Part two in a five-part series on Anger
What makes anger so powerful? Of course, anger carries with it the impulse to attack, destroy, and retaliate. While these hallmarks of anger are often allies to power, they are not the only reason for anger’s might. Another, less obvious source of anger’s power is its ability to blind us, disabling the natural safeguards that might otherwise stop us from giving in to our angry or destructive impulses.
Intense anger temporarily detaches us from fear, empathy, and reason, leaving us in a primitive state that can be unpredictable and lawless. If you think of your personality as the product of conflicting concerns and impulses, one set of your needs can put the brakes on another set of your needs most of the time, to keep you in balance. For example, your natural fear of danger usually stops you from taking unnecessary physical risks, while your compassion and need for others keeps you respectful, dampening your more primitive, selfish urges. Understanding and reflection can counterbalance anger, but only to a point: when consumed by fury, we become “blind” to these concerns. We lose our natural inhibitions, leaving us free to vent our anger like a baby, without concern for its appropriateness, or for its consequences.
You can’t reason with someone who is overwhelmed by anger. At such times, people tend to fall back on facile and simplistic notions. Instead of thinking logically, they adopt mental short cuts. Stereotypes and generalizations are readily accessible; reasoned reflection is not. Likewise, in a state of rage, we look for a scapegoat - a single simple cause rather than appreciating complexity. Road rage is a classic example of this, when people assault drivers or construction workers in response to frustration with traffic. The woman in the video below is clearly out of control. (If this video is not embedded in your email, click here and scroll down)
It is easy to blame someone nearby even when they are not the real source of our problem. When we blame or attack a scapegoat for our frustrations, deep down we "kind of" know there are many other factors that contribute to our predicament - but this knowledge is out of our mental reach. When our blood boils, we don’t care about complexity; our thinking automatically becomes less nuanced and more cloudy. Worse still, we are less able to control our impulses.
What can you do in advance to avoid swinging into a “blind rage”?
Avoiding Blind Rage
Although anger is useful for alerting us to problems, it certainly isn’t “nice.” And because most of us want to be “nice,” we tend to overlook early signs of our anger. This strategy can backfire. Ignoring anger leaves the causes of a frustrating situation unchanged, and lets anger build up, increasing the chances of it snowballing into a blind rage that is unmanageable. Pay attention to your anger before it accumulates, and try to make some changes before anger entirely takes the driver's seat.
Look back on your list of things that make you angry.
- Are there triggers that are avoidable? What can you do to avoid these situations in the first place? Do you have the power to change the predictable course of these situations? Keep in mind that changing your behavior will often trigger changes in others.
- If triggers are unavoidable, can you find a way to accept these obstacles in your life? For instance, if you always see red when your partner is late, can you find a way to accept that this is one of his or her flaws and avoid letting lateness trigger feelings that may not really be congruent with your partner's intentions or feelings about you ? You could try to make plans that accept that your partner tends to run late. Acceptance of difficulties, coupled with a little forethought, can prevent anger from building into a boil.
- Can you understand the situations that trigger your anger from a different perspective, to help to diffuse your anger? For example, why is your partner always late? Does he or she suffer because of this problem in other circumstances? Is his or her lateness a sign of disrespect to you, or a sign of his or her internal chaos? Being able to think about triggers from different perspectives diminishes the raw power of anger.
- Can you take responsibility for part of the situations that make you so mad? Sometimes a well-worn path to anger is one on which you chose to take the first step. Can you see where you take the first step, or open the door to a known pattern of anger?
The longer your anger remains unacknowledged, the more likely it is to burst forth in an intense, and potentially dangerous way. Staying alert for psychological clues can help protect against the havoc wreaked by the wrecking ball of blind rage.