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Unknown photographer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

This one is for all the rage-cryers out there. You know who you are. I’m one, too. I cry when I am furious, and it used to really piss me off. In class, in heated discussions in a college setting, at work. Someone would say something that enraged me (remember – rage is about powerlessness, so whenever there was a particular injustice or something that was misconstrued in an altogether unfair way, when I was belittled or mocked or dismissed …) and I would feel it start to well up and it was awful because I am a woman. It’s embarrassing. And more than that, it is one of those things that, as soon as the tears begin to flow, you know people will stop paying attention to what you’re saying and start reacting to the fact that you are “being emotional.”

If you identify with this, you are aware that there is literally nothing you can do to stop it once it starts. Even if you do your level best to continue to speak logically, you know there are people who are rolling their eyes at you and dismissing you simply because  you are crying.

But here’s the thing: focus on the “nothing you can do” part and know this (and share it widely because the more people know, the more we can destigmatize rage tears): Rage crying is a normal, physiological human response to increased levels of cortisol in our bodies. 

The main goal of our bodies is to maintain and/or restore homeostasis – that is, a middle ground, equilibrium. That is why, when we get too hot, our bodies trigger the mechanism that makes us sweat, so we cool off. When we are too cold, we shiver and get goosebumps so that we are prompted to raise our body temperature. When we have too much gas in our systems, our bodies have adapted to pass that gas – by burping or farting. Etc. Etc. Cortisol is a hormone that is produced by our adrenal glands in response to stress, and when we have too much of it, our bodies know that it needs to be offloaded somehow. Excess cortisol affects our immune response, increases levels of inflammation and can cause all sorts of physical ailments – so when there is too much, we have to get rid of it.

Wanna know one of the most efficient ways to offload cortisol?

Crying.

I shit you not.

Researchers have measured the amount of cortisol in tears when people are crying in different situations, and have shown that there are elevated levels of stress hormone in the tears of people who rage cry.

So basically, when you are frustrated with someone and feeling powerless and you start to sob, that is just your body’s way of achieving homeostasis – it’s like burping when you have too much gas in your belly or sweating when you’re too hot.

Sadly, we have been taught that crying in public is unacceptable, so many of us have learned to stifle this urge. Patriarchy has us teaching boys that it’s not really ok to cry at all, and prompts us to tell young women that in order to be ‘professional’ they need to compose themselves at work or they won’t be taken seriously. But this does nothing to relieve our bodies of the extra stress hormone it carries, and so when we force ourselves to stop crying, our bodies often turn to other means. So what else do humans do to relieve stress during these times? Men and boys have been socialized to externalize their stress – how many stories have you heard of a teenage boy punching a hole in a wall when he was upset? Turns out punching and kicking things also offloads cortisol (although not as efficiently as crying). Young women and girls internalize their stress for social and cultural reasons and one of the scariest things we know about how they try to achieve homeostasis is by self-harming – namely burning or cutting themselves. Cortisol levels drop measurably in people who engage in cutting behavior (and, yes, young men engage in self-harm as well, although not as often as young women do).

So the question we need to ask ourselves is whether we’d rather normalize angry tears from our fellow human beings as a normal, physiological response to stress or not. Can we recognize that this is a normal, adaptive thing that our bodies do and not force an alternative response that will ultimately end up being more harmful? Yes, it’s uncomfortable for us to witness another person crying, but the more we understand that it is literally something our bodies need to do in order to function better, the more we can accept it and move forward.

Tell your families, tell your co-workers, tell your kids. And the next time you feel that familiar lump in your throat and your hands clench into fists, let ‘er rip.

I am slowly evolving the work I’m doing with folks around metabolizing our grief and rage in community, and adding two cohorts (two 90-minute sessions each) for August. Just in case you’re like most people and you have no idea what I even mean by most of the things I wrote in that first sentence, here’s a little primer on what these workshops entail:

Grief and Rage are intertwined. Many of us start to feel grief and immediately bypass into rage because that’s a more comfortable place to be. But what if you could feel both, honor both, move through grief and acknowledge sadness and loss and get to a place where your rage fuels you to heal and move forward with intention? And what if you could do it in community?

