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Is Rage a Choice?

Can we really get out of control?

“I’m afraid if I ever let go and just really feel it, I’ll blow up the whole world!” That comment is often made by persons along the way on the journey to wholeness. We fear the enormity of repressed emotions caged up inside of us for what seems like centuries now. We fear that we could do harm if we were allowed to just let it rip.

In fact, some do. Anger management classes are operating right this moment all over the Western world, classes that teach us how to “walk away,” “count to ten,” and other like techniques meant to keep us from behaving on our rage. But anger, on all of its levels from mild irritation all the way up to rage is more than behavior. Yet behavior is what we fear. In fact I’ve heard adolescent boys struggling with rage say, “I didn’t get mad—I know because I didn’t throw anything or hit anyone.” They were totally equating anger only with behavior.

Irritation, frustration, anger, rage: these are all forms of anger. And they are feelings first. But when a person’s rage becomes behavior even before thought has a chance to plug in, it is usually because of one of two reasons: 1) it’s been repressed for a long time, and when someone drops the proverbial straw, it explodes; 2) it works for manipulative purposes.

Either way it has something to do with maturity. I said at the end of the last blog that I’d talk about maturity, and so I am. Maturity is the result of having faced and overcome obstacles by gathering deeper and deeper aspects of self. In other words, when faced with a challenge we don’t repeat a rote behavior, or do what someone else taught us to do, or just do what we’ve always done. Rather, we dig deeper into ourselves to create something original as a solution to the problem or to overcome the obstacle. In the process we learn something about ourselves and/or about life in general.

What has come to be called “uncontrollable rage” comes about as a result of not having developed maturity. We can see this clearly in the example of frustration. When some little thing goes wrong, say a key won’t work in a lock, we generally get frustrated. We feel blocked. What we do at this point is going to make a difference as to whether or not we take a step forward in our psychological growth. Of course, we may have to fail a few times before we can figure out how our frustration can be a catalyst for creativity. But ultimately if we can learn to feel the frustration, hold the tension between the feeling and the act, and then push on just a little further, we find that we can create a solution or even something wholly new out of that frustrating moment.

When we continuously fail to step forward in this way, we do not grow emotionally, and thus we do not mature. And so it is that some will learn that rage works to manipulate or scare someone else into overcoming the frustration for them. Or, they learn that unloading their rage just makes them temporarily feel better—in a similar fashion to the way that using substances can make us forget our challenges in a haze of feeling better—so that we no longer feel motivated to solve the problem or become creative in response to a life challenge.

What most people don’t know is that we have a choice. Feeling our feelings and using them for a springboard for creativity is an option that is always available to us, but one which we can decide not to take. And the more frequently we choose to forgo that option, the less likely we are to mature through the process.

This means that the batterer is most likely to be an immature person whose rages are comparable to a toddler or adolescent temper tantrum. And the notion that batterers are just “out of control” is unfounded. The concept of being “out of control” is based in the notion of external locus of control—or the idea that if the external world cannot stop me, then I’m just beyond control. And it belies the fact that we always have a choice.

In fact, when we talk to people who are willing to really be honest about rage, what we learn is that before they behaved out of it, they were aware of other options for expression besides harming someone or breaking something.

On the other hand, rage as a simple feeling can be quite useful for informing us of where we need to place our boundaries, where someone else stops and we begin and vice versa. Holding the tension between the rageful feelings, for example about a previous abuse or betrayal, can inform us of how much we actually do care about our own well-being so that we can solidly declare “never again!” And the rage has just the right amount of energy to allow us to keep our promises to ourselves.

Photo from copyright olly

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