Understanding Anger in Those We Care For

A friend of mine conducted an informal survey of priests in the Archdiocese of Minneapolis and St. Paul to find out which sins were heard most often in the sacrament of reconciliation. No surprise that #1 transgression for men involved sexual immorality—pornography, masturbation, lustful thoughts, etc. [It should be noted here that several priests commented that the confession of sexual sins has also been increasing for women.] The #2 transgression confessed by men, and the most-frequently confessed sin for women, was anger.

In many ways, this should not be surprising. As one marriage therapist stated, “Marriage and family living generate in normal people more anger than those people experience in any other social situations in which they find themselves.” In fact, we know that anger is one of the primary reasons why couples seek marriage counseling. Furthermore, research has revealed that parental anger is common—the authors of one study summarized their findings this way: “Two-thirds of parents reported feeling anger to the point of shouting or screaming at their children an average of five times per week…and the majority had an intense anger episode nearly every day.” Family is meant to be a place of affection, trust, and emotional support, but unfortunately, angry spouses and angry parents often create emotional and psychological turmoil for those they love.

Obviously, many individuals are inclined to protest: “I’m not an angry person. I’m just like everyone else—I might get mad sometimes, but I’m not an angry person.” Admittedly, there’s some truth to such protests—it is the rare individual who is angry all the time. But I would like to make a case (by way of personal anecdote) that we should strive to eliminate virtually all angry outbursts. My wife and I have six children (five sons and a daughter). I grew up in an alcoholic (and at times abusive) home, and as a result, I had some “anger issues” as a young man. I had worked diligently to eliminate anger in my life before we had any children, and I had made quite a bit of progress, but on Christmas Eve (when our daughter was about 7 or 8 years old) I messed up. I exhibited an angry outburst, and I regret it to this day. All our daughter was trying to do is be helpful, but she slipped and ended up breaking several bowls filled with our dessert for the Christmas Eve meal. I got mad. Needless to say, I ruined her Christmas. I apologized and told her I was sorry, but the damage had been done.

As I reflected on that unfortunate event, the words of Gregory the Great—in his insightful book titled, Pastoral Care—came streaming into my consciousness:

“Anger drives the mind where it does not wish to go. In its agitated state, it acts as if it did not know what it was doing, only to feel regret when later it realizes what it has done… When [the angry] do not resist their turbulence, they upset the good they may have done when the mind was tranquil, and by their sudden impulse they undo what with protracted labor they have built up” (p. 107).

Most parents work diligently to provide the nurturance, love, and care that their children need, but as I painfully learned that Christmas Eve, one angry outburst can undo so much that was accomplished through years of arduous and painstaking effort.

Owning Anger
Over the years, as I have gotten to know numerous couples and individuals who have struggled with anger, I have noticed that most people are hesitant to admit it when they’re angry. Instead, most people prefer to use terms like “annoyed, irritated, exasperated, aggravated, upset, or disturbed” (to name a few). One man I know would get “irritated” with his children, “annoyed” by his co-workers, “exasperated” with his wife, and “perturbed” with other drivers, but he insisted that he was never “angry.” My personal favorite early in our marriage was “miffed.” My wife would gently say, “Dear, you seem angry that I said that. Are you angry?” My typical response was: “I’m not angry. I’m a little miffed right now, but I’m not angry.” A big problem with this lack of anger admission is that if we don’t identify anger for what it really is, and own it, then there is very little hope that anger in our lives will ever change.

Why would I ever repent for “miffed-ness?” The evidence is clear—if we want the destructive effects of anger in families to decrease, then we are going to have to help those we care for (and about) to acknowledge, and to take ownership of, the reality of anger in their lives.

The Anatomy of Anger
When it comes to understanding the anatomy of anger, most experts agree: a response of anger is precipitated by adrenocortical arousal. The firing of the amygdala and the adrenal glands, with their accompanying cascade of catecholamines into the bloodstream, set the stage for anger. It is these neural and hormonal activities that create the arousal we experience when we are angry. However, arousal alone does not allow us to distinguish one emotion from another—arousal alone does not explain why we get angry.

Years ago, I decided to take my wife on a surprise dinner date. I knew she had a meeting in the late afternoon at a location near campus, so I figured I would make it special by hiding on the floor in the back seat of her car. It was a beautiful evening, and just as the sun was setting, my wife came out and got into the car. As she started the engine, I suddenly jumped up from the floor of the back seat. As you might guess, my wife experienced adrenocortical arousal—and with it, a flood of emotions. First, she experienced fear. Then, once she realized that it was me in the back seat [rather than some (other) deranged man], she experienced anger. Ultimately, once she was able to appreciate all that I had done to make the evening special, she experienced joy.

