Ask a Counselor: What about anger overseas?

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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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:

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