Dr. Barbara Greenberg, Clinical Psychologist

I am so furious with my kids and husband not helping around the house that I’ve started to explode. Now everyone is hurt and resentful. What should I do?

Dear Barbara,

I am a working mom who is very frustrated with my family. I am angry that the kids are not helping around the house, not even cleaning off the table after dinner or washing their dishes. I am also mad that my husband doesn’t ever clean the house and leaves towels on the bathroom floor. I feel like I am in another century in which women did all the housework. I try to stay calm but lately I have gotten in a rage over this stuff and screamed at everyone in the family. I know they were shocked and hurt but I don’t know what to do with all the anger I am feeling.

Dear frustrated mom,

I’ve certainly heard about simmering anger from my clients, and I’ve written about it in the past. Certainly, anger can be a healthy emotion. It is a signal to us that something is not right. It can motivate us to check in with ourselves and our relationships and figure out what may not be going so well. In my consultation room, I encourage people of all ages to attend to their anger before it gets out of hand. If anger is attended to early on, it is significantly less likely to evolve into pent-up rage, which can destroy relationships and mental health.

Consider these scenarios:

  • Your friend takes at least two days to respond to your texts, and sometimes she doesn’t respond at all. You feel dismissed and hurt. You let this go for several months. Finally, you feel overwhelmed with hurt so you call your friend and bring up everything but the kitchen sink. You remind her of the time she didn’t send you a birthday gift. You then tell her that she doesn’t know how to be a friend. You go very low. Your friend is shocked and overwhelmed. She pulls away from you.
  • Your daughter hasn’t called you in weeks. You raised her as a single parent. You feel she should show gratitude now that she is an adult. You are so mad you can no longer contain yourself. You then call your daughter and tell her that she is an ungrateful brat. She is terribly hurt. She decides to reciprocate: She tells you that you are needy and critical and suggests that the two of you take a break. That is not the outcome that you were hoping for, is it?
  • Your brother forgot to call you on your birthday or even afterwards. You worked yourself up and made the decision to tell him how you really feel. You call him and give yourself permission to emotionally dysregulate. You tell your brother that he is selfish and uncaring. You tell him that he only cares about himself. He didn’t see this coming. He feels stunned and hurt—and he stops taking your calls.

In all three scenarios, the recipient did not expect to be on the receiving end of pent-up anger. Anger is best dealt with gradually, before it becomes pent-up in a way that is larger than life. Unloading built-up, scorching anger can hurt relationships in several ways.

Consider these five risks before unloading:

  1. Your friend may no longer trust you. After all, your rage seems to have come out of nowhere and she doesn’t know what else you may be sitting on.
  2. You may end up isolating yourself from a family member who feels betrayed and hurt. He or she may then decide to pull away from you.
  3. You may inflict more emotional and physical pain than you are aware of. In many cases, we are more focused on our feelings than on the reactions of others.
  4. You may not be prepared for this but your friend or family member may decide to retaliate. You may not be ready for their reaction. They may not even be prepared for their reaction. The conversation is likely to devolve from here.
  5. In the case of a friend caught off guard by your fury, you may lose the relationship entirely. Is this really what you want? Ask yourself this question before you give yourself permission to unload.

I have worked with hundreds of individuals on learning to deal more effectively with feelings of anger before they build up and become overwhelming. Here are five steps that have been clinically successful:

  1. Use a journal and write about your feelings of anger. This will help you understand both what triggers you and what your role in these situations might be. You will recognize patterns here. When you notice them, you will become better able to express your feelings of anger with clarity.
  2. Begin a conversation about anger gingerly. If you truly care about the relationship, it will be tremendously helpful to let your conversation partner know that. It is easier to discuss anger if you are clear that you want to repair the relationship. If you don’t care, then that is a different matter entirely.
  3. Listen to what the other person has to say and dialogue rather than monologue. You will have a much better outcome.
  4. Check in with the other person during the conversation to see how they are dealing with and understanding your anger. Don’t make any assumptions.
  5. Finally, keep in mind that you may actually improve the relationship by being honest and direct with anger prior to allowing it to build up into rage. Simply opening a conversation “I’ve been feeling very upset that you are not helping with the dishes and other chores and I’d like us to work this out” is more likely to lead to a better resolution.