Arousal is an important part of our emotions, but arousal alone is not sufficient to signal any specific emotion. We also need our thoughts—that self-talk we use to explain each event as it is happening. This inner dialogue allows us to make emotional sense of each situation as it is happening. As the cognitive therapist, Aaron Beck, put it: “It is not a situation, in and of itself, that determines what people feel, but rather, how they construe a situation.” When it comes to the emotion of anger, it is often our thoughts of injustice that give rise to an angry response. In other words, when we interpret an event as unjust or unfair, then anger is most often going to be the emotional outcome.

Injustice and Anger in the Family
Sometimes anger arousal in the family context is in response to a true injustice—for example, infidelity, verbal or physical abuse, repeated instances of dishonesty and deceit, etc. In such instances, anger is an appropriate and justified response—after all, an injustice has occurred. Such instances, however, will not be the primary focus of this article. Let me simply say that in those situations in which anger is truly justified, Aristotle’s apt advice still applies: “Anybody can become angry—that is easy, but to be angry with the right person, and to the right degree, and for the right purpose, and in the right way—that is not easy.”

Unfortunately, anger often erupts within families when such instances of overt injustice have not taken place. Certainly, the person experiencing the anger feels justified in his or her interpretation of injustice, but it is arguable the case that often such an interpretation is not supported by reality. Over the years, as I spent many hours with couples and individuals discussing their angry reactions to various circumstances, I slowly began to identify six different thought patterns that frequently serve to activate anger. Each of these six thought patterns is unique in terms of triggering events that typically give rise to anger. Furthermore, each of these six is unique in terms of the thought patterns involved. However, what all of them have in common is this—they all have their origin in a personal sense that an injustice has been done.

In the remainder of this article, I would like to explain each of these six patterns of thought that give rise to anger. As we cover each one, consider how families often provide a rich environment for these thought patterns to be activated. Furthermore, as we discuss each one, I would encourage you to consider the extent to which each of them entails an actual injustice that has occurred.

1. Desire for Ease / Comfort
I was giving a talk to a group of about 150 Christian men, and during the talk, I used the analogy of a barge to describe a good man—for example, a barge doesn’t try to be flashy, it is patient, it’s never in a rush, and its function is to carry a lot. A couple days after the talk, I received an e-mail from a man who wanted to have breakfast. I had known this man for years, and we had even in the past discussed his anger issues, but a new realization occurred to him during this talk—he understood the source of his anger in a new way. What he told me is that he has never had any interest in living as a barge, but instead, his view for his life has been that of a cruise ship. He had come to realize during this talk that anytime his wife, or one of his children, did something that disrupted his peaceful cruise, he responded with anger. That was the primary source of his anger—his desire for ease and comfort.

How often does a mere inconvenience set a person off? Think of all the inconveniences that occur in a typical day in a family—the spilled milk, the toys strewn around the house, a missing remote, the bike left out in the rain, the ball accidentally thrown through the window, the fender bender that needs repair, the bowl that breaks as it’s accidentally dropped on the floor, the shoes left by the front door that you trip over, the dirty socks left next to the hamper, the misplaced keys, the lost purse. Mere inconveniences.

How often do people get angry with a slow computer, or a jammed copy machine, or an MP3 player that has stopped working, or a traffic jam, or a car that won’t start? Mere inconveniences. And what about all those repetitive, routine, and mundane tasks that are an inherent part of family living—vacuuming, dusting, garbage, mowing the lawn, dirty diapers, dirty dishes, dirty bathrooms, etc.?  Mere inconveniences.

Even a brief trip to the grocery store provides numerous opportunities for anger: the grocery cart has a defective wheel, someone leaves their cart in the middle of the aisle, the lines are long because there aren’t enough checkers, the person in the express lane in front of you has too many items, someone pays with a check. Mere inconveniences.

When we get angry, it’s because of a perceived sense of injustice. When an inconvenience occurs, our self-talk essentially says:

• “Why is this happening to me?
• I don’t want to have to deal with this.
• This isn’t fair.”

These automatic thoughts trigger the anger, but underneath these thoughts is a desire for ease and comfort—the thought pattern that life should be easy (or at least, easier than it is). When we believe that a life without hassles is what we deserve, then we are primed for anger—the everyday frustrations, annoyances, and setbacks are sure to set us off.

