underneath anger.

This month’s Synchroblog is centered on Anger. Here’s the description: “Anger sometimes has a bad reputation. Some of us have been taught that anger is a negative emotion, something that should be squeezed out, prayed through, avoided.  Others of us have been raised in families and churches that never allowed for expression of anger so we have no concept of what “healthy anger” even means.  What do we think God thinks of our anger? What do we think of it?  What are you learning about it? What’s hard about it? Where does God fit in to it?  What do you want to say about it that needs to be said?

I’ve written about it here and there over time, sharing that it’s not a sin and part of healthy grief and important to recognize in nonviolent communication. Mostly, though, it’s just been weaved through all kinds of blog posts and in Faith Shift in different ways related to strong feelings about the church and systems and injustices and real-life.

I used to be so afraid of anger.

As a good Christian woman, anger was definitely considered a sin and something to be avoided at all costs. And because I couldn’t talk about it freely or express it in a safe place, I did end up sinning. When my kids were little I remember being filled with rage at them when they acted up in public or disobeyed me in a way that felt humiliating and it came out in horrid angry bursts that would always end with me feeling ashamed, certain I would never let myself sink that low again. What I discovered, though, is that other friends were struggling with some of those same feelings, too, but were afraid to talk about it. But when we said it out loud, some of the ugliness dissipated.

What I kept learning is that even though anger was the thing on the surface, the forces driving it were feelings of fear and shame.

When I started my free-fall out of traditional church and a painful faith shift, I couldn’t keep the anger I felt about church and leadership stuff contained any longer. One of the best things I ever did was let myself stay with my anger–really stay with it. Eventually, like a wave, it rolled over me and subsided. It took a longggg time, and oh, it was so hard for me to do. I felt guilty for being mad. Stupid. Immature.

Really, I was finally just being honest–with myself, with others, with God–about a lot of things brewing underneath.

It was–and still is–so hard for me to be that vulnerable.

But I keep learning that anger is a very healing and propelling emotion. 

Less than 2 years ago, a dear friend brought the tool and practice of nonviolent communication to The Refuge. I am so grateful for (and completely annoyed by) the power of nonviolent communication. One of the things I love about it is that it takes us beyond feelings to what is going on underneath–our needs.

Needs are beautiful.

They are what we value. What fuels us. What drive us. What helps us thrive.

And in the same way I was taught in a lot of my family and church experiences not to have negative feelings, I was also taught not to have needs.

Wasn’t Jesus all we really needed?” “It’s not about me, it’s about Him.” “It’s not about what I want, it’s about what He wants…or they want.” “If I were stronger, more faithful, more ______, I wouldn’t expect or need that.” Oh, goodness gracious, these messages are a whole other conversation, but this kind of jacked up theology can really mess with our ability to become healthy & free human beings.

Underneath the feelings of anger is usually an unmet need.

One of the best skills I learned in nonviolent communication is recognizing jackal words. These are words that describe how we are feeling (and help me better articulate what’s leading to anger) but in interpersonal communication probably won’t be that helpful because they point the finger. For example, “abandoned” is a jackal word. I used to use it all the time and it is an honest word to help me articulate what I’m feeling (sometimes I write long rambly diatribes or vent to a safe person using tons of jackal words to help get them out). But when I tell my friend, “I feel abandoned,” it is a set up for, “You abandoned me” instead of owning what might be going on underneath, like feeling terrified, sad, frightened, or lonely. 

Those are far more vulnerable feelings.

And far less threatening in relationship.

But what’s most important isn’t just the feeling.

It’s the need underneath these feelings.

Underneath those feelings of terrified, sad, frightened, and lonely is the need for nurturing, connection, belonging, support, and caring.

Usually, my anger is an indication that some of what I value and need and thrive on has been compromised.

When it comes to issues of injustice, there’s a need or value underneath (and it’s beautiful).

When it comes to personal relationships or our struggle with ourselves, there’s a need or value underneath (and it’s beautiful).

Here’s a whole chart of jackal words and a chart of feelings and needs.

