Man with clenched fists shows rage

RAGE: How to respond safely

We are living in unpredictable times. You’ve probably come across someone who has raged in your presence, maybe even at YOU. For various unsubstantiated reasons, people show rage on the road, in grocery lines, even in store aisles when they perceive people choosing not to follow social distancing guidelines. Incidences of rage are becoming more and more common.

Two important questions to consider before responding:

What is best to do when someone rages? The first two questions to ask if you find yourself in such circumstances are, “How vulnerable is my current position?” and “Am I in imminent danger?” The answer to those two questions will help you quickly assess your options.

Here are some situations that might occur in daily life:

  • You didn’t realize where the back of the line was and stood in the wrong spot. A “line defender” becomes verbally aggressive, assuming you meant to cut in line.
  • On a dark single-lane country road, an “aggressive trucker” following you in a large vehicle, two feet from your bumper, signals that you need to increase your speed.
  • A “desperate turned irate” salesperson who is unsuccessful at getting you to buy in begins to berate you.
  • You inadvertently park in a spot that someone wanted and the “unhappy parker” begins to honk and yell obscenities.
  • You are incapacitated in an in-patient setting, and a weary health professional reports you as a troublemaker to a now “angry supervisor,” who then comes in and, with voice raised, verbally berates you and threatens you with loss of care unless you “chill.”
  • A “family member who has never been violent melts down,” and with voice raised, berates you about something you didn’t know you had done wrong.

How would you assess? And why should your quick assessment be important in your reaction/response?

There’s no doubt all these circumstances are worrisome, even downright scary. But let’s take a look at them, at least at face value, since we don’t have more details about the specific circumstances.

Practice assessing danger and vulnerability by addressing these hypothetical scenarios:

Rate from 1-10, (1 being lowest and 10 being highest) your imminent danger.

Next, rate from 1-10 your vulnerability. Are you able to withdraw, hide or successfully take care of or defend yourself?

The following are not tried and true, right or wrong assessments, but simply one way to view such situations. What is important is to quickly and logically think through options when you are faced with tough circumstances, especially when your position is vulnerable. It is rarely, if ever, beneficial to retaliate with rage, that is, pour gasoline on a fire. In the Active Relationships skills program, “The Mastery Series,” we present a variety of tools to utilize to make healthy choices versus acting on emotional triggers that make matters worse.

As a kind of “skills practice” for making wise choices, imagine the situations described above and consider what your quick assessment “in the moment” might be. I include what I might write if I were practicing, but this is simply a sample. Your assessment may be different depending on how you imagine the circumstances:

Situation 1 – Line Defender

Hypothetical Danger rating? For me, I’d be uncomfortable, but would rate this a 1-2 for imminent danger unless someone was waving a weapon at me.

Hypothetical Vulnerability rating? This number would also be low – a 1-2 – because theoretically I could walk away under most circumstances. How might you choose to respond given these two ratings?

Disclaimer: I rarely see circumstances I believe are worthy of knee-jerk reactions. Knee-jerk reactions could possibly lead to more rage by the other party. Safety, both emotional and physical, is a No. 1 concern. This doesn’t mean people need to simply “give in” but rather, make wise decisions during tough situations.

Situation 2 – Aggressive Trucker

Danger rating? Possibly 8-9 in my mind. Frightening.

Vulnerability rating? Also 8-9, if I am alone or the area is desolate. In this case, I’d do my best not to further inflame the driver who is agitated enough to put himself/herself and me in danger. The size of my vehicle would also impact my ratings. If I were in a small car, my ratings might be higher.

Situation 3 – Desperate and Irate Salesperson

Danger rating? Again, a 1-2, depending on whether there are other people around. If not, maybe considerably higher.

Vulnerability rating? For me, probably a 1-2, unless I had to see this person daily. I’d simply leave the premises, or if at home and able, lock the door and call friends or authorities. A situation could feel especially threatening if the desperate salesperson were on your property.

Situation 4 – Unhappy Parker

Danger rating? This could be an 8-10, depending on the level of aggression being shown.

Vulnerability rating? This rating could also be high, given the ability to approach me as I got out of my car, especially if there were a scarcity of fellow shoppers or security staff nearby. I would be very careful not to further an already bad situation.

Situation 5 – Angry Healthcare Supervisor

Danger rating? There are many unknowns here. Would negligent care be life threatening? Or just uncomfortable? This could potentially be an 8-9 rating if other caregivers were unavailable, and my well-being depended on the good or poor practice of this particular caregiver.

Nursing homes present a situation where care needs to be excellent. Many healthcare workers and caregivers believe in excellence and make sure their patients/clients receive outstanding care, however, there are exceptions. What troubles me about this hypothetical is that the healthcare supervisor did not appear to have verified information with the patient and put the staff member’s well-being ahead of the patient’s. This situation could be a case of elder abuse.

Vulnerability rating? If I were hooked up to IVs and unable to move about on my own, see properly or reach out to others for backup, I’d say vulnerability would be a 9-10. High. What would my options be? They would not include anything that might further inflame the supervisor who has been called in to back up the negligent caregiver. What other options might be available?

Situation 6 – Family member meltdown

If there were no prior history of violence and no weapons involved, I’d probably be very uncomfortable if this meltdown were a thankfully uncharacteristic first-time occurrence. However, I’d likely not rate the danger very high unless I felt trapped and could not withdraw.

Danger rating? A 1-2 if it were crying and shouting, nothing more. After all, sometimes life can get overwhelming. However, again, this is dependent on my ability to safely withdraw.

Vulnerability rating? This depends on my ability to withdraw from the circumstance if I choose to. Safety first – always. If I were unable to withdraw (leave), my vulnerability rating might be high, especially if the meltdown involves verbally berating me, contempt or emotional abuse.

Options depend on what the meltdown is about, me or a life circumstance? If me, I’d opt not to escalate the situation by counter accusing or raising my voice to threatening levels, and I would call for a break and a regrouping later to discuss more calmly. If the issue being vented were about life, I might choose to listen or to ask if taking some time out before listening would be a better option, so I wouldn’t feel so overwhelmed.

Utilize wisdom and logic to assess and determine the healthiest response

All these circumstances are hypothetical and could vary infinitely in real life from the general scenarios presented. The point is, when we utilize our intelligence to make mindful assessments in the moments these highly charged situations occur, we have moved ourselves from the more primitive parts of our brain to the neocortex, where attitudes, beliefs and purposeful choices are generated. All of us can use our wisdom and skill to respond thoughtfully instead of reacting on impulse. Instead of knee-jerk reactions, we can quickly weigh our options by assessing each situation first.

Clients describe a lot of anger in the real world and on social media these days. We can only control ourselves. Anger is contagious but so is wisdom and use of skills. Demonstrating behavior that is mindful, according to relative danger and vulnerability, promotes wiser decision-making and helps make our communities and families safer.

Let ARC know your thoughts too.

Kelly Simpson