One additional clarifying point about inconvenience-based anger. Many people who get angry at mere inconveniences are inclined to use exaggerated terms to describe an event—for example:

• “This situation is awful.
• The circumstances of my life are terrible.
• I can’t take it anymore.”

The use of such “awful-izing” and “terrible-izing” terms act as kindling, ready to be ignited by an inconvenience. It is true that hassles are inconvenient (and, at times, even unfortunate), but they are normally not horrible.

2. My Way
Children will sometimes get angry when they don’t get what they want. Whether it’s a cookie, or one more cartoon show, or the desire to stay up later, they essentially want what they want, and if they don’t get it, it’s as if an injustice has been done. The same sort of thing can happen with us as adults. We can get a sense of entitlement—“I am entitled to a laid-back, relaxing evening”—and then, when a man’s wife has made other plans for the two of them, or his children need help with their homework, or the water heater goes out, he can go into a hissy-fit. Or imagine a night on which a husband has been anticipating making love with his wife, only to find out that she has had an especially difficult day—often such a situation will be met with a response of anger. As the English writer, Samuel Johnson, put it:

“Justice is my being allowed to do whatever I like. Injustice is whatever prevents my doing so.”

In fact, research evidence has indicated that this sense of entitlement is at the core of people’s anger with God. As we have all experienced, there are times in life when things don’t go the way we think they should, or the way we expect them to, or the way we want them to—for entitled individuals, such circumstances serve as a signal that an injustice has been done, and anger toward God will often follow.

There is another way in which this “My Way” pattern of thinking can trigger the onset of angry outbursts. This can be seen among those individuals who believe that they know what is best. Their thinking is sprinkled with “shoulds,” “oughts,” and “musts.” They are certain that they know how you should conduct yourself / how others ought to behave / how things must be done:

• “When I get home, you should give me time to unwind before you add one more thing to my day.”
• “People ought to get their children to behave in church.”
• “When you leave a room, you must turn off the lights.”

Such individuals essentially believe that they have a unique market on the truth, and if people in their life (e.g., their spouse, their children, people at work) would simply listen to them, then everything would go so much better. They really do believe that they know what is right, and when people contradict them / when people don’t listen to them / when people don’t do it the way they want it done, then obviously an injustice has been done.

3. Pride Is Pricked
When I was 40, I was coaching a junior high basketball team. In one of the games (in fact, a game on my birthday), my team was significantly on the short end of the score. As my frustration grew, I began to complain to the referees about the job they were doing, and as I did, one of the refs came over and said to me (in no uncertain terms):

• “Coach, you need to shut up. Now, get over there to your bench, sit down, and shut your mouth.”

Needless to say, I was upset, and as I got up in his face, I proceeded to respond:
• “If we are ever going to have a civilized society, then we are going to have to learn how to speak to each other in more civilized ways.
And I think we need to start with you. The way you spoke to me is not appropriate—that is no way for one human being to speak to another.”

I got a technical foul—in fact, by the time it was over, I had gotten two technical fouls, and I was summarily kicked out of the game. (Yes, I was a university professor and chair of the psychology department, and I got thrown out of a junior high basketball game—ouch!)

After the game, it took me a little while to settle down, and as I began to reflect on my response to this referee, I realized that at the heart of the issue was not that this “is no way for one human being to speak to another,” but rather, “this is no way for you to speak to me.” My pride had been pricked.

Unfortunately, this is a common trigger for anger in the family. Imagine the teenage son who questions his father’s authority, and receives this reaction from his dad:

• “How dare you speak to me like that! Who do you think you are—challenging me that way? You have no idea who you’re dealing with, do you? Well, I’ll show you who’s boss around here!”

Or imagine the anger-activating thoughts that can occur during a heated discussion between a husband and a wife:
• “She has no right to talk to me that way!”
• “How could he say that to me—I don’t deserve to be treated like that!” “Who put her in charge? I don’t have to answer to her!”
• “I’m done taking his crap. I’ll show him—I’m just not going to take it anymore!”
• “If she interrupts me one more time, I swear, I’m gonna blow!”

In each of these instances, pride has been pricked—and anger has been triggered. While all the instances of anger that we have discussed thus far involve self-love, it is this type of anger that is especially rooted in our love of self. And as you might guess, this type of anger—an anger that is the result of pricked pride—is very resistant to change. When people feel disrespected or demeaned, it seems obvious to them that an injustice has been done, and therefore it seems only reasonable that a response of anger is warranted: “What else are you supposed to feel when someone disses you like that?”

