Overcoming a Desire to Witness Cruelty and Feel Rage

Reader’s Question

I am a 23-year-old male who is often described as calm, laid back and very social by friends, family and coworkers. I’m usually very difficult to upset and am mostly logical about conflict.

I recently purchased a pair of guinea pigs, and have spent a lot of time and effort to house them and make sure they are healthy. I am very fond of them, but what is seriously distressing is that lately I have found that I have developed a very unusual desire to make them fight or that I become filled with rage at times when they make noises or even when I just see them.

Twice I have found myself mishandling the creatures out of anger instead of necessity. These feelings come on suddenly, without provocation, and they are coming more and more often. I have even witnessed them fighting and found that I would provoke them to continue instead of breaking it up. I also at times have found that I go out of my way to watch videos on the internet that display animal or human death/cruelty and become very euphoric while watching them. This is not a constant desire but one that comes and goes. What is concerning is that at the time I don’t seem to realize the lack of morality in my actions. Once the feelings/desires subside I find myself very ashamed of my actions.

I’m deeply concerned because as a child I had a severe anger problem that nearly ruined my life. I had done years of anger management as a child and thought that I was long past these disturbing feelings. They have rarely manifested in my adult life until now.

I don’t want to be that person again. What steps should I take to help myself overcome these unusual feelings of extreme rage or desire to witness cruelty? I do believe that one factor is that I have become physically inactive lately, but I can’t believe that is solely responsible, since this is not the first period of inactivity I’ve had in the last few months.

Psychologist’s Reply

When watching sports on television, why do people who have played those sports in high school get more excited that those who didn’t play the sport? The answer to that question is the answer to your question: Emotional Memory. When we have an experience that contains strong emotions, the brain memorizes the event and the emotions at the time. From that point, any time those memories are triggered, our original mood begins to surface. Fifty year-old high school football and soccer players, when watching a game on television, actually relive their teenage energy, excitement, and euphoria. At that age, however, it also produces sprained backs and fractured ankles when they jump up and down in the television room.

Like many people, you have some very uncomfortable if not dangerous Emotional Memories in your past. Your brain has memories of rage, agitation, excitement coupled with anger, and even cruelty. During that period in your life, you may have wanted to see people hurt or fighting. Now that you have matured, you’ve put those behaviors in your past…but the brain still has the memories. Now as a mature, calm, easy-going young adult you are finding those old violent Emotional Memories triggered by your pets, videos, etc. As a result, you are re-experiencing that rage, anger, and excited violence that is now uncomfortable for you. You see, those feelings don’t come on unprovoked — but they do come on suddenly. Sadly, the more you trigger those past violent memories, the more frequently they will appear…as you’ve noticed. So what can you do:

  • Recognize that while you are no longer an angry, violent person, you once were — and your brain still has memories of those times. People who have 1) abusive childhoods, 2) a previous violent relationship, 3) combat experience, or 4) a difficult maturing stage have these kinds of Emotional Memories. It doesn’t mean you are violent now — but it does tell you that you need to be careful. People don’t want their feelings of military combat surfacing during a holiday dinner.
  • Recognize that just like a person who has problems with gambling, drugs, alcohol, or whatever, you need to protect yourself from situations that trigger your Emotional Memories. Problem gamblers don’t watch shows about Las Vegas, and alcoholics don’t pass idle time in a bar/pub. It’s that simple. Recognize that this is a past issue, not a current one, but a past issue that requires daily monitoring. Don’t watch violent videos, fights, internet sites, cruelty to animals, etc. Those trigger the memories that are at the heart of your issue.
  • Use the strategies I’ve provide in my article on Emotional Memory. You can block those feelings from surfacing into your daily home or life routine.
  • When your pets are fighting, automatically break up the fight. When you begin to experience an old memory that contains agitation or excitement, do something different. I have a friend who 38 years ago had horrific combat experience. When he begins to experience uncomfortable Emotional Memory, he uses the phrase “How About Those Reds (local baseball team)?” At that point, we change the discussion, television channel, etc.
  • You are not that person again…but you still have those memories. Your inactivity is probably unrelated although, it is helpful to exercise to release bottled-up energy and stress.

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You’ve discovered a common adult experience — that our childhood, background, life experience, etc. is always available for reference in the future. To manage these Emotional Memories we accumulate over the years, we work to maximize the wonderful memories and minimize the influence of the bad memories. If our childhood was abusive, we don’t listen to songs from that time period. At the same time, if we played sports in high school, watching a great game can almost instantly turn a 50 year-old man into a yelling, screaming fan who thinks nothing of painting his face or wearing a clown wig.

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