We each probably connect with some more than others.

Overall, they have helped me begin to expand my anger repertoire and allow myself to actually get to the real juice that’s fueling it.

Oh, so that’s what might be going on underneath it all…

So much transformation can come when we get in touch with what’s going on underneath anger and own these needs instead of resist them.

It’s not an easy task. It definitely does not come naturally for me, and I know I have only scratched the surface of so much. But I also know a piece of my ongoing work as a person, a wife, a mother, a friend, a pastor, an advocate, is to practice allowing myself to be angry–and then look deeper to see what’s really going on underneath.

What are you learning about anger? 


Here’s a link list of other bloggers writing about anger this month; check them out:

Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar is dedicated to creating safe and brave spaces for transformation and healing in real life, online, and outside. She co-pastors at The Refuge, a hub for healing community, social action, and creative collaboration in North Denver, co-directs #communityheals, a non-profit organization dedicated to making spaces for transformation accessible for all, and is the author of Practicing: Changing Yourself to Change the World, Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.


  • Kathy – this is was SO good! My college students and I are continually blessed because you share your journey. Thanks for doing the hard work of thinking, being transparent, growing, writing, and sharing. You are a blessing!!! May His grace and peace be abundant in your life!

    • it’s so fun having you here from afar. thanks for your words of encouragement from across the miles. glad you guys are processing some of these things together. love hearing that.

  • Thought provoking – thank you – love the idea of ‘jackal words!’
    Anger, and strong feelings of any kind, were absolutely frowned upon in my childhood home – unless of course it was my parents anger! Needs likewise. I too have had to learn to identify and name my strong feelings and come to terms with the needs that provoke them; not easy when the brakes of childhood still slam on whenever they try to arise!

    Are you suggesting that expressing those underlying needs is more productive than just sharing the way you feel? My experience, especially in a church setting, is that owning any unmet need is generally met with the pious response, ‘only God can meet your need!’

    • oh i love that line “not easy when the brakes of childhood still slam n whenever they try to arise!” totally relate. i think sharing how we feel is the first step for sure–and is sooo hard for me at least and so many others i know. just saying that at some point, looking underneath those feelings to the need can be even more vulnerable but healing. that the feelings are indicators that need to come out for sure but there’s always something underneath. and oh goodness, the needs thing is so vulnerable and can only happen in really safe relationships and spaces, where no one would ever trivialize it with such lame spiritual platitudes that are so hurtful and shame-filled. thanks for sharing!

      • Ah ha! Somehow I’d failed to see the shaming side of that sort of remark – so helpful. Thank you kathy x

  • So valuable again, Kathy. I’m glad you linked to the synchrobloggers also. I’ve just read Michael Roden’s so far, and it is great! So I commented there and wrote a short post of my own linking to both your post and his. It happens I’m about finished with “Jesus Against Christianity: Reclaiming the Missing Jesus” by Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer. SOOO clear and compelling re. God (as well as Jesus) as nonviolent!

    And the lack of occasion for anger in God is the basis for this truth which is either not deeply believed, or not at all by most Christians… because the Bible speaks so often of the wrath and violence of God. But it’s not really that hard to figure out why… just hard for most people to accept, given our OWN propensity to anger and the desire for revenge (or “justice”) it often leads to.

  • Kathy, thank you for what you do. I am new to your community. My husband & I, in all honesty, have been trying to make a faith shift for some years now, but we are just now finding the people and resources to help us in this. I decided to start going through your ex-good-christian-woman tagged blogs. When I saw this one, it was at the top of my list. When you spoke of your “rage” when your children would act out, I saw myself. It has been the hardest thing for me as a parent, I have felt anger and rage in ways I never knew I was capable of. I see the beginning of it coincide with painful circumstances in our life and the lack of support and community we longed for from our church. I know that they go hand in hand, I have felt so horrible for what my children have received from me. I know this journey is going to be painful, but I cannot begin to tell you how thrilled I am to find the type of “support” and “knowledge” I have been longing for through people such as yourself.


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