If, for whatever reason—or possibly no good reason at all—your partner is blasting you, what do you need to do? Granted, many therapists would simply suggest that you leave the scene. For, as a matter of personal dignity and respect, you’re hardly obliged to tolerate such abuse. But although such a response is warranted, it can actually be dangerous—regardless of how churlishly or cruelly your partner is treating you.
Whether the hateful, hurtful words they're hurling at you are are right or wrong (and it’s safe to assume that at the least they’re highly exaggerated), raging people desperately need to be heard. So unless you’re so discombobulated by their tongue-lashing that you can’t think straight or emotionally tolerate their super-charged hostility—or, their out-of-control tantruming is scaring you out of your wits—it’s almost always best to hang in there and attempt to “take in” whatever they’re so vehemently screaming at you for.
But first a caveat. Neither you—nor anyone else—should repeatedly endure such abuse. And if it seems never-ending, then you definitely need to ask yourself why you continue to remain in such a relationship, and whether you may need professional help to extricate yourself from it. Nonetheless, if this person so prone to anger and rage is able to “own” their problem (vs. defensively project it onto you), then—if they’re willing to undertake extensive therapy—their unacceptable raving behaviors may eventually become a thing of the past.
Again, no one deserves to be subject to constant abuse. But, if you look away from your assailant, or flat-out exit the scene, here’s the problem: Your verbal attacker is likely to conclude that you’re not taking them seriously, that you’re not even willing to hear them out. And their fragile ego, unable to handle what feels like outright dismissal (which may be far more painful to them than you might imagine, or that they’re even conscious of—or willing to admit), may lead them to follow you. Or stalk you, as their highly agitated ranting continues to escalate. There are times when walking away from your “assailant” can so further exacerbate the situation that what started out as verbal quickly turns physical. And such a truculent intensification—or confrontation—ought to be avoided at just about all costs.
Here’s the paradox embedded in all of this. You certainly don’t want to “take to heart” their toxic words—as in absorbing them—particularly since in most instances their words are distorted or completely without merit. Note that people who’ve lost their temper not only are likely to employ the rudest (or crudest) profanities in degrading you but, in having psychologically regressed to a much earlier age, invariably speak in childish absolutes: “You always . . .” or “You never . . . ” And in the heat of the moment, these harsh, hyperbolic accusations can feel as though they’re sharp daggers boring into your flesh.
Nonetheless, if you can contrive to keep yourself at sufficient emotional distance from such an oral assault, you can listen to your attacker and still manage to have their words bounce off you. And what can be helpful here is taking several deep breaths and uttering to yourself the word “calm,” and maybe also a sentence like “This really feels scary but I know how to handle it" [or] ". . . keep myself safe.” Moreover, it can be useful not to meet their glare head-on but—to better ward off their venomous energy—turn your body at about a 45-degree angle away from them. Such re-positioning can help you avoid what otherwise might feel like a “frontal assault.”
Remember, in all likelihood, your partner’s rage says a good deal more about them, and the gravity of their unresolved issues, than it does about you. In the seconds (or milliseconds) that they became so furious with you, you can pretty much assume that, however unconsciously, they were reminded of something that had enraged them in the past, perhaps as far back as childhood, but which back then they felt too afraid or intimidated to confront.
At the time, they felt obliged to hold in all their combative feelings—or “store” them deep inside themselves. In consequence, what inevitably happens is that under the right current-day circumstances, and from the very depths of their being, this never-resolved inner disturbance comes roaring (like an incensed tiger) to the surface. And for better or worse, this situation doesn’t feel anywhere as scary to them, so they don’t feel compelled to keep their never-discharged rage “contained,” meaning that in the present moment they can’t help but (and oh-so-indiscriminately) let it out full bore.
This is why it’s always useful to keep in the forefront of your consciousness the probability that your so-inflamed antagonist may hardly be reacting to you at all. That is, to see their behavior as a kind of “temporary insanity,” for it would certainly seem that they’ve taken leave of their senses, or utterly lost their grip on reality.
