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Why We Get Enraged by Rule Breakers—and How to Deal With It Compassionately

Erin Bunch

Erin BunchMay 20, 2020

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Photo: Getty Images / Matteo Colombo / W+G Creative

In what has been a relentlessly disturbing year, few things have been so irksome—to those of us adhering to measures implemented to slow the pandemic at least—as viewing pictures of people crowding beaches and parks without face masks or social distancing. It’s maddening, even enraging.

To understand why these rebellious individuals make our blood boil, Joel Kouame, LCSW, a psychotherapist with NYC-based practice Alma, says we need to first unpack the role of anger in our lives. “Anger is our guardian—its role is to protect us from anything that we perceive as a threat to our safety and the safety of what we deem is of value,” he says. “We know this because biologically speaking, ‘things that make us angry’ are stimuli that arouse the sympathetic nervous system, triggering our fight or flight response.” This response in turn improves bodily functions such as speed and strength, attributes that give us better odds of surviving the threat.

What’s perceived as dangerous to you, however, might not be perceived as dangerous to someone else. “In this pandemic, the threat to most people’s safety is clear—the virus,” says Kouame. “And the threat is not just to one’s own safety, but to the safety of those around them to whom they are attached.” Following the rules, then, is comforting to these people, because the rules were created to maintain safety. “As long as the [rules are] followed, they don’t need their anger to protect them.”

When the rules are not followed, however, this protective instinct—rage!—kicks in. “The more egregious the defiance of the rules are, the more the anger inside of the adherent is built because they need that protection,” say Kouame. (This explains screaming into the void at the sight of photos featuring people luxuriating in a New York City park while the virus ravages that city more violently than anywhere else on Earth.)

Rule breakers, on the other hand, might behave the way they do because they perceive the loss of autonomy, income, or human interaction the rules might impose on them to be more of a threat than the virus. “It goes against human behavior to be comfortable while there is a perceived danger, and if that danger is following rules, it would be almost instinctive for that person to defy those rules and maintain their safety,” says Kouame.

Understanding this is key to accessing compassion. I may not comprehend how being told to stay inside with Netflix feels more threatening than a virus that’s killed 90,000 people in the United States alone, but I can allow that this must feel true for the people breaking the rules. Doing so may then enable me to better and more calmly communicate my perspective to them. “There has to be an extension of understanding and compassion to that fear that resides in rule breakers,” says Kouame. “By showing another party that even while disagreeing their concerns are not being overlook, and are still being honored, then that party has less need to have to defend them with anger.”

In other words, instead of posting angry rants on social media about how reckless and idiotic these COVID-19 rule breakers are (it me!), you would have a better chance at swaying them by acknowledging their fears and then trying to provide them with evidence of how deadly and contagious the virus is. (Is that day at the beach worth your life?)

While you might have more success with this approach than with a strategy involving an angry rant, it’s not foolproof. Some people may cling to their beliefs that the virus is not much of a threat while others, according to clinical psychologist Aimee Daramus, PsyD, may not be receptive to reason because they reject rules as a defining characteristic of their personality. “The rebel is an iconic image, so some people haven’t been able to let go of the idea that they’re smarter and sexier for breaking rules,” she says. “Don’t reject them on a personal level—just let them know you won’t be taking chances with your safety by being around them and that they can be a bigger part of your life when they’re respecting your safety.”

This will do little to quell your anger with them, but you can and should work on mediating it regardless. To do so, Kouame recommends a variety of techniques, including progressive muscle relaxation, engaging in activities that active a parasympathetic (calming) response like knitting, drawing, or writing and, importantly, challenging the perception that you’re in immediate danger. And while telling yourself to calm down amid a pandemic may feel wrong, cortisol spikes that accompany rage are not healthy—and there’s no sense in letting COVID-19 rule breakers threaten your health twice.

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