Until fairly recently, I had thought of anger and rage as being on a continuum; I believed they were different shades of the same emotion. I then had a life experience that triggered what I now know to be rage. I experienced this as an extreme and primitive emotion, which was way beyond any angry feelings I had ever experienced before. Underlying this rage was a terror of not being able to cope alone.
A few weeks ago, I attended an online event with Sue Parker Hall, a UKCP registered TA Psychotherapist, who believes that anger and rage are different psychological and emotional processes, with different root causes. Anger, she believes, is inherently healthy and exists to keep us safe. As well as enabling us to protect ourselves when there is physical threat, anger gets evoked when people overstep our boundaries. It enables us to protect our sense of self. Anger can be expressed in a way which is safe and respectful, not harmful or attacking, and as such, it supports healthy relationships: when we feel safe in ourselves, we can allow others to express themselves, without feeling threatened by their different values, opinions and ways. In TA terms, we can adopt the position of “I’m OK, you’re OK.” Anger allows us to stay connected, without fighting or running away.
Rage, according to Sue, is a different phenomenon. People who are in a rage perceive themselves to be in a desperately unsafe environment. Rage has its origins in early life trauma, as early as babyhood. In the natural way of things, a child learns to regulate his emotions through his attachment to his primary carer, usually his mother. When he experiences distress or pain, he runs to his mother, and in finding comfort, his distress will subside. Through this natural cycle, repeated over a period of time, he learns to comfort himself and regain his equilibrium. Conversely, if the mother not attuned to the child, perhaps because of her own unresolved trauma, the child experiences abandonment. His crying escalates into a rage, because his life literally depends on his needs being met. If this happens frequently, the child does not learn to regulate his emotions, and gets stuck at that first developmental stage. In adulthood, he may be unable to differentiate feelings: he feels either good or bad, but cannot identify feelings such as anger, sadness or joy.
Because rage originates from early life trauma, before the child’s cognitive processes developed, it does not respond in a lasting way to approaches that address thinking and behaviour. The primary need of people who are easily enraged is to be supported by a safe environment which enables them to connect with the emotions of their early traumas without feeling overwhelmed. In such an environment, which can be provided by a compassionate therapist, feelings can be differentiated, named and processed. The person’s level of arousal will start to subside, and he/she can begin to ask in a direct and non-aggressive way for his/her needs to be met. This can ultimately lead to safer, more authentic and fulfilling relationships.
If you’d like to find out more about Sue’s approach to anger management, you can purchase her book, entitled “Anger, Rage and Relationship” from Amazon, by clicking on the image below: