Ask a Counselor: What about anger overseas?

by Kay Bruner on December 3, 2015

2946463887_d086c060ed_z“What are some reasons that missionaries struggle so much with anger? What are ways we can deal with it on the field? What are helpful things a spouse can do if the other spouse is struggling with anger?”

What is it with anger overseas?  Why do we see so much of it?

If we’re experiencing anger because of the “evil, injustice, and oppression” of the world, fine.  We should be angry about those things.  In cases like that, we can

  • figure out what’s our job,
  • what’s God’s job,
  • do our part and
  • let the rest go.

But most of the time it’s more complicated than that.

If “anger is a signal, and one worth listening to,” (Harriet Lerner, The Dance of Anger) we’d do well to learn to listen to the anger, so that we can resolve problems rather than just stuffing the emotion until it explodes all over everyone around us.

When I think about reasons that missionaries in particular might struggle with anger, four possibilities come to mind right away.

The first factor I think of is PROXIMITY.

For a couple of years, we lived on a big mission center inside a fence with about 500 other missionaries. There was one school.  One store.  One Sunday morning meeting house.  One health clinic.  One road to the outside world.  You couldn’t escape the one-ness without serious prior planning.  If you went away to Australia, chances were somebody else would be staying in the same one guest house we all used.  No matter where we went, those people were always there.

Forced proximity in and of itself can be really, really difficult, and it’s almost inevitable in families and teams overseas.  That can create frustration and outbursts of anger.

Proximity also means that we’re more aware of each other’s frustrations and outbursts of anger.  We can’t hide quite so much when we’re living up close—and, the stresses of others can spill over into the lives of those close to them.

Furthermore, it’s less threatening and more acceptable in missionary culture to be angry with other missionaries, than to admit we’re mad at God, the local culture, or our spouse.

Other missionaries can easily become the dog that we kick when we’re mad at the boss.


We have to be prepared to take responsibility for the toll of forced proximity in our own lives, with healthy self-care and good boundaries.  Getting outside of our small, closed circles on a regular basis can help us keep a healthy perspective on reality.  In addition, we have to keep track of our own emotional and spiritual processing so that we can take responsibility for ourselves, instead of  victimizing those in close proximity to us.

The second potentially anger-producing factor everybody has overseas: inordinate levels of STRESS.

As I was preparing to write this article, a friend of mine posted an article about the typically elevated stress levels that accompany a life overseas.


If we aren’t prepared for the reality of the stress levels of overseas living, if we don’t have a plan in place to mitigate that stress, if we’re over our boundaries and not caring well for ourselves, then we’ve got the perfect storm for outbursts of anger.


Be aware of anger as a warning sign of burnout, a signal that we are way past our boundaries and into unhealthy stress levels.

Be aware of your stress levels at all times.  Use an instrument like the Cerny-Smith Adjustment Index to track stress levels regularly.  Be willing to make adjustments as necessary to account for the ebb and flow of stress, and your need for recovery at various times.

Make sure you’re resting regularly (daily, weekly) and have frequent holidays that are actually refreshing and renewing.  Yes, this will cost you time and money, but your life and sanity depends on finding rest for your soul.

The third anger-situation I’ve encountered overseas:  DIFFICULT PERSONALITIES.

In my experience, missionaries are pretty independent people.  It’s not normal to leave your home country and your family and friends to go live someplace else for years or a lifetime.  It’s good to be independent in those circumstances, or you won’t make it.  The problem is, within that extra-independent missionary population are a few people who have taken it to seriously unhealthy extremes.  They may have personality disorders like narcissism or borderline personality.

Their supporters back in their passport country see the charming, impassioned, high-energy side of that person.  They don’t see the lack of empathy, the willingness to take advantage of others, the personal kingdom-building that takes place on the far side of the globe with an almost total lack of accountability.  People with deep-seated problems like this will lash out in anger at anyone who gets in the way of their awesomeness.

I have seen seriously abusive people build a fortress for themselves overseas, where they were able to victimize their spouse, children, local people, and many colleagues while looking like heroes to those in their passport countries.


If you’re on the receiving end of anger in a situation like this, good boundaries are your best hope.  You’ll also need to practice excellent self-care.  Victims can experience real, debilitating trauma in situations like this.  Minimize contact with the abusive person; separate completely if you are able.  Watch your functioning.  Are you able to do what you need to do each day?  If you find functioning falling off, seek help.  (Check out our Resource tab.)

A fourth possible explanation for anger is something called INCONGRUENCE.

When you’ve got incongruence, your messed-up insides don’t match your pretty missionary outsides.  When your insides and outsides don’t match, usually you’ll feel some shame about that.  And often, when we’re feeling very ashamed of ourselves, we’ll deal with that by blaming and being angry with others.

If you’re pretending like crazy to be super excited and happy about your assignment while wanting to leave every minute of every day, you’re likely to experience some incongruence, and you might find yourself lashing out at others in the midst of your wonderful life.

If you’re looking at porn while telling everybody back home how awesome it is to be teaching everybody overseas about Jesus, well, that’s a problem in terms of incongruence that will make you a pretty miserable person to be with.

Sometimes we don’t even know what’s really down there in the depths; we’ve just got anger on the surface.  If that’s happening, be willing to dig deep and face the darkness.