Which is to say that up to this point your partner—emotionally—has never had the opportunity to come to terms with, or lay to rest, their original upset. As Candace Pert noted in her groundbreaking book The Molecules of Emotion (1999), old feelings can actually be seen as chemical entities, or neuropeptides, and they continue to exist (however latently) in the body . . . until, that is, they’ve been “discharged” once and for all—through, I’d add, imagistically accessing their very source and working through them. Otherwise, they can arise (or “re-arise”) under the right—or maybe I should say, wrong—circumstances.
In other words, despite your “triggering” your abuser’s rage, it’s extremely doubtful that you represent its source. In their heated tirade against you, they’ve probably lapsed into their child self. So whatever they’re so stridently accusing you of doesn’t need to be taken seriously—though when their animosity is so flagrantly aroused, it’s hardly a good idea to communicate to them that you see their outburst as brutal, uncalled-for, absurd, or ridiculous. For in such a regressed state it feels totally rational.
As counter-intuitive as it might appear, their self-righteous rage is generally best viewed as a desperate defense, as unconsciously contrived to stave off far more painful—and vulnerable—feelings that may be coming dangerously close to the surface (such as feeling helpless, inadequate, rejected, ashamed, unlovable, etc.). So criticizing them for their blatantly irrational temper can, subliminally, be experienced by them as nothing short of a direct attack on their (last-ditch) defense of rage—typically prompting them to become even more enraged.
Besides, people who are already boiling over can’t hear what you’re saying. Their “listening receptors” are gravely impaired; completely offline. They’re in shouting mode, in a state where careful, sympathetic listening is simply impossible for them. So it’s not just a waste of breath to defend, justify, or explain yourself. In their super-aroused state, your doing so will only make them feel you’re totally disclaiming the authenticity, or legitimacy, of their complaints.
In such situations, then, how can you respond to them? In reality, it’s only after you’ve allowed them to fully express their rage without resisting it (which, frankly, is no mean feat!), that it may subside. It’s only when their fury has worn itself out that they can be “restored” to their more reasonable adult self. Before then, whatever you say, and regardless of how you say it, your retort will probably only intensify their anger.
Yet I’d be remiss if I didn’t add that if, as “rageaholics,” they’re so disturbed that they meet the criteria for a personality disorder (e.g., narcissistic, borderline, paranoid, or sociopathic), it’s possible that—if their buttons really got hammered—they could rage for hours on end and still not cool down. Or, in other words, by “rehearsing” their anger, they become more angry still.
But, in general, raging individuals can regain the capacity to listen and reflect on a point of view other than their own if you’re able to first make them feel heard, and even (to whatever degree) sympathized with. That is, if you can emotionally calm yourself down so that their words ricochet off you, and let them know you can understand their fury toward you, and even validate it—given how they (erroneously) interpreted your motives or behavior—you’ll increase the likelihood that they’ll be able to revert to some sort of emotional sanity.
Of course for you to truly understand what triggered them in the first place, you may need to ask them some questions, and to do so with considerable tact and diplomacy. For if they experience your questions as “interrogations,” or as somehow patronizing, any remaining embers of their rage could get reignited. However, if you can accurately identify where their rage was coming from and convey this in a compassionate, non-threatening way, there’s a decent chance they’ll return the favor and hear you out the way you—so generously—have for them.
It’s certainly not always true, but most people do have a sense of fair play. So if you’ve been able to tolerate their abusive diatribe, they may well be willing to listen to, and appreciate, your experience—as well as validate the righteousness of your point of view toward whatever caused them to become so ruthlessly upset with you.
As I like to emphasize to my clients, and in many of my posts for Psychology Today, more than anything else people need to feel understood. So if you can figure out how to make them feel truly heard, their irrationally inflamed battle with you is likely to come to an end.
NOTE 1: If you could relate to this post and know of anyone who you think might find it useful, please pass on its link.
NOTE 2: Since I’ve written many posts for Psychology Today on the so-problematic emotion of anger/rage, if you’re interested in doing further reading on this subject, here are some titles and links:
NOTE 3: If you’d like to explore other posts I’ve done for PT generally—that is, on a whole host of psychological subjects—click here.
© 2015 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.
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