Impotent* Rage by Sara Frykenberg

Rage, for me, feels intrinsically connected to instinct, like an uncontrollable urge to fight and fly all at the same time but with no place to flee and a need to literally, physically restrain myself from the “FIGHT,” or violence I don’t want to create. 


Many feminist theorists talk about the value of anger and particularly, “women’s (diverse experiences of) anger” for consciousness raising, community building and healing.  I remember considering this concept for the first time early in graduate school.  I was both scared because I associated anger with abusive control; and curious, as I was finally learning to express this “bad” emotion.  Overall, embracing anger taught me to speak up and break out of abusive spaces.  But sharing this concept with students last semester and discussing the Bible’s descriptions of “God’s Wrath” this semester, I find myself considering levels of anger.  When is or is rage appropriate? Some of the feminist theology I have read definitely advocates for a constructive relationship to rage.  But many of my students, who can embrace the creative space of anger, had difficulty embracing this positive valuation of rage (even understanding that it is ‘what we do with our anger’ that counts).  I have recently found myself facing my own rage… And I am not sure what to think.

I often consider anger a teacher.  It shows me where my boundaries are being crossed or where injustices are rising.  I have experienced mild anger that, when mediated through humor, has helped me laugh at life and struggle.  I have experienced white-hot anger that left me unable to sleep or function “normally.”  Betrayals have dragged me out of my bed early in the morning, seeking to run/ walk so that I could breathe and think at a pace that matched the beating of my heart.  I have used anger well and badly.  I have repressed anger, only to have it escape explosively.  My childhood anger, when I allowed myself to be angry, was often violent.  My sister and I played violently, constantly hitting, punching, kicking and screaming at one another.  I have used my anger against myself, scratching the skin off of my arms and legs in an attempt to control emotion.  In these ways, anger has taught me about some of my own injustices, betrayals and internalized abuse/abusiveness.  My experience of rage, however, has been distinct in some way from these forms of anger.

My rage has felt impotent.  I actually kind of hate that word: impotent.  It is too phallocentric to me: a blatant reference to the patriarchal conflation of masculinity with penetration and control.  Nonetheless, my rage feels impotent perhaps, because it has surfaced in response to situations in which I felt no control, or in which I felt that my power was taken from me.  Rage, for me, feels intrinsically connected to instinct, like an uncontrollable urge to fight and fly all at the same time but with no place to flee and a need to literally, physically restrain myself from the “FIGHT,” or violence I don’t want to create.

My body shakes, uncontrollably and violently.  I am shaking so much, in fact, that my teeth are chattering to the point that I cannot speak.  If I speak I will bite my tongue.  My friends tell me I am cold, but I do not feel cold.  My heart is pounding out of control.  My face is hot; and I feel focused.  The only thing I can compare this physical experience to is going into shock—except, it feels nothing like going into shock.  I put my hand through a window once, deeply cutting my fingers.  I went into shock and remember feeling like the blood was draining from my body.  Cold, clammy and sick, I felt a foggy but urgent need to lie down.  Rage feels nothing like this to me.  It feels like a bubbling over, but so physical and uncontrollable that I immediately think of shock.  In the moments I’ve experienced rage I have had a strong and immediate desire to control it: to control myself.

The question I find myself asking is, how is this useful to me? Am I being “invited” so to speak, to create from this experience?  The anger that became rage already told me that my boundaries were being violated.  The physical experience of rage, actually, is something I’ve felt like I’ve had to recover from: showering, covering myself with blankets and drinking tea until my body seems my own again.  I am glad that in the few moments of true rage that I’ve felt that I’ve been able to control myself in some way—yet, I wonder how this control relates to the physicality of the experience.  I found myself wondering, if rage is connected to instinct, is it possible that that when we don’t give into rage we can also resist what Marjorie Suchocki calls, “The Fall to Violence.”  Is the suppression of instinct here “self-transcendence;” or was my experience of rage, like anger often is, indicative of a violation or imposed powerlessness in a more extreme physical form?  How can I understand this experience of rage from a feminist and spiritual perspective?  Can I create from this space?  Did I give in by controlling my rage, or did I tap into what my yoga group calls, “my higher self?”