Admittedly, there are cases in which something has been said (or done) that is truly unjust. However, when it comes to pride, we are especially inclined to interpret situations in our favor. As a result, when pride might be involved, special care is needed as we perceive, interpret, and respond to events in our lives.

4. Order / Peace
A woman I know, Lisann, grew up in a home that was in perpetual disarray. As she described it:

“Clothes were lying around everywhere, people were always late, the kitchen was a clutter of half-eaten food and dirty dishes left in the sink, the living room was a labyrinth of objects left where someone had dropped them, and the bathroom was a jumbled array of body wash, tooth paste, shampoos, hair treatments, and make-up. Everywhere I turned, all I found was disorder and chaos.”

Lisann was always quick to add (lest I get the wrong impression), “It was not that my family was in any way neglectful—it was actually a very loving home to grow up in—but it was just the continual clutter and disorganization that got to me.”

I have known several women (and men), like Lisann, who have grown up in what they have described as a chaotic environment. Many of these individuals have expressed to me their longing for a sense of contentment and peace. They have felt that because of the disorder that seemed to envelop their lives when they were young, they have been deprived of a calm and tranquility that they feel should have been theirs. I found that for many of these individuals, they came to associate peace with order—in other words, they came to believe that if they could get order in their lives, then they would find the peace for which they so badly longed.

I have affectionately nick-named such individuals “Ducks-in-a-Row” people—they work diligently to get all their ducks in a row and to keep them there. If all the ducks are in a row, then there will be order, and if there is order, then there will be peace. The problem is that in families (as well as in life), “ducks” are often inclined to get out of line—children don’t always keep their bedrooms neat and tidy, a wife may be negligent in getting out of the office on time, and ends up being late for dinner, children might leave the peanut butter and jelly on the counter, or a husband might leave his dirty dishes next to the couch when he heads off to bed.

One of the ways in which you can get the “ducks” back in line—and establish order—is with anger. If you simply get angry enough, people will get back in line, and the sense of injustice will be rectified, and what you believe is your rightful sense of peace will once again be restored.

There is a group of people who are especially vulnerable to “Ducks-in-a-Row” anger. They are the ones who have a “disease to please”—they struggle to say “no” to the many requests for their time and energy. Whether it’s because they want others’ approval, or they don’t want people to be disappointed in them, or they feel a need to earn affection, such individuals have not learned to set appropriate boundaries. As a result, they often feel out of control in the face of the many demands that are vying for their time and energy. “This isn’t fair” is their lament, as they try to restore a sense of order to their lives. Unfortunately, such situations often emerge from a chaos of our own making.

5. Emotional Bruises
Imagine that someone begins to pound on your thigh with his or her fist. Imagine that this happens not just a few times, but a hundred times, and as it continues, the result is a massive black and blue bruise covering much of your thigh. Reasonably, this bruise would be very sensitive to the touch, so much so that even an accidental hit could trigger a very strong reaction. Emotionally speaking, this is exactly what has happened to innumerable people during their lives.

Mitch was a man who longed for his father’s approval and affirmation. In Mitch’s words, “No matter what I did, I could never seem to please my father. He was always criticizing me for one thing or another. Whenever I did my chores around the house, he never seemed to appreciate what I did well—all he could do was point out the ways in which I could have done things better. I was a good athlete and a good student, but it never seemed to be good enough for him. Once when my report card showed five As and one A-, he wanted to know why I didn’t get straight A’s.”

Mitch ended up with a “bruise”—he never felt good enough, never felt appreciated—and the resulting emotional sensitivity nearly destroyed his marriage. Mitch regularly over-reacted to situations in his marriage—for example, each time Mitch’s wife would suggest that he do something differently, it was as if she had hauled off and clobbered him. Understandably, given his emotional bruise, Mitch would react with anger. First, he would lash out in an angry tirade, and then he would be cold and distant for the next several days. As a result, Mitch and his wife found themselves in a troubled marriage that alternated between superficial conversations and periods of angry reactions.

For most people, it is in our most intimate relationships (especially family) that we hope to feel respected, appreciated, cared for, good enough, safe, and lovable. It is here that we hope to have these needs fulfilled, and, therefore, we are inclined to open ourselves to another in new ways. Unfortunately, since there are no perfect partners (even though we sometimes idealize them), the presence of a “bruise” can trigger painful feelings of being dismissed, ignored, neglected, deficient, vulnerable, and unlovable.