In these two 90-minute sessions, you’ll learn about the nuances of grief and rage, begin to understand where they live in your body and how you, personally, respond to both of these powerful emotions with specific thought patterns and reactions.

You will learn ways to identify when you’re overwhelmed by either grief or rage, find practices that soothe your nervous system and allow you to process the emotions, and be with others who are doing this work and simultaneously holding space for everyone. Accompanying this information with body practices and specific steps and inquiries means that you have a framework for progressing through the emotions and stories instead of staying stuck in them and stuffing them down.

In September, I’ll be opening bi-weekly practice sessions for folks who have attended the workshops to come together and make their way through the steps, expand their idea of what it means to witness others and be witnessed in this work, and support each other to build a solid foundation.

I charge on a sliding scale, so please pay what you can between $50-$150. If you can’t pay, let me know and we’ll work something out.

If you’re interested, please email me at kari@kariodriscollwriter.com and let me know what day/time combos work best for you in August and get on the mailing list so I can get you signed up.

Image Description: blue candle holder with lit candle sitting on a metal table top

I have been thinking a lot about rage lately. About how we hold it and offload it, about who ends up being the container for it and what it feels like and how much energy it possesses.

Rage is the product of anger and fear suppressed. It is borne of a feeling of powerlessness. In my own life, it has shown up as the result of childhood molestation, gaslighting, and a lack of agency or ability to change my circumstances. It multiplies in dark places, building on itself until it can no longer be contained, and it is this aspect of rage that I find the most compelling. It is also where I see the most possibility.

Men like Harvey Weinstein who have massive quantities of rage seek to dispel that energy at some point. No being can walk around and function while they hold that storm within them. And as women (or those with feminine qualities) are seen as the containers for emotion in our society, it follows that men like him would seek to literally insert their rage in to the women around them, the women they see as the perfect vessels to hold their rage. These kind of men tend to hold their rage as long as they can and then expel it outward in violent acts, often toward women.

We have even, in many cases, normalized that response. The Australian ex-rugby player who killed his wife and children last week prompted an outpouring of grief and shock, but also comments from men like “he must have been pushed over the edge” or “she took his children away from him” as though it was somehow understandable that a man would discharge his feelings in a way that destroys the lives of people he purported to love.

If I think about the archetypal feminine and masculine (not gender, but the qualities we have ascribed to the Feminine and the Masculine), so much of how we address our rage is in line with those energies. Masculine energy is associated with linear thinking, decisive action, control and competition. Feminine energy is about nurturing, creativity, emotions and collaboration. Our culture has embraced those notions along gender lines and it is killing us.

The problem with rage (and energy, in general) is that you can’t let it go or give it over to someone else entirely. If you don’t transform it in some way, the seeds of it will continue to live within you and grow again. It is why men who assault others don’t often stop – the issue hasn’t resolved itself. It is why some men choose suicide – often after they’ve killed others. It is why most men choose methods of suicide that are loud and outrageous. These men have embraced the notion that transforming their rage by processing it, feeling it, talking about it, examining it is unacceptable, not masculine. And if you don’t know how to morph it in to something else, but you don’t want to feel it anymore, you have to try and get rid of it. And if our culture has told us that it is acceptable for men to be outwardly expressive and show their anger, and that women are the nurturers, the carers, the containers, it somehow feels ok for men to offload their rage on to women.

The human body is not designed to hold emotion or energy. If it were, we wouldn’t have to continue breathing or eating to sustain ourselves. We wouldn’t have to find a bathroom every few hours in order to eliminate the things that aren’t necessary. When we hold on to rage, trying to contain its energy within us is destructive. It continues to ping around in our bodies and brains, wreaking havoc. Even if we think we can wall it off, it sits inside us like a coiled cobra, muscles quivering, senses alert, ready to strike.

