Transforming Rage into Vigor

Transforming Rage into Vigor

 “At heart I’m a frightened angry person. That’s probably why my stuff isn’t totally insubstantial. I’m constantly, deep down inside, in a kind of rage.”

–Robyn Hitchcock

Hating life? Hard not to in this economy. As I’ve written about many times here before, when we live life through the mind, everything just seems to suck, endlessly.

As the incredibly creative and talented rocker-songwriter Robyn Hitchcock, who graced Portland with his presence and music at the Doug Fir a couple nights ago, points out in an interview, his rage feeds his prodigious and prolific creativity. Why is it that some of us are able to channel the energy of rage into creativity, while for others, rage and hatred of life are just, well, a living Hell and not much else?

Channeling Rage Into Creativity

When internal rage, anger against life itself, remains un-transformed, it gradually robs us of our vitality. This is unfortunate and unnecessary, because that very rage is rooted in our love of life, our convictions, our values, our principles, our goals and dreams. We are enraged precisely because we feel stymied, blocked in every way. But being blocked is not a permanent state. The pent-up energy that turns bad, like wine to vinegar, is still available, it can be turned back into usable energy, if we approach it the right way. It can, like dynamite, be used to create, not just destroy.

How do we do this?

Don’t Believe the “Stories”

Everyone’s sorrow, everyone’s rage against life, has along with it a set of stories. “He did this to me.” “She did that to me.” “If only I had ______, I would be able to _______.” “If only I didn’t have _______, I wouldn’t have to _______.” These are stories we tell ourselves over and over until we believe them 100%. That’s self-brainwashing, as the great psychologist Albert Ellis used to call it.

I’m not disputing that there is truth to every one of these stories. But they are not the WHOLE truth, and if we over-value the stories, we may not move forward in our actions. We may not take the next steps to transform rage into creativity.

Develop Mindfulness: Use the Breath!

Mindfulness practice can be done in many ways, but among the most basic is the approach of shifting attention into the body, using the breath as an anchor to be present in this moment. Rage remains untransformed and un-usable energy because it is not fully felt; it is so hot and painful that we avoid its full impact as much as possible. By bringing awareness to the body we can begin to fully feel what is present. We learn that although it’s intense, it’s not our enemy, and it CANNOT destroy us as we fear. We may not be aware of that fear, but the fear of our feelings destroying us drives us to wall off our feelings, at great expense to our lives and our creativity.

Breathing consciously, following the breath, counting the breath, visualizing along with the breath, all of these skillful ways of working with strong feelings can allow us to channel the intensity of energy into valued activities. What do I mean by “valued activities?”

Clarify Your Values

Values are anything that matters to you, REALLY matters to you. Usually we think money matters to us a lot, but most people would say that it’s what the money can buy that really is at issue. Money is a proxy for what it can buy, so if “money” is an answer that came to mind, a useful question to ask yourself is, “If I had a lot of money, what would I do with it?” Marketing and business people understand that ‘Value’ is anything people are willing to spend money on. And what do we spend money on? These are our values. Usually things like Family, Children, Lovers, Art, Science, Sports, Sex. Things people are passionate about. These need to be clarified so that we know where all that rage comes from.

Rage Comes From Frustrated Values

We tend to focus on “goals” and a lot of people who write online will tell you how to reach your goals. They will tell you that you have to “believe in” your goals to reach them. While there is something in that, I say that first it’s worth making some psychological contact with, becoming aware of, what about those goals makes you want them. Not for the sake of insight, but for the sake of FEELING the passionate feelings that you naturally have toward those things which you value the most. Under all that rage and hatred for life, there is intense, INTENSE love, love for what you care the most about, what you think is broken, hidden, lost, lost forever. If you drop the stories about how hopeless things are, even for a moment, you may just notice that you still care intensely about all of those things, no matter how much your mind tries to protect you by saying “it’s hopeless.”

These are frustrated values. “Hopeless” is not likely to be a useful idea that moves us forward. How about something else…

Cultivate A Practical Voice

“What can I do?” That’s a question that may move us forward. What’s hopeless is probably not worth your attention. If you are want impossible things, consider finding some things that are possible. Or, MAYBE, if you’re anything like me, what you want is NOT “impossible,” but just difficult and involves a lot of work. Work that you and I do not want to do, because it’ll be hard, and because there’s no guarantee we’ll get what we want, no matter what it may be–love, satisfying work, or whatever.

Do More

“When in doubt, do something creative.” Get started. Whatever it is, let’s get on with it. You might die tomorrow. I’m serious. You really might. You think you’re not going to die for a long time, and I have that thought a lot too. Bit it’s demonstrably false. Any one of us may have a major change in our health that lays us on our backs, or puts us in our grave, at any time. Get going if you have any interest at all in living this life. If not, then that is sad, but I cannot help you. If you have any interest in getting going, I suggest getting going. Take all that rage and hatred of life with you. It’s going to come in handy as you transform the energy into usable fuel for creativity.

How do you channel and use negative feelings to fuel creative work, or any of your activities?

What experiences have you had utilizing anger, rage, even hatred of life, to move you forward?

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Joseph Rhinewine, PhD. People collaborate with me to live life fully: with principle, passion and vigor. My expertise is providing and teaching Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), an evidence-based, experiential and relational behavior therapy. I also apply Acceptance and Commitment processes to coaching those who wish to take their lives to a new level.

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  • Banu

    Great post! Thank you!

  • Anonymous

    Rage may not kill you, but feeling it will make you to want to kill those around you.
    Rage causes violence.
    The transformation of rage by artists seems to always involve large amounts of drinking and/or drugs; nowadays this also includes things like self-injury and eating disorders. Why is this? Why are artists always self-destructive?
    Is that self-destructive behavior what is meant by transforming rage?
    Why do so many artists creating substantial work end up killing themselves?

    • To be sure, there are many down-sides of rage; my post was about a possible silver lining, that some can transform rage and I believe that’s a learnable skill. With regard to drugs/alcohol, I’m no expert in artists and substance abuse, but I am a great appreciator of music, and some of my musical heros avoid (or avoided when they were alive) drugs and alcohol, and channeled their intensity, rage or otherwise, into incredible music. Often drugs and alcohol, as you point out, are destructive to the creative process. At the very same time, it’s hard to imagine what, for example, the Beatles might have been like had they not encountered and experienced certain drugs. It’s more comfortable if there is clarity that “all drugs are bad” or another absolute pronouncement, but I think reality is much more ambiguous than that. Drugs/alcohol and artists have had a long, long relationship and will continue to do so, for better and, probably more frequently, for worse.