10 Jul The Rage Paradox
Rage is a very complicated emotion that is commonly understood as a part of our flight or flight response to the world; we go into a rage as a defensive move in order to protect ourselves from danger. However, danger is subjective. While we can all agree that running into a bear in the woods is dangerous, we don’t all respond with flight or fight when our teacher announces that we are having a test the following day. Unfortunately, our learned defenses don’t always keep us safe. In fact they can often increase our level of danger because they can either overwhelm our senses, or make someone else respond in negatives ways. This is the paradox; that we have developed rage as a way to stay safe, yet more often than not it can increase our level of danger.
Our brains have a difficult time differentiating between emotional and physical threats. Rage, as a defense mechanism, most likely developed as a way to protect ourselves from physical threats in which we needed to summon our super power to ward off a possible predator or community threat. While rage can be seen as a defense, it often manifests it’s self in ways that appears offensive; pushing back against a threat. As such, it can often initiate rage in response. Rage can also be so automatic, and unconscious, that we might not even be aware that we are responding in a way that is being perceived as anger or aggressiveness. Sometimes this response feels so normal to us that we are surprised when people react to us with rage. In addition, rage triggers the release of powerful chemicals in our body that are meant to keep us safe in a crisis moment. However, if we see the world as scary place we can be flooded with the chemicals in a chronic way that makes us less safe. This chronic stress response can cause a host of health problems including chronic pain.
One way to address this problem is to find ways of decreasing our fight or flight, as well as our rage response to the world. I often write about about Michael Brown’s book/mediation program called “The Presence Process”. This process helped me to do this in profound ways. For me the most revelatory moments came in week 3. During this week the reader is asked to pull themselves out of situations that make them feel anger. By examining our own perceptions, frames, structures of thinking, we can begin the process of unwinding from automatic behaviors and actions. The author instructs us to examine why we have such a powerful reaction. With some practice I was able to be with the anger and slowly develop the ability to recognize that it wasn’t actually keeping me safer. Instead it led to more conflict. One thing that many of learn to do is repress our anger because it got us into dangerous situations when we were younger and had less power. However, repressing the anger, rather than examining it, often creates a host of other problems. When we repress it, we tend to store it in our body rather than let it pass through. When we do that too much or too often it can cause us harm, and/or we can often lose control of it. It can be like too much gas in a canister, that gets set off by a perceived slight.
This is not an easy path to go down, to unwind from these deeply embedded behaviors, or to experience the anger and be with it when we have learned that it is dangerous. On part of our mind might try to distract from feeling things that it perceives as dangerous. Another part of our mind might be trying to get our attention because it can’t stand the pressure of holding in those feelings any longer. Sometimes we are literally at war with ourselves. I know that I have been, and still am to a degree. However, the work pays off. Over the past 4 years, since I did the 10 week meditation program, my ability to respond rather than react has risen exponentially. I’m not perfect, but I have way more agency than I did before, and that leads to wildly more productive conversations. Still, it can be difficult to hold that space when the people you are trying to communicate with don’t want to hear what you have to say.
For me, being ignored, or not listened to, can be very difficult. Recognizing my own responsibility for how I react to that helps me to both continue to respond without too much anger, but also recognize that it’s safer to just step away from a conversation that isn’t going to go anywhere, than it is to push through and demanding to be heard. This can still be quite hard for me, but the more I’m able to accept that, the more successful I am at communicating. For example, I know that our film “All The Rage” can be very useful to people who are suffering from mind body pain syndromes. However, I also know that many people are not open to hearing about it, or Dr Sarno, or how our rage and the repression of emotions can be a driver of pain. In the past it would frustrate me that people responded with anger to the suggestion that they might have some agency in the situation. I’ve learned to either offer the film as a gift to people, without argument or expectation. Or, I can often recognize when there’s no point in even bringing it up.
There is so much stigma related to emotions in our culture and many, if not most, people hesitate to talk about Dr Sarno or mind body pain to people that they don’t already know very well. I have a lot of friends who have been saved by Dr Sarno, and/or our film. Still, I know that most of those people are very hesitant to tell others about it because there is often such a negative reaction. I understand that, so I don’t expect anyone to push into a space that feel uncomfortable. However, I do consistently challenge myself to move into spaces of discomfort to shift my own perception of what constitutes “danger”. The more that I can find acceptance, the less danger I feel, and the less danger I am in.