I would like to hear what you think about rage.  What is your experience of it and is it like mine?  Were you able to create from that space?  What did you do with your rage?  I am not sure if I ate my rage or if I prevented myself from becoming someone I don’t want to be.  Maybe I did a little of both.  What do we do with our rage?  I am still working to answer this question from my own feminist theo/alogical perspective.




7 thoughts on “Impotent* Rage by Sara Frykenberg”

  1. What a wonderful topic! What did I do with rage? Denial comes to mind. I would have told you that I never get angry, and certainly don’t
    feel rage. When I told my therapist that I didn’t have anger, she told me, “No, you have rage.” I was astounded. What did I do with it all those years? I stuffed it and it came out sideways, often in illness and even alcoholism. I was taught that we girls didn’t get angry or act that way. It has taken me many years to find my voice, but finding it has certainly helped me. It has also helped to distinguish which things are mine and not allow people to put things on me that are not mine. Also, it has helped to find my authentic self and no longer to be the person others expect me to be.


  2. I am an angry person. My anger goes round and round and builds up and up and feeds off itself. I get angry about something and then I get even more angry that no one else is angry about it. Like you, I used to scratch and bite and cut myself to deal with this anger. I have stopped cutting, but the longer I go without cutting (4 years now) the more violent my mental imaginings of self harm become. But this is the rub; it is others who have made me angry and yet I direct that anger at myself. It’s others who put me in a violent frame of mind, but the violence is directed at myself. I think this is the true problem with rage, that we internalise rather than externalise it. If we allowed the rage voice, and directed that voice at those who incite the anger, maybe it wouldn’t be so extreme. Maybe, if I felt empowered enough to actually shout at these people, and not fear the reprisals and the increased misogynistic attacks and slurs which right now I would almost inevitably face, the rage would not be so all consuming. Maybe the only way to stop it building up is to let it out in the direction it deserves to go.
    When I get angry, I try to remember Jesus in the Temple, driving out the money lenders. I remember that He got angry too, and that he directed that anger exactly at its cause and not allow it to be a total implosion/explosion. And I remember how He then carried on, peacefully, with His mission. And I try to at least imagine myself doing the same, even if I don’t yet actually do it.


  3. Sara, thank you for this thoughtful blog. This helps me to think about the ways in which I use the term “rage” and “anger.” I have for a while now considered my relationship to rage a positive one. But I think when I use the term I am describing something different than you are when you use the term. The moments when I have felt my heart racing and the blood draining from my face accompanied by shaking and the impulse to run or scream–I used to call “anger.” But now I call it “extreme anxiety.” And the moments when my anger is an effective creative force I have called it both “rage” and “focused anger.” For me “rage” has come to mean anger that is creative and powerful (not in a controling sense but in the sense that shit gets done or keeps me grounded and focused). When my anger is self-destructive I call it “mis-directed anger” or “anger afraid” and when it resembles the Hulk (SHRIEK! SMASH!) I call it extreme anxiety. That semantic might not work for everyone but for me it calls attention to the fact that when I feel that way it is presicely because I feel an overwhelming sense of being helpless and unable to control my self and my environment. So I Hulk out. To me, the Hulk doesn’t have an anger problem (which I define as a healthy emotion) but an extreme anxiety problem. Now that I’m thinking about it, I would also say that many times the God of the Bible has an “extreme anxiety” problem steming from his need to control. When “his” people get unruly, he Hulks out. I chose to make a distinction between this anxiety based impluse to smash, control and defeat and “rage” which I define as grounded, loving, creative, justice/harmony-seeking anger. These distinctions are helpful for me. But I don’t think there is a universaly helpful way of defining these words. In your case, in so far as your “controlling your rage” means keeping yourself from Hulking out (allowing your extreme anxiety to push you to smash and control others)–kudos. I do think in those moments we tap into (I would say deeper rather than higher) selves. But I also think these spaces, offer opportunities for growth and creativity. When this kind of extreme anxiety visits me, I do my best to welcome it with acceptance and ask it where it came from so we decide together where to go next. “Okay, Hulk-self, we’re not gonna smash but we will do something I promise.” Sometimes it helps to “smash” metaphorically, like my belief that my worth lies in my sexual appeal to men. GRR! SMASH! I think, I think? that is how anxiety can become a grounded, creative force. But I too am still exploring this part of myself and my feminism.