It is typically not the case that a loving partner sets out to hurt his or her spouse, but the presence of an emotional bruise can make it seem that way. A mere inadvertent event can trigger a sense of injustice. In each of the three cases that follow, anger is triggered by a spouse’s behavior. In each of these cases, the anger is real, and given the emotional bruises involved, the anger may even be a reasonable response. But in each case, the question can be asked: Is the anger legitimate? In other words, has a true injustice been done?

Jane had been preoccupied for several weeks because of all the demands of her high-stress job. It was not intentional, but nonetheless, her husband, Robert, felt that he was as unimportant to her as he had been to his parents when they divorced years earlier. He was hurt—and angry. Patrick had for years experienced demeaning and disparaging comments from his older siblings. In his marriage, even mild negativity from his wife triggered deep pain—and anger. Mary’s father had been an alcoholic. He was gone most of the time, and when he was home, he was not present to the family. Mary grew up feeling unloved, and unlovable. These feelings—along with pain and anger—were frequently triggered by her husband’s lack of attentiveness.

6. Cynical Hostility
Some individuals who struggle with anger are quick to jump to a negative evaluation of others. An event will occur, and they will immediately go to a global and pejorative assessment of the people involved. For example, the woman who finds herself in a long line at the checkout counter begins to think:

“It must be a bunch of incompetent half-wits running this place. If this is the best management can do, no wonder our society’s going to hell in a handbasket.”

Or imagine that the weather forecaster has predicted a small chance of precipitation, but nonetheless, the long-awaited family get-together is rained out:

“What an idiot. His forecasts are worthless. Why do they continue to pay a guy who’s that inept?”

Such individuals struggle with cynical hostility. They have a jaundiced view of others. They are inclined to question the competence, sincerity, and/or integrity of other people, and when they do, a cynical—and angry—reaction is predictable. They are quick to conclude that they are married to “a lazy, uncaring, and inconsiderate slug,” or that their neighbor is “a crude and thoughtless scumbag,” or that their child is “a lazy, shiftless free-loader,” or that their wife is “a selfish and self-indulgent witch,” or that the guy who just cut them off is “a rude and careless jerk.”

Cynical hostility is a cognitive trait that often intersects with each of the previous thought patterns associated with anger we have discussed. In other words, the global negative evaluations characteristic of cynical hostility could be triggered by an inconvenience, by not getting what one wants, by having one’s pride pricked, etc. In each case, cynical hostility will tend to exacerbate the perceived severity of the event, resulting in an angry reaction that is more extreme than is warranted by any actual injustice.

Pastoral Advice
Understanding the thought patterns from which anger often springs can assist us in giving appropriate advice to those we care for. Too often people who struggle with anger are encouraged to use anger management techniques. For example, they are encouraged to go for a walk and settle down. Such techniques only treat the external manifestations of anger, and they are notoriously ineffective. (I can tell you from personal experience that early in my marriage, such walks only served to fuel my anger—I became more convinced that an injustice had been done.)

Gregory the Great (in Pastoral Care) said:
“In vain is [anger] cut away from the outward branches, if it is retained in the root within, to shoot up in more ways than ever before” (p. 110).

Merely working to decrease the angry outbursts won’t be effective. If a person doesn’t also understand the roots from which their anger springs, then little real change in his or her anger will ever be realized. If we want to see anger decrease in the lives of those we care for (as well as in our own lives), then understanding the roots of anger needs to be initiated. And ultimately, the thoughts that feed anger need to be replaced with thoughts closer to those of our model, Jesus.As Teresa of Avila suggested:

“To the truly humble person, no injustice could be done to him.”

Dr. John Buri About Dr. John Buri

Dr. John Buri is a psychology professor at the University of St. Thomas in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Dr. Buri is active in the Archdiocese of Minneapolis and Saint Paul in their marriage preparation and marriage enrichment programs. He has been married (to his high school sweetheart) for 45 years, and he and his wife have six children, and 14 grandchildren.


  1. Wow! This was incredibly helpful and so thorough, Dr. Buri! Thank you! I’ve never analyzed my anger to this depth before.

  2. This is a great read! There is a lot of anger going around today, and I understand it much better after reading your analysis! Thank you, glad Big Pulpit linked to your writing.


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