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Anger and Rage - What’s the difference?  Part 2

Posted 18 Aug '15 by Gill Wier

Last month I began to share with you Sue Parker Hall’s new approach to understanding the difference between anger and rage.  The expression of anger is a cognitive as well as emotional process whereas rage is an outburst of raw unprocessed emotions which bypasses our rational mind.  Having focused on anger in my last post, this month I will share Sue’s empathic approach to managing our rage.

What is rage?

Rage is commonly seen as an extreme expression of anger, however Sue Parker Hall sees it as something different from anger.  Rage is a survival mechanism we are born with – a way to summon help when the environment is not meeting our needs.  When a newborn baby is hungry, they cry – this alerts the parent to attend to their needs, ensuring survival.  A toddler’s tantrum is a sign that they are emotionally overwhelmed and need their parent to help them manage their emotions. This rage mechanism is controlled by the primitive part of our brains and bypasses our thinking process.  It feels different from anger - we may experience it as coming from somewhere deep within our body rather than from our mind.

Rage in adult life

As adults our rage response can be triggered when the environment is not meeting our needs or when we are experiencing emotions we can’t name or understand.  If we suffered trauma or neglect in childhood we would have used rage as a way to defend ourselves against the hostile environment  – either through outwardly expressing “hot rage” or through inwardly withdrawing into “cold rage”.  If these traumas remain unprocessed we will continue to use rage as a coping strategy and this can have a detrimental effect on our relationships and our own health. 

Hot rage

Hot rage occurs when we’re feeling a whole range of different emotions which we find hard to understand or express, for example it could be a mixture of hurt, shock, grief, anger, humiliation and shame. These emotions are all bottled up, then something happens which makes the lid fly off and we express rage outwardly.  This could take various forms such as verbal abuse, violence or self-injury.

Cold rage

If a baby cries for help and no one comes they will cry louder.  If still no one comes eventually the baby will become silent and turn their face to the wall.  They are shutting down emotionally from the world as a way of coping with a hostile environment.  Again there are a whole range of emotions in the bottle but the lid is held firmly in place.  Over time many life events occur which the person is unable to process.  People who experience cold rage find it hard to connect with their body and their emotions.  You may feel low in energy, numb and detached you may want to run away from others and avoid intimacy.
We can experience both hot rage and cold rage at different times or may have a tendency towards one of these.

If you recognise rage in yourself…

• It’s likely that whatever is happening right now has triggered memories of times in your early life when your survival felt under threat.  Some of us have experienced childhood sexual abuse or severe neglect from our parents, but all of us will have had times as a young child when it felt like our parents were failing us - as no one can be a perfect parent.
• Be compassionate towards your younger self and acknowledge what was lacking in your childhood.
• Begin to develop a closer relationship with yourself by noticing what you feel in your body when you feel rage, anger and other emotions.  See if you can name the emotion you are feeling.  Research shows that naming our emotions helps to calm us.
• Find someone you can trust to talk to about traumatic events in your life – telling untold stories is a good way to begin to process difficult experiences.  A counsellor may seem the safest person to talk to first.  They will then support you to identify a friend or family member you can open up to.

Sue Parker Hall’s takes an empathic approach to dealing with rage.  She sees rage as “an inability to process life’s experiences.” When we are able to start making sense of difficult childhood experiences, particularly through talking to an empathic listener we can start to better manage our rage.  If we can identify and express all the emotions we are feeling we won’t have so much need of rage as a coping mechanism.