Understanding Anger, Hostility, and Rage

“What do you mean? I don’t have any anger!”

“I’m just being assertive when I tell my boss off for his micromanaging.”

“I can’t help it! I just get so angry. I have to punch something.”

The above phrases belie misconceptions common in our society. These errors are due to the misunderstanding of the difference between anger, hostility, and rage.

Many people are afraid of anger because they mistake it for hostility or even rage. Therefore, they say they do not experience the emotion, or they are afraid to express it because of the scary images they have of it in their minds. Others may believe they are only being assertive when, in fact, they are closer to feelings and behaviors associated with hostility. Finally, those who have the inability to control their outbursts may inadvertently call rage by the wrong name, thereby adding to the confusion.

What follows are some ways to tell the difference.

Anger

This emotion is the warmth you feel in your face, the tension in your neck, or butterflies of energy in your core. This is the energy it takes to push you to ask for what you want and to say no in difficult circumstances. Anger’s voice is firm and persistent but never degrading, intimidating, or condescending. Anger will bug you and try to persuade you to act, but it will not beat you up. Anger comes from injustice and boundary crossing. When expressed in a healthy manner, anger can motivate us toward conflict resolution. Anger should not seethe or last too long.

Typical anger thoughts: “This is unfair.” “I don’t this to happen again.”

Hostility

You will know this by the heat in your body, restless, pressured energy, all-over body tension, clinched fists and jaws, and the like. Behaviors associated with hostility include insults, aggression, intimidation, malicious manipulation, coercion, and oppression. These behaviors not only push you to address an issue, they compel you to do so, with vehemence. Hostility’s voice is loud and often inconsiderate. It belittles others and makes you feel bigger and stronger – but in a way that actually makes you smaller, often appearing more insecure. Hostility comes from the belief that others are out to get us and that we are not worthy, capable, cared for, or some other self-abasing belief. Some people feel it is their right (or even duty) to be hostile in the face of offense or difficulty. Hostile behaviors are an unhealthy way to meet our needs. This set of emotions can simmer and boil and come out towards others who are not the source of the problem.

Typical hostility thoughts: “This is unfair, they need to pay.” “No one cares about my needs”

Rage

This is loss of control. This is storming out, punching walls, screaming, threatening, and other such behaviors you would most likely never endorse when you are calm. Many say that rage “just hits them,” but the truth is, there is usually a build-up over time that can be learned to be recognized and diffused. Rage generally comes after hostility (and, for some, loads of it). It can also be a habit developed after exposure to chronically hostile or rageful caregivers. Sometimes, it can come from the explosion after too many pent-up trauma triggers. Rage feels quick or even “instant.” Little-to-no thought is involved at this point. Mind is often blank and there are even impairments in optical and physical sensory reception leading to the “seeing red” or “feeling hot with anger.”

What's the Point?

Anger serves a healthy purpose. Hostility and rage generally do not. However, all of these emotional states have a purpose. People who exhibit these states are not crazy, and none of these randomly happen.

The goal with anger is to push you into action to protect yourself and/or others or set things right. Anger’s big, scary brother, hostility, is meant to scare others away. If you are being mugged and acting “big and bad” will scare the bad guys away, then hostility may seem useful. However, research into something called polyvagal theory tells us why we “fight” or “puff up” when we are angry and it can teach us the best way to manage difficult situations, which generally includes use of something called, “the social engagement network.” This is a system in the brain that helps us connect to others, whereas hostility responses generally are meant to push others away.

Finally, rage is the volcano explosion after the impacted fumes of simmering anger or hostility have reached their limit. It is the pressure valve blown off. Few of us will argue the hazard of acting out of rage. It is far better to deal with situations at the anger level than to allow them to get this far. For some of us, it may feel too late. You may even categorize yourself or someone you love as “a rageful person.” If this describes you or a loved one, do not despair. You can learn to release the anger (which is often quite appropriate) in safer, smaller doses. Seek out anger management or other professional therapeutic services to help you. Make sure whoever you work with uses both cognitive and somatic (“of the body”) approaches to anger management (a misnomer, sadly. It should be called rage management).

So, What Should I Do if I'm Angry?

The first thing to keep in mind is not to allow anger to grow into hostility. It is a slippery slope we have all slid down.

Imagine this – your partner, the person who is meant to love you best, forgets to pick up your dry cleaning for the third time. The first two times you were nice about it. You didn’t say a thing (which, as you will see, is not so nice – but that’s another blogpost). However, in the midst of all your niceness you internalized the message, “I do not matter,” or “They do not care.” You love your partner. You know them to be a caring person, but your brain is morphing into defense mode and telling you a story that makes you start to doubt their intentions. Therefore, the minute they walk through the door after work, you begin a strongly worded, loud litany of complaints that hits them in all the right spots to make them want to retreat from you. Simultaneously, you may be asking yourself in your head why you are doing this? Don’t you love each other? All you really wanted from the beginning was deeper connection but here you are pushing them away. You hear yourself talk and feel worse and worse about what you are saying, but somehow you cannot stop.

This is the result of escalating anger. We lose contact with the flexible, reasonable part of our brain and we fall back into, “I know what’ll get ya!” mode in order to create “safe space” we erroneously think will cause us less pain. As in the story above, at a later time, you may very genuinely want to retract all you said, not really meaning any of it. One cannot un-ring a bell and the targets were so easily hit that it is hard for the receiver of your aggression to believe it was not meant specifically to hurt them.

If you are in danger then by all means, do what is truly and wisely necessary to protect yourself. However, as a tool for everyday difficult interactions, hostility will rarely solve the problem. In fact, the use of it can make an unpleasant situation worse or even dangerous. The better solution is to pay attention to what angers you and nip it in the bud.

To do this effectively, it can help to pay attention to the intensity of the offense and/or the frequency or duration. It can be helpful to create a bit of a scale. Offenses that are one-offs that are below, say, a five on a scale of one-to-ten can be overlooked and forgotten. This is an extension of grace – and we all need that from each other from time-to-time. However, if the same event occurs more than two times or lasts for long enough to pinch, then address the issue. Do not let it fester into hostility.

Where to Go for Help

If you feel you have anger and you struggle to express it in a healthy way, taking communication classes or going to therapy to learn how to ask for what you want, say no in a healthy manner, and to learn to tolerate the discomfort of disappointment, waiting, and other inconveniences is important. You may also need to learn to draw and enforce boundaries. This is not easy when your patterns and relationships are already established. Chances are, though, if you have acted out of hostility or rage, then you already have the skill set needed to do hard things. Give yourself some credit and do not be ashamed to reach out for help. It is no more a weakness to ask for help with overly strong emotions than it is to seek out care for arthritis or heart disease. Mental health issues are, after all, health issues and all of us need help with our health from time-to-time.