  4. Thank you for your insightful. I really appreciate the way that you are using these terms; and you are very right, there is not a universal way to define these experiences. Interestingly, the way I think of anxiety is extremely different– usually related to social anxiety & discomfort with relationships. It is a feeling that causes me to withdraw or my sense that some aspect of relationship or connection in general has become too overwhelming for me. But I appreciate this description; because I can see how anxiety could also be a part of my experience of rage.
    I actually wondered, after writing this post, if during the moments I define as rage I am not experiencing two distinct things at once: extreme anger & the trigger of my “fight/ flight” response (which is definitely related to anxiety or stress).
    You discussion of the “Hulk Smash” moment really resonates with me. I smiled when I read it because I thought of a discussion I recently had with a good friend and she used exactly this description of her emotion! ;) Did you see the Avenger’s movie? I like how Bruce Banner describes his “secret” for … I can’t remember… controlling? the Hulk in him… He says something like: my secret is “I’m always angry.” Your definition of anxiety really works here again.
    My experiences of “rage” have been most unwelcome by me… but I think because of the physical struggle they entail. One time, after working through this impulse, I got very very sick because of the drain of it, as well as the strange relationship it had to temperature. I feel like I am wrestling energetically at those times… and as I stated before, I am really still thinking through what that means.
    I also really like the image of “metaphorically” Smashing ;) This language of self-negotiation is very helpful to me and something I use in different areas of me life.
    Thank you again for sharing this view– I really appreciate the dialogue about this space of experience.
    P.S. “Deeper self” is a great description!


  5. Yes, I see how our experience of both rage and anxiety are similar and different. This discussion has really helped me explore these issues for myself. Anxiety can also cause me to retreat, which I do far more often than Hulk out. Part of me wishes I were Hulkier. I resonate with the first comment as well. I have come to see that my anger comes out sideways. I like that way of putting it. In binge eating, self-isolation and escapism. The problem is I’m so paranoid of Hulking out on people, I quarantine myself like a virus. Which is healthier? Hulking out or imploding? I have the feeling that if I can just squish those two impulses together things might even out somehow . . .


  6. Interesting thoughts! I have a very uneasy relationship with my own anger, particularly, I think, because it most frequently arises in respect to my role as a mother and feeling captive/bound/restricted by children’s needs as well as in regard to division of household labor, time for my creative work, etc. It doesn’t feel “okay” to be angry and a mother. And, feeling angry is also bound up in my childhood and the strong message from my mother that to be angry/crabby/depressed/unhappy is NOT OKAY and not allowed, in many ways. I lost always feel guilty and wrong for becoming angry, even when thoroughly justified and then feel angry at myself for having been angry. I give myself no permission or leeway to accept/experience that feeling.

    I’d say I’ve very rarely, if ever, experienced anything I’d actually call rage though…


  7. I used to do a lot of pillow pounding in order to get in touch with my anger which I had repressed. I was attracted to Greece because it is an expressive culture. People do express anger and then forget about it. However, they also act it out violently. This reminds me of something Rita Gross once said: it is important to recognize anger and then to transform it. I am very angry about lots of things in our world from patriarchy to destruction of the environment. I found that when my beloved wetlands were being destroyed I could only drive through the area while chanting a curse: As you f**k the Source of life, you will be f**ked. However, my anger is less when I know that I am doing something, whether running for office in the Green Party or writing another complaint about wetland degradation. Trying to change the world (even if the effort fails) is the best antidote to anger that I know.


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