The difference between anger and rage

Seething rage isn’t anger – it’s far worse than that. And yet the two are often confused: ‘anger management’ courses are in fact tuition in rage management. In this article I describe the difference between anger and rage. Arguing that while you should channel your anger, rage is something to be avoided.

Where anger is a healthy, purposeful emotion rage is bad and solves nothing. Where anger may show you that something is wrong with the other guy, rage shows that there is something wrong with you.

Rage happens in a split second and can be a reaction to a trivial incident. Some years ago I met a client who told me that on coming home from a long day at work one evening she found that one of her teenage sons had eaten her yoghourt from the fridge. ‘Something snapped’ she told me and described how she had smashed every plate, every glass and every cup in the kitchen, leaving the fragments in a heap on the floor.

She didn’t go into a rage because someone ate her yoghourt. Rather, her rage had been building over years, as I describe below.

What rage feels like

In the rage state you have been hijacked. Your ability to think clearly will have vanished; there may be choking or difficulty in breathing; it may feel you are burning up inside, and to others you may look like a bull on the loose; you will shout, scream, fight and smash things up. Inside your head your tunnel vision focuses on just one thing: the passing object of your urge to destroy. Yet as soon as you have hit out at one thing, the urge to continue to hit consumes you.

Unlike an anger episode a rage incident cannot end well. Giving into rage will damage your relationships, destroy your property, and may end up in court.

For, unlike well channelled anger, rage isn’t a proportionate response to poor behaviour in others. Instead, it is an eruption of pent-up resentment and frustration that builds up inside the ego.

Understanding rage

To understand rage you should know the three sources of rage.

  • Your ego
  • Your powerlessness
  • Your suppressed emotions

Your ego. This is a deep cause and goes way back into your personal history. To your conditioned self, in fact. People with rage problems in later life were early exposed to injustice, rejection and (sometimes) abuse. They grew up with the imprint that life is unfair. The ego (or idea of the self) that matches that imprint is prickly, hyper-vigilant for slights, and something of a victim. Similarly, other ego types inclined to rage emerge from the imprint that life is a contest, or that it is harsh, pitiless, and amoral.

Your powerlessness. People with rage building inside also carry the situational thought that they are trapped, stuck or powerless. This might be in a dreary relationship, a stressful job, or in financial difficulty. It is also occurs in parents with hyperactive children, teenagers with critical parents and people with anti-social neighbours. This sense of being oppressed by a problem that (you think) you can’t do anything about is a feeding ground for rage.

Your suppressed emotions. If you habitually carry the thought that expressing emotion is bad, selfish or ‘confrontational’ then you won’t be able to talk through your problems with other people. This is especially applies if your ego is the ‘people-pleasing’ type. But that anger, fear and frustration you are not expressing does not go away. Instead, it goes into a cauldron where it seethes. The client I described above had for years suppressed her emotions over the way her husband and teenage sons took her for granted as she cooked, cleaned, washed-up morning and night, before and after she commuted to her full-time job in a bank. Her rage over a half-eaten yoghourt was the symptom, not the cause.

What to do about rage

Once rage is loose you are unlikely to do much about it because you will have lost your conscious power of decision. The thing to do is to take preventive action to ensure it does not happen at all. That means separation from the ego and its imprints, defusing thoughts about powerlessness, and learning how to assert emotions to others.

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