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What's Really Going on When You Get Angry

  • Chuck Ingram
  • Updated May 22, 2020
What's Really Going on When You Get Angry

I'd just had a very, very long, intense week. There were a number of early morning meetings and several "crises." It was just one of those hard, trying weeks. After a long day at work and an evening meeting, I was looking forward to getting home to be with my wife, Theresa. She's my best friend, my counselor. I really wanted to talk with her, to feel connected, to find out about her feelings and her day and to share with her some things that were going around in my head. I wanted to bounce some ideas off her, get her thoughts, find out how the kids were doing, and just be together. I was thinking how much I'd enjoy talking with her and how we'd perhaps have a cup of tea or cup of coffee. She'd give me a big hug and say, "It's okay. God's big and I love you," and all that other good stuff I want to hear. I was also thinking that I hadn't been able to spend much time with my son Ryan and he's always fun. I also knew that my little girl was excited about reading some new books and I'd hoped to get home in time to hear about some of them.

By the time I got home it was about 9:15 and the house was dark, very dark. Everyone was in bed. I tiptoed into the bedroom, thinking Theresa was probably just laying there in the dark waiting for me to come home so we could have this good talk. But she's not waiting for anything - she was out.

I went to Plan B and head for Ryan's room, but he's out. By now, Annie's been long asleep. I feel hurt. I feel lonely. I feel sad. I feel like I didn't get to process things. I needed someone for me and no one was there. My head told me that I can't expect them to stay awake all the time waiting for me, that they didn't know I really needed them that evening, but my heart ached, it hurt. But what did I do? I got angry. Angry at my family for not being there for me. Angry at my crazy week. Angry. I went to bed and took my anger with me. Over the years I have found that when I go to bed with a little anger, it grows. If not resolved before I sleep, anger grows.

When I got up the next morning and I still had that anger edge - but wasn't aware of it. I got dressed, walked out into the hall, saw my daughter and said, "Annie, go make your bed!" Theresa responded, "But, honey, she just got up."

"I don't care if she got up or not. Make your bed! And Ryan, have you done your chores yet, have you had your quiet time?"

"Dad, I just...."


Then I wrapped it up, "Hey, if the morning is going to be like this, forget it. I'm going to the office. I've got a lot to do."

I went out, got in the car, and shut the door. I was thinking, "No one appreciates me. No one is there for me." After sitting there fuming for several minutes I finally admitted to myself that I was angry. Then I remembered what I've been saying about anger being a secondary emotion and asked myself, "What's going on? Why am I feeling so angry?" I realized that what I was really feeling was hurt, loneliness and disappointment.

Then the Holy Spirit prompted me with that still small voice, "Well, what are you going to do about it, Chip? Are you going to just drive away and not deal with it?" Finally, after 10 minutes or more, I got out of the car and went inside. "Honey, I'm sorry I blew up at you this morning." And then I told her why, "I was feeling lonely and I needed you. I felt beat up yesterday and these were my needs, my hurts, and expectations." She turned to me, put her arms around me, looked me in the eye, and said, "Well, honey, maybe we could make time to talk today." (I'm thinking, "What a novel idea!")

Then I went to my son, "Ryan, I'm sorry I blew up at you. It wasn't you. It's just that I missed you so much last night that when you weren't here, I decided to make it up to you by yelling at you this morning. And so I'm sorry." (What a strange psychological phenomenon!) When I saw Annie, I said, "Annie, honey, you didn't do anything wrong. You just happened to be in the hall at the wrong time" and I went on to explain it as best I could to a child.

It's Easier to be Angry than to Face the Deeper Issues

What we need to understand is that anger is a secondary emotion, which hides a deeper or more sensitive issue. If we understand this point, we'll be well on our way to dealing with anger in constructive ways. When we feel angry, we need to ask ourselves "Why am I feeling this way?" Anger is not the first feeling to appear though it's generally the first one to show. Before anger, another emotion already existed.

Anger is Not the Problem, It's the Warning Light

Anger is like the red warning light that comes on the dashboard of your car. It is a secondary emotion  telling us there's a problem somewhere else. There's something wrong under the emotional hood of our life. There is something wrong under the spiritual hood of our life. There is something wrong under the relational hood of our life. Anger is a secondary emotion, it's not the primary one. We spend too much time trying to answer, "How can I get rid of this anger?" when we should be asking ourselves, "What's going on inside that's making me get angry?" Anger is the signal telling us there's a problem somewhere else. To fix it, we need to identify the root reason for the anger.

Three Main Anger Zones

The list of possible underlying emotions could go on and on. However, many of them can be grouped into three categories. Here is a quick overview of these common root reasons for anger.

Unmet needs.  As human beings we have a variety of needs: the need to belong, to have relationships, to be connected, to be loved, supported, and encouraged; the need for autonomy, space, independence, freedom of expression; the need to feel worthy, capable, and competent. When these needs aren't met, we feel hurt. When we feel hurt, we generally get angry. This anger may be directed externally at people, places and things or it may be directed internally and lead to low self-esteem and depression.

Unmet expectations.  When things don't go the way we want, we get frustrated. When plans change unexpectedly, when goals are blocked, when dreams are dashed and hopes abandoned, anger is fast on their heels. We develop expectations that set us up for disappointment because they are unrealistic or inapplicable to the person or situation.

When we feel threatened, anger may also be covering up our feelings of insecurity. Whether the threat is real or perceived, emotional or physical, we respond with anger because it helps protect or shield us. What is really going on when someone cuts you off or puts you down, ignores your input or passes you over? When our self-esteem is under attack, or our well-being in danger, we feel insecure. And when we feel insecure on the inside, we let anger show on the outside.

Anger is not the problem. Anger is the warning light that there is a problem -- a problem that needs our attention.

Study on your own

If you've recognized yourself in some of these descriptions, why not take some time to learn more on your own? Maybe you've never really thought much about anger, but this excerpt has prompted some deeper consideration. Here is a chance to do some inductive Bible study on some of the prime "anger passages" in Scripture. First, read the passage, and then write down your thoughts in response to the three questions that follow.

1)What does this passage say about anger?

2)What are the implications about my anger patterns?

3)What practical step might I take to grow through my anger, realizing that anger is a secondary emotion?

About the author: Chip Ingram is President of Walk Thru the Bible in Atlanta, GA, and Teaching Pastor of Living on the Edge, a national radio ministry.