences that this ‘not-grieving’ or ‘not-hurting’ brings to their inner peace. They may not even be aware of the rage they carry within. They don’t control it, and it’s not disciplined. That’s why decoding it, and getting to the root cause, is the only way to manage it.
Humans in high tension environments like prisoners and soldiers learn to identify those moments when they’re over-compressed and have tools to find a way to decompress. It may still be rage, but they know how to use it. They have practiced activating and deactivating said tools.
Regular people simply implode or explode, getting all that accumulated anger, grief, and sorrow into aggressive actions. And those actions will be volatile. That volatility is more than evident in the current situation, characterised by quarantine, the threat of ill health, and economic uncertainty.
Despite a vocal ‘conversation’ around mental illness prompted by well-meaning celebrities, society at large simply doesn’t recognise or acknowledge the consequences of avoiding hurt, and what that’s doing to our inner peace. We’re used to believing that having extreme emotions is a sign of being weak, unsuccessful, or somehow compromised. When the truth is that many of us are suffering from the same condition.
If we are to decode these aggressive behaviours that seem to increase with time, to the point we got to this Age of Rage, the first step is to allow emotional contact in a way that’s neither demeaning, nor discriminatory.
Anger doesn’t always have to lead to rage. Regulated by common sense and empathy for others, it can be both helpful and fleeting. Rage lacks either. It can be self-sabotaging and chronic. Rage gives us permission to objectify others and forego our respect for them as human beings. Those who inflict domestic violence on their loved ones require this objectification to go through with it. By clouding out any rational thoughts and letting the reptilian brain take over, we are freed of our consciences. It is only when the red mist clears and we begin to emerge from this state of regression that we start to empathise, experiencing remorse and guilt for our actions.
Sigmund Freud described anger as “a mini-madness”. But while we are angry we are still able to operate normally, expressing understanding and communicating constructively. It is a state of rage that is comparable to the dysfunction attributed to mental ill health.
Some angry people become attached to the hormone highs prompted by their outbursts; they are ‘addicted to rage’. They find an excuse to act out – such as a confrontation over a perceived slight – that will get their adrenaline pumping. Emboldened, they fly into a state of rage. Should they feel they come out ‘on top’ they are rewarded with a dopamine high. And even if they are cowed, they receive the hormone oestrogen which floods the system with an additional capacity for understanding. Most mightily of all their compression has an outlet… and they ‘decompress’.
Thus the ‘rageaholic’ finds release. I have seen, for example, combat veterans trash their whole houses to obtain it. But it is only temporary.
Anger management therapist John Lee writes in Facing the Fire that the process should really be called ‘aggression management’ or ‘rage management’. Anger itself is an emotion, a chemical reaction from the nervous system. Its pristine definition does not automatically imply aggression or violence. It was anger that motivated Mandela; but he knew that rage was not the solution.
The five styles of communication and expression – disassociation, submission, passivity, passive aggression, assertiveness and active aggression – are not dictated by anger either. But aggression and its sidekick rage certainly figure. Anger may be the spark that ignites rage, but it can still be kept under control by common sense awareness and empathy for others. Picture, for example, a child clipped by a passing car. His father rushes to confront the driver, but seeing the shame and concern on his face the potential for rage diminishes. The father might still be furious, but not enraged.
Rage, though, completely lacks empathy or sense. Its aggression is unconscious, and it is at this where rage allies with compression and lets loose.
Admittedly, managing rage would be more feasible if we could just say for example, “I’m angry with you and I don’t want to see you right now” and that to be an acceptable way of dealing with each other.
Moreover, there are various different flavours of rage. The passive-aggressive kind is by definition much harder to identify.
But if we as a society want to decode these aggressive behaviours that seem to increase with time, and escape this Age of Rage, the first step is to allow emotional contact that is neither demeaning, nor discriminatory.
We don’t know if that’s something we can expect from the world in the short-term, even though the virus and the situations in the West are changing perspectives a lot. But, without a doubt, the first place to start working is within ourselves.
Don’t hesitate to search for the help you need. You are by no means alone. Allow yourself to decompress, and control your life – instead of rage controlling you.