Suspend and Observe | Understanding Rage as a Symptom of System Misalignment

Rage.

It’s an emotion which some may be fortunate enough to be unfamiliar, at least on the surface. I would reckon that everyone has experienced some version of anger at one point in their life. But in my opinion, rage – defined by Merriam Webster as ‘violent and uncontrolled anger’ – is a sign of a system out of balance. For many, including myself, it stems from a deep sense of unfairness. Let me elaborate.

When I was 13, my world as I knew it fell apart. My father, who was the head of my small, private K-8th school, had recently left my mother. More, he had started dating a school administrator, and the news was leaking. I went to school every day with a smile on, or at least not a frown. I knew I was in the “spotlight” of my little world. For the sake of my family, and my own sanity, I worked to maintain the appearance of peacefulness.

One day, the parents of a good friend of mine took us on a surprise trip. We pulled up to an empty house that was going to be torn down. My friend’s father handed us each a hammer. He taught us how to tap the wall to feel before taking a hit, then set us loose.

With some trepidation, I “knock-knocked” the wall, ensuring there was no wood or metal to hurt me. Taking a deep breath, I pulled back, and swung. The wall smashed, plaster falling everywhere. My hand trembled from the impact. I paused, drew in another breath. The first sprinkles of relief began to fall. Eagerness bubbled up in my gut. Before I knew it, I was swinging my hammer all through the empty house, my suppressed grief and stress and RAGE pouring out from body and soul with each hit. I was honestly shocked by the size of the burden I’d carried, evident in its temporary, physical release.

While destroying the house didn’t ultimately result in any change to my family system, my experience offered a clue – I was furious, and something was very wrong. As an adult (and now systems coach), I can see that the problem was that my microsystems (internal and familial) were wildly out of alignment. My anger was just a symptom.

In recent years, I have witnessed more evidence of ‘rage as a symptom.’ I saw it in a weaker form in Corporate America, an organizational system, when tech teams who wanted to move fast to test and learn faced insurmountable levels of rules and red tape. While their frustration had not yet developed to full-blown destruction, I saw the simmering, felt the tension, and anticipated the organization’s failure.

Nowhere is the symptom of rage more obvious than at the macrosystemic level of the United States today. In the wake of recent black murders, we see evidence of a collective fury. I am told that even its physical expressions – looting, vandalism – bring absolutely no sense of relief. The rage at this level is so maddening because it permeates every facet of our societal system – from the economic to the political, from education to infrastructure, from public policy to transportation to healthcare – with an exhausting resistance to change. While I do not believe myself justified to elaborate on this particular experience of rage, I stand by my belief that rage is a natural, valid symptom of a societal system that is deeply and horrifyingly out of harmony. In other words, rage is not the problem. And if rage is not the problem, then squashing it with “law and order” is not the answer.

So what do we do with rage, then?

Our initial instinct when first experiencing strong emotions is to try and control them, particularly in relation to our internal systems. The body craves homeostasis. Please do not judge yourself for having this response. In fact, that is my first call to action. I believe the first step to any form of systems change is to actively suspend all judgment – of yourself or others – and instead, objectively observe the emotional experience. 

The easiest way to ‘suspend and observe’ is to genuinely and wholeheartedly put yourself in another’s shoes. If you aren’t practiced with big emotions (as many of us who have lived lives of privilege are not), this may even mean putting yourself in your OWN shoes. When you feel an unfamiliar rage bubbling inside, I challenge you to get curious. Resist the temptation to control it; instead, simply name, notice, and observe what’s happening. Ask yourself: “What am I feeling?” “What’s happening in me right now?” From this curious place, we create room for our solution space to expand dramatically. (And if you’re interested in exploring rage the way I did as a child, find yourself a Rage Room.)

Once we’re able to suspend judgment of ourselves, we’re ready to move onto bigger challenges. In an organization, we might start to put ourselves in the shoes of the frustrated – naming and noticing the details of their experiences. In my tech teams example, I would ask leadership to get curious about what it’s like to be hired to do a job, then heavily restricted from doing it to the best of your ability.

When it comes to rage in the world, instead of passing judgment, I challenge you to put yourself in the shoes of the enraged. Specifically, in times like these, I implore you to think from the perspective of one who is chronically and systemically oppressed. While you may be like me and never fully understand, you can have the dialogue, listen carefully, do the reading (try: anything Ta-Nehisi Coats, “The Hate You Give,” or my personal favorite, “The Master Plan” by Chris Wilson), and intentionally put yourself in situations that push you into the discomfort that people of color feel every day of their lives. While it may sound obvious, I’ll state it explicitly: you can’t begin to imagine the pain until you start imagining.

Upon suspending and observing, you will likely start to notice the key points of friction causing the symptom of rage. From there, we can start to work to construct a plan for systems change that actually addresses the root cause of the symptoms. My observation is that rage often stems from a deep lack of autonomy, fairness, or justice in a system; or as a friend says, from living in a crushingly controlled environment. I will be curious to hear what you notice. Please share your thoughts anytime at marisaschulercoaching@gmail.com.

Note: This article is directed at the privileged (myself included) who are less familiar with extreme emotions such as outrage, horror, and despair resulting from systemic oppression. As current events increase awareness, I believe we have SO MUCH to learn from POC about how to experience, understand, and channel these emotions towards systems change. I am grateful for those who provided sensitivity feedback on this article.