Chapter 2 | John A. Otte

Do Your Work

Chapter 2 - Rage

Rage is destructive, destructive to the victim, and destructive to the person “raging”. That is the primary problem with rage, it is a destructive force in the world, as far as emotions go, maybe the most destructive force in the world. It is the primary emotion driving physical and emotional abuse. I believe it is one of the underlying emotions fueling racism and police brutality. The power of rage can be seen in crowd behavior. When rage is stoked and promoted in crowds the destructive force is amplified. We have all witnessed the power of raging crowds, we call them riots.

Rage begets rage. In other words, if you are subjected to rage as a child, you will carry rage as an adult. I don’t believe that there are any positives when it comes to rage. Rage is a form of anger, but its intensity combined with the violence often associated with it, separates it from anger. There is no easy cure for rage, it is often shrouded in shame and guilt.

I have had several rage experiences in my life, the first one that I remember was with my mother when I was 12-yrs-old. I wanted to stay overnight at a friend’s house, and she said no, she said no and would give me no reason, just “no”. I should mention that I was a victim of my mother’s rage as a child, but in this instance, she wasn’t the one full of rage, I was.

What I remember was a feeling of anger so intense, I couldn’t control it, I had to break something. I stormed out of the house and was walking down the driveway when I noticed my mother through the window, she was on the phone, and I ran up to the window and punched my fist through the glass. I was shocked, surprised by my destructiveness. It was almost like I regained consciousness and realized what I had done. My mother, strange woman that she was, laughed at me.

I have had several other experiences with rage, both as an adolescent and as an adult, and I thank God, literally, that I have not hurt anyone during my rage episodes. Rage is such a terrifying experience, that many, who are subjected to it as a child, swear they will never act out rage as an adult. This is all well and good, noble even, however, as I said earlier, rage begets rage, and if you are determined to not act it out as an adult, well, it must go somewhere.


He loved being underwater. It was quiet, peaceful, and there was the very real experience of weightlessness, the suspension of gravity, and the weightlessness seemed to free him from any heavy emotions that he was carrying, and he had been carrying some heavy emotions. In fact, he had told his therapist before this trip to the Caribbean that he felt like he had broken something deep inside himself. He still felt that way.

It started with a request of a friend. Henry’s son was a big kid, a football player, a defensive lineman looking to go out for the varsity team as a freshman in High School. Henry’s friend, Matt, was a former NFL defensive end who provided individual coaching to rich parent’s kids. Henry asked Matt to spend some time coaching his son, and Matt said he would. So Henry connected the two, although Matt already knew Henry’s son, and Matt set up a meeting with Henry’s son. Then he blew him off, didn’t show up, didn’t call or text, just didn’t show.

Henry made excuses to his son for Matt’s behavior, how Matt was very busy, and we all make mistakes, etc. Matt never really apologized for blowing off Henry’s son, which Henry did notice and didn’t like but Matt made another time to meet with his son, so he let it slide. And then he did it again, just didn’t show to the meeting with the kid, and this time, Henry didn’t let it slide. He confronted Matt, basically told him he was a jerk, an ungrateful friend who couldn’t do one thing for Henry after Henry had done many things, including lending him money, without asking him for anything in return.

Except this one thing, help Henry’s son play football. Matt did not respond well to Henry’s confrontation. If Matt would have said “I’m sorry, you’re right, I messed up and I won’t do it again”, this story would end here. But that’s not what happened. Matt told Henry that he was the jerk, and that his son couldn’t play football, and Matt was wasting his time trying to coach him. This lit a fuse in Henry, a short fuse, one that he thought he had gotten rid of several years ago.

Once the fuse was lit there was no stopping it, an explosion was soon to follow. Henry told Matt he was beyond hope, a raging narcissist, and that their friendship was over and moreover, if he wanted to settle this like a man, Henry would meet him wherever and whenever, just name the place. Matt was not backing down, he said he’d meet Henry now, in a school parking lot, in fact, he was driving there now. Henry responded that he was on his way.

When Henry pulled into the lot, he saw Matt’s car and drove right at it at a high speed, squealing to a stop 10 yards short of hitting it. Matt was getting out of the car as Henry popped the trunk and got out of his car, pivoted to the trunk, and grabbed a 6 iron. They faced off, yelling at each other, Matt saying “you need a golf club, you piece of shit!?! You chicken shit, I got you for a felony right there you dumb-ass!!!” Henry screaming back “you got me by 50 pounds dick-weed, you think I’m going to lose this fight?!? Fuck you and come and get some!!!”

Matt turned around and walked back to his car yelling “you’re going to jail, you dumb ass, that’s felony assault, you’re done, finished!”. With adrenaline still coursing through his veins Henry was not done, but before he could respond Matt was in his car and driving away. Henry was left with the aftershock of an intense adrenaline rush. He leaned back on his car, dropped his head, and tried to get his breathing under control.

He let go of the golf club and it clattered on the pavement. He felt sick to his stomach and leaned over with his hands on his knees, thinking he was going to throw up. As his breathing slowed, the critical voice in his head started up “What the fuck is wrong with you? You’re going to jail for this, you dumb mother…” and on and on. He had no defense against the critical voice, in fact, he agreed with it, completely.

It occurred to him that he was lucky he didn’t have another heart attack. He felt bad on all levels, physically, emotionally, spiritually. The worst part was he felt like all the emotional and spiritual growth he had done with his therapist and in an intense trauma-focused residential treatment center program he completed a year prior was a lie. A big fat lie. He was no better, in fact, he was worse. At least that was what he told himself that warm fall evening.