Rage makes us hyper-focus on control – the masculine energy seeks to control others, and the feminine energy seeks to control itself. Female rage often turns to depression, anxiety, dissociation. Male rage often turns to violence. And when that energy is offloaded, it multiplies like one candle lighting another. Energy can neither be created nor destroyed. But it can be transformed, and until we begin recognizing the rage we carry and learn how to transform it, we will all continue to swim in it. It is and will continue to be the legacy of toxic masculinity, perpetuating physical and sexual abuse, domestic violence, shame and isolation. Excavating rage, examining it, owning it, and alchemizing it in to something that can be used to build rather than destroy is freeing. When I have taken the time and done the hard work it takes, I feel free, light, strong. The space that rage used to inhabit becomes a place for hope and optimism, and the energy builds connections that end up serving the collective. It is on each of us to do our own work, but we can create a culture where the work is important and necessary and normalized for all of us if we begin to recognize the power of rage and just how much of it we are all carrying.

It’s the same reason I chose not to spank my kids. Fear is a powerful motivator, yes. But the only thing I’ve ever seen it motivate anyone to do is hide. Hide their intentions. Hide their actions. Hide their plans. And in my house, growing up, spanking was used as a tool for control because it inspired fear. “Do you want a spanking?” Heck, no! So we learned to lie. We learned to behave a little better, too, but it certainly didn’t teach us right from wrong. We learned avoidance.

When Bubba and I decided, very intentionally, to get pregnant, I voiced my very strong opinion against spanking. At the time, it was naive and optimistic and borne out of my pacifist ideals. Later, when Eve would get willful or fight against napping, and when she was two and her favorite philosophical position was, “NO!” it became a question. Why can’t I spank her? Why did I think this was a bad idea? And it prompted some mental exploration on my part.
My knee-jerk reaction was that hitting another being was wrong. Period. Wrong with a capital-W. Why? Recalling my experiences with spanking, for myself and my siblings flooded my senses with fear. I don’t want my child to be afraid of me. But it was more than that. Each and every time I was spanked, it came from a place of anger. My parents were furious with me and they showed it. In some cases, that anger was nearly out of control, and it was always palpable. As a child, I vowed (for many reasons) never to be out of control. Responding to my child, or anyone else for that matter, in extreme anger, rage, or frustration was frightening to me.
I learned to step back. I learned that it is perfectly acceptable to take a time-out and breathe and consider my options. I learned that automatic consequences that were borne of rage tended to be overblown and out of proportion and they generally were incapable of being carried out: “No TV until you’re 16, young lady!” I also learned that as I took time to consider my options, I could learn a little bit about the situation and gain insights that I hadn’t noted previously. Unless I chose to hang on to the anger and let it simmer. In which case it turned to score-settling and revenge-seeking.
I remember exactly where I was on September 11, 2001. I awoke to the phone ringing and answered to hear my father-in-law’s voice telling me to turn on the television. He was rattled and I sat riveted to the news reports all morning, eighteen-month-old Eve strapped into the Baby Bjorn on my chest. I was overwhelmed with sadness. I was also confused and a little bit frightened. And since that day, our lives have changed a lot as Americans. And I completely understand the anger and hatred and rage directed at Al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden. But I don’t think his death will change anything.
Watching the news coverage last night, I took in the sight of the growing crowd in front of the White House as they chanted and held up signs. I acknowledged the notion that this provides closure for a lot of people. And I was saddened that, for many individuals, the over-riding sense was that a score had been settled. I can honestly say that I don’t think acts based in anger or rage or vengeance can ever “end” a feud. I have never seen an argument settled when the last word spoken was out of hatred. Osama bin Laden may have masterminded some atrocious acts in his life, but his death will only add fuel to the fire for those who believed in his brand of terrorism. This is not a game of Chess. Osama was not the opponent’s king who, once cleared from the board, signals the end of the match. There are no “fair” rulings here. I am not saying that a just punishment for Osama bin Laden is not warranted. I am simply saying that to take joy in the death of someone else cannot provide any sort of healing for anyone.
I am certain that my parents don’t wish they had spanked us more as children or reacted in anger more often. I know that, these days, when Eve and Lola ask my mother if she really used to spank us with a wooden spoon, she cringes. I’m pretty sure I know what that means.