There is healing!  There is hope!  But healing and hope are never, ever found in lying to ourselves and other people.  The truth is what sets us free.


Radical honesty is the only way out of the mess of incongruence.  We need to be honest with ourselves.  We need to be honest with God.  We need to be honest with safe others.  Even if that means going home to get well.

If you’re not sure you’ve got an incongruence issue, ask yourself this question:  “What do I hope that nobody ever finds out about me?”  Then find a safe person and talk to them about your answer.  The more honest we are with ourselves, God, and others, the more congruent (and emotionally calm) we are able to be.

When it comes to talking about anger issues in marriage or another close relationship, here are some ideas.

  • Make sure you are safe.
    • Don’t “confront” a person who’s already been abusive. If you are unsafe, get help.
  • Have the conversation when the person is not angry, and when you are not angry.
  • Use a soft approach. “I’m concerned…”  “It feels to me like something is wrong lately…”
  • State the problem, offer help, ask for what you need.
    • “I’m worried about the level of anger I’m seeing in you lately.  I want to help figure out what’s going on.  Let’s both take the Cerny-Smith Adjustment Index, and then let’s talk about the results together.”
  • Be prepared to state boundaries and stick to them if need be.
    • “If you speak to me that way, I will leave the room.” “I will not be able to meet with you individually until I feel safe with you again.”

Resources for further reading

Boundaries, Henry Cloud and John Townsend

The Verbally Abusive Relationship, Patricia Evans

The Dance of Anger, Harriet Goldhor Lerner

Tell me what you think!

Proximity, stress, difficult personalities, and incogruence are four factors that contribute to anger issues overseas.

  • What other factors have you seen? Share in the comments.

In dealing with anger, I think personal awareness, good boundaries, good self-care, and honesty are a great place to start.

  • What else can you think of? Share in the comments.

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About Kay Bruner

Kay Bruner was born in Buffalo, New York and grew up in Brazil, Nigeria, and the wilds of Kentucky. She and her husband have raised their four children in Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, and currently reside in the great state of Texas. Kay is a Licensed Professional Counselor, and divides her work days between counseling and writing. She is the author of As Soon As I Fell and blogs at She is available for counseling at her office in Dallas or via skype for a reduced rate to clients overseas. For more information go to:
  • Elizabeth Trotter

    The Proximity — YES. The Difficult Personalities — YES. This is why missions (and families of origin) can be so stressful.

    I love how you acknowledged here that it’s possible we’re mad at God, but instead we decide to be mad at other missionaries (or in my case, at the surrounding culture). Not that there aren’t irritating parts about both! But that maybe we’re disappointed in God and afraid to voice it. I’m really tracking with you on that, because I think I tend to ignore when I’m mad at God and express it elsewhere, with ugly and unintended consequences.

    Also thank you for this idea about incongruence, it’s really illuminating: “What do I hope that nobody ever finds out about me?” Wow what a question.

  • I wonder about loneliness and isolation. I don’t normally associate it with anger, but it does create the potential for unfair expectations. Kay, I always really appreciate what you have to say. Thanks.

    • Yeah, I think our unresolved pain can turn into anger. Fear is another thing that lies in the depths and rears its ugly head as anger–I could go into social/political commentary here, but I’ll refrain 🙂

  • Anna Wegner

    “But most of the time it’s more complicated than that.”

    That sentence says a lot. We might be angry about oppression, but then we get angry at our teammate who (in our humble opinion) doesn’t take a strong enough stand against oppression. Sorting out what’s God’s job, our job, and what to let go is not easy, but so vital.

    Another anger producing situation I’ve seen is finding your identity in your work. Anything that doesn’t go well is personal, and if anyone criticizes the work or even suggests another way of doing things, that’s personal, too. Then you are angered by all the attacks on your person.

    One other thing is expectations (unmet, unrealistic, or differing). This could go under stress or difficult personalities. I know I’ve experienced anger over this.

    Education and prevention are so important. Time away from the intense, stressful situations is important. I think more people are realizing this, but not everyone. We were partnering with another organization who decided that people in an isolated “hardship” post type setting should be there for one year before taking a trip out for vacation or other time away. So unhealthy. Not surprisingly, the people who followed that left early and burnt out.

    In addition to the thing you mentioned to help, I would include working hard to anchor your identity in God. This would cut down on the problems with finding identity in your work. Also, it can help weather the storm of other things like difficult personalities, knowing that at your core, you are a dearly loved child of God.

    • Thanks, Anna. Those are great observations. Interestingly, the person who submitted the questions about anger also submitted questions about identity! Tune in for more discussion on that topic at a later date 🙂

  • Maggi

    Thank you for this. Very in depth. I appreciate it.

  • brooke

    Thanks for the details. I heard a great radio broadcast by Paul David Tripp on anger (goes back to April 2013 on Revive our Hearts) I remember how it talked about we get angry when things don’t go our way. We get angry because we think we can control the situation. When we realize that we are not in control of the situation and God is, that can help us view things differently.
    No matter if we are in ministry in our home country or another country, we must deal with people. People are flawed and have a sin nature, they will make us angry at some point. We must focus on the praiseworthy things and the Praiseworthy One.

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