He told his therapist that he felt broken, and he was clearly having trouble regulating his mood. Henry had always struggled with Major Depression, and now he felt like his depression was up along with whatever trauma shit had been brought to the surface. He was a mess and he felt like it. He had a good support system though and he told a couple of key people what had gone down with Matt. Matt did not go to the police which helped Henry deal with the confrontation between them in the past tense.

Henry also had the means to travel and that’s why he was in the warm, clear waters of the Caribbean. There was no doubt that the water soothed and healed him, but there was plenty of healing yet to do, and whenever Henry thought about the interaction with Matt, he felt sick to his stomach. He found himself praying for Matt even more than he prayed for himself. Most of all, he prayed that he would never experience anything like that again.

Rage is trauma. Trauma for the victim and trauma for the perpetrator. The physiological process associated with rage is the same process associated with a panic attack; the body is flooded with adrenalin. The fight/flight/freeze mechanism is activated, and with rage the activation translates to fight, while with panic the activation results in freeze. In both instances the body is reacting to what is perceived as a high stress event.

Rage is not easily healed, much like abandonment, the experience of rage is, by its very nature, overwhelming. In the parlance of psychological testing there is a line used, “cognition overwhelmed by affect”. Translated, this means that the experience of emotion is so strong that one can’t think, literally. This experience can accompany many different feelings, but in the case of rage, not being able to think has potential tragic consequences. Imagine feeling rage with a gun your hand for instance, or behind the wheel of a car. We even have a phrase describing this, “road rage”.

Henry experienced a high stress event, and his thinking was overwhelmed by both the impact of adrenalin and by the emotions associated with experiencing abuse and neglect as a child. On a psychodynamic level a perfect storm of emotional dynamics was triggered when Matt both neglected/emotionally hurt Henry’s son by not showing, and then blamed the son by saying he wasn’t any good at football, thereby implying that the reason he (Matt) hurt the son was because the son wasn’t any good.

Henry, who already identified with his son to a painful degree, was further triggered because Matt neglected/emotionally abused Henry himself by refusing to take responsibility for his actions. These are the reasons the emotional tripwire of rage was activated, and Henry’s rage had a target, Matt. It’s too easy to say that Henry’s actions are only the result of unresolved childhood trauma, every father who loves his son is going to be triggered by an adult mis-treating his kid the way Matt did with Henry’s son.

Finally, there is the issue of powerlessness. Henry was powerless and helpless in the face of his father’s rage and abuse. Henry re-experiences this historical powerlessness through his identification with his son. However, and herein lies the seductive power of rage, Henry is a grown man now and he doesn’t have to just sit and take it anymore. He is pulled to get as powerful as he possibly can be in the face of this emotional/physical threat, so he grabs a golf club.

Henry reported after the incident that he felt “broken”, like something deep inside himself had been injured by his actions. This is true, he did re-injure himself; by assuming the adult position in the adult-child abuse dynamic, he re-injures the abused child inside himself. The minute he becomes the raging adult, on an emotional level, Matt becomes the injured child in the spontaneous psychodrama they are both playing out and unconsciously Henry finds himself playing the role of his father, and Matt, the son.

The beauty of a spiritual or twelve step approach to rage lies in the response to brokenness. Admitting powerlessness, or brokenness, is a necessary step in the journey to healing. We allow that Power access to our deepest self, to our broken and wounded child, when we admit that we are broken. In the previous chapter, my childhood abandonment is healed only after I fully experience my childhood terror. Henry, through the psychodrama he acts out with Matt, is broken open. And because he keeps showing up, with his therapist, with his sponsor, and with his friends, I know that Power is healing him.

Rage feels powerful, intoxicatingly powerful, this stands in direct contrast to the feelings underneath rage, emotional injury, shame, fear, and grief. These feelings are vulnerable, we feel weak when we are in tears or scared, and who wants to feel weak? The resistance to experiencing our grief and fear is compounded by the survival instinct triggered when we are enraged. Our vulnerability was life threatening when we were children. Imagine a child facing an enraged adult, it’s not that different from standing unarmed in front of a roaring lion, one’s survival is at stake.

It takes enormous strength and courage to admit powerlessness and brokenness. This paradox: weakness leading to courage and strength, or brokenness leading to healing and wholeness, keeps repeating in the spiritual life

Love is more powerful than rage. My spiritual sponsor, Dano (more about him later) believed that God, or that Power, is love, unconditional, unlimited love. Love is a force, a power that surrounds and, if we allow it, penetrates us. To envelope and heal us, love requires one crucial step, surrender or being broken. We need a crack in the armor that is our ego to let in the healing power of grace and love. In contrast, rage looks and feels powerful, but is most often grounded in fear. Rage seeks to dominate and control, while love seeks to soften our hearts and free us emotionally.

Another way to state this is what we learn on the spiritual path is that the willingness to experience vulnerability reveals great courage and strength. This paradox is maybe the most central paradox for men if they want to become fully integrated and emotionally whole.

My willingness to experience my brokenness reveals strength and my willingness to walk through my fear is evidence of my bravery. When we do this, walk through our fear, it is best if we don’t do it alone. Sometimes, as in the story that began this book, we do it alone, it can’t be helped. But many times, we have the option to share our fear and fear shared is fear reduced. I have found that there is nothing as healing as being vulnerable and open in a relationship with another man, or men. I believe most men are hungry for male friendships that are honest and open, and it is my sincere hope that readers of this book will realize, as Henry already knew, that we don’t have to go it alone.