Anger and rage are emotions from which most of us instinctively shy away. It’s hardly surprising: rage sums up images of violence and aggression; of wrecked houses, battered wives and children, the mindless futility of road rage. Yet rage is a basic instinct no different from fear, hunger or the desire to protect. It is as natural as laughter or sadness, eating and sleeping. Obviously not all rage is good rage. When anger turns to violence or cruelty it deserves to be shunned and suppressed. However we live in a society in which all expressions of anger and rage are considered unhealthy and unnatural. We sweep rage under the carpet.
In their book, Female Rage, authors Mary Valentis and Anne Devane argue that controlled rage is the “gateway to self-assertion, deep psychological development and emotional well-being.” They say that when women recover their rightful rage, they are often able to stop dieting or eating compulsively, to leave abusive relationships, to pursue their dreams and to discover their long-buried selves. “Women are beginning to learn how to use this lethal weapon and train it accurately to channel its aggressive surge,” they say, “the goal is to achieve authenticity in our lives without hurting others or ourselves.”
The fact is that women have been taught, from a very early age, that it isn’t feminine or “nice” to show anger. While we applaud men who explode with righteous anger (just think of all those movie action heroes) women are not expected to allow such strong emotions out. Yet women have feelings of anger and rage just as powerful as any man – and we ignore these feelings at our peril. As Valentis and Devane point out, when women suppress rage it will appear in other guises – usually as mental or physical illness. At the very least it will show up in tension around the jaw, neck and shoulders. Quite often it will express itself in eating disorders, phobias and panic attacks, in passive-aggressive behaviour, chronic fatigue or even, at its most extreme, multiple personality syndrome or suicide threats. Many therapists believe suppressed anger to be a key to the mysterious disease ME; doctors recognise it as an element in ulcers and digestive problems; it has even been blamed for cancer.
In their book, Valentis and Devane claim we all need to become more aware of how much hidden rage we hold, where it comes from and how we can safely express it. They suggest the following exercises.
1. First you need to become aware of your hidden sources of anger and rage, to learn what made you angry or enraged in the past.
* Find a quiet place and lie or sit in a relaxed and comfortable position. Close your eyes and take ten deep breaths, counting to six on each inhalation. Then try to think of your earliest memory of your own rage. Recall the experience. What did you feel? How did those closest to you react? Was it a personal frustration or did someone else provoke you in the same way? Describe the most recent incident when you felt the same way.
* Think about how your family handled their anger as you were growing up. How did they resolve problems? What did they do when they were angry – were they silent or was there physical or emotional outpourings or even abuse? Were you allowed to express your anger? Were you punished if you did?
* Write out your rage history, logging major incidents, betrayals and circumstances that incensed you in the past. Describe your feelings at the time, the result of your action and whether it was effective.
2. Now find out what makes you angry now, what triggers your rage.
* Make a list of all your fears: do you fear abandonment, economic insecurity, lack of power, imperfection, falling apart?
* Ask yourself: “What is threatening me? A look? A comment? Social inequality? Do I feel threatened by an individual? an individual’s action? feelings within?”
* Ask yourself, “How does this person, action or feeling threaten me? Does it insult my intelligence? Does it question my skills or competency? Does it undermine my reputation or character? Does it humiliate or dismiss me because of my gender? Does it go against what I believe?”
* Sometimes when you explore your own rage triggers, you can discover a long history of the same problem. Ask yourself:
“Is my present reaction part of a pattern? Have I reacted similarly in another situation? Is this threatening occasion like one I experienced in childhood? In adolescence? Has my reaction to this type of threat always been the same?”
3. Do you abuse rage?
* Do you regularly use anger or rage to punish others? If so, whom?
* Where do you express rage – at home, in the office, in front of friends, alone? What does that tell you?
* Do you become enraged so you don’t have to face tough personal issues – rage can become a screen for other emotions.
* Do you project your rage on others, blaming them for your shortcomings?
* If you find you do abuse rage, keep a journal of incidents and angry outbursts. List and identify all the people who have been hurt by your rage and tell them in your journal that you are sorry. Write or telephone a friend or family member you haven’t spoken with in months or years – holding onto grudges only empowers the other person. Hostility breeds more anger and revenge can backfire. Forgiveness restores balance, inner harmony and a sense of wellbeing.
Some therapists suggest that people engage in active visualisation, asking them to picture an ideal or workable resolution to a rage-producing problem. Practice like this:
* Form an image of how you could feel powerful and in control of a difficult situation. Picture yourself responding in a way that would make you proud. Remember a time in your past when you handled a rageful incident well. What did you do? Could you use that technique again? Think of someone whom you think handles situations well. What would she or he do?
* Think of times when you haven’t handled a situation well. What would you have liked to have done? Form an image of yourself handling it differently and well. Be precise – what specifically would you have done? Can you incorporate any of that ideal behaviour into future situations?
LEARN TO BECOME ASSERTIVE
Assertiveness is an antidote to rage. When women are assertive, they abandon their position of helplessness by facing others as equals. Being assertive does not mean being aggressive: it means declaring who you really are without trampling on the territory or feelings of others. It also means listening and empathising with others.
* Asserting and declaring your rights moves you out of the role of the victim and teaches others that you are unwilling to be victimised. Assert yourself with small acts, such as speaking up when someone cuts in, telling a caller that you can’t talk at that precise time; asking a waiter or waitress for a better table or being honest about substandard food etc.
COPING WITH RUNAWAY RAGE
If you feel rage is in danger of taking you over try these tactics:
* Do something physical. When rage rises your adrenaline levels surge and need to be used by the body. Plunging your body into physical activity – whether it’s rigorous housework, running up five flights of stairs or pounding round the block – will diffuse the hormones.
* Take a break. Divert your focus and calm your senses in whichever way is most suitable – lie down and listen to a relaxation download or uplifting music. Or go for a walk or do some simple yoga poses.
* Use progressive muscle relaxation. Lie down in a peaceful room, take ten deep breaths and close your eyes. Imagine, in your mind’s eye, that you’re in a favourite spot where you feel warm and secure. Imagine the warm sun penetrating every part of your body as you slowly relax your whole body starting with the top of your head, then eyelids, ears, jaw, neck and shoulders and on down through arms, chest, hips, thighs, calves, toes.
* Try the Bach Rescue Remedy (available from chemists and health stores). Six to ten drops on your tongue or in a drink will help you calm and allow you to examine the source of your rage.
* Meditate. Learning meditation or autogenic training can be supremely helpful if you feel at the mercy of rage.
Female Rage by Mary Valentis, PhD and Anne Devane, PhD is published by Piatkus Books. Click on the cover below for more information.