Book Review: The Dance of Anger

I recently finished the book, The Dance of Anger, by Harriet Lerner Ph.D. and at the same time it is celebrating hitting 3 million copies sold – Lerner discusses the book that took her five years to get published in a recent interview.

Overall, I found the book slow to read but full of necessary learning points about anger.  She does not focus on the psychology of the emotion and instead each chapter focuses on a clinical example to illustrate the message anger tells us.  Her lens is one of a woman and focuses primarily on the family (of origin and choice) and in the later section addresses anger in triangulation.

anger

“Anger is a signal, and one worth listening to.” ~Harriet Lerner, Ph.D.

Her opening line is her most quoted and one in which she illustrates how society, especially women, has subtly taught us to ignore this signal.  Often, with women, anger is met with rejection and disapproval from others.  Her stance is:

“Anger is neither legitimate nor illegitimate, meaningful nor pointless.  Anger simply is.” ~Lerner

To say anger is good or bad is not the point.  The point, like all other emotions, is that it exists and it has a purpose.  Therefore, it deserves our respect and attention.  The book’s main purpose is to understand and gain more clarity about its source.

“It is amazing how frequently we march off to battle without knowing what the war is all about.” ~Lerner

Gaining a clarity of ‘what the battle is’ is often the most challenging aspect of anger.  Anger is a powerful signal that is often unclear and requires further investigation.  We can spend enormous amounts of time and energy in endless cycles that won’t help us move forward.

“If feeling angry signals a problem, venting anger does not solve it.” ~Lerner

This was a hard pill to swallow.  I have often vented anger to my husband and here on this blog.  If venting allows one to reveal the source of the anger and gain clarity about why we are feeling it then, yes, venting can help.  Venting to vent will help maintain the status quo and perpetuate an endless cycle that will not bring about more clarification about the self.

“Anger and guilt are just about incompatible.” ~Lerner

In some dysfunctional families, guilt is the main currency and it is no wonder anger takes a back burner.  Lerner adds that guilt has to do with not giving or doing enough while anger is about not getting enough.  Guilt and self-doubt are blockers to being aware of our anger.

“Anger is a tool for change when it challenges us to become more of an expert on the self and less of an expert on others.” ~Lerner

This one sentence addresses a lot of what I took away from this book.  First, anger is the emotion that can lead us to make a change.  It can, when managed appropriately, be a powerful agent for personal growth.

The second message goes back to identifying the ‘battle’ we are actually fighting.  Anger often leads us to focus on the other person.  “She attacked me, she wasn’t empathetic, he wasn’t listening.”  But the source of the anger and the ‘battle’ we are fighting is about the ‘self’.  It is about taking responsibility for ourselves and often assuming less of the other person’s.

In any type of relationship anger becomes a struggle for the ‘self’ (the “I”) versus the ‘we’.  Anger is about my needs, feelings, thoughts, opinions, etc. not being addressed.  Disrupting the status quo of pushing my needs down while another’s is met brings about the conflict of honouring myself while having a relationship with another (the Narcissistic Dilemma).

Obtaining clarification of why we are angry (its source) has to do with the ‘self’ and our protection of our sense of self.  It is about understanding what our needs are in a relationship – not always evident right away.  Anger can be useful even if it only helps us take a step back to find that clarification about the self.

He doesn’t listen ⇒ I need to be seen and heard

She attacked me ⇒ I need to be respected and valued

She’s not empathising ⇒ I need understanding and comfort

So, when I wrote the ‘fake’ letter to my friend in anger (see post), it was all about her and her behaviours.  Instead of saying ‘she wasn’t empathetic’, I realised that ‘I needed my story considered, I needed my feelings and situation to be heard.’  This is what I needed from our friendship.  It may very well be an expectation that she doesn’t agree with and that tells me what my bottom line is.

After finishing The Dance of Anger, I read another book by Lerner entitled The Dance of Connection.  I found this book to be a nice complement and one where there were some practical ways in which to deal with someone when angry, hurt, etc. (more focused on romantic relationships but still applicable to other types).

The quote that best summarises Lerner’s The Dance of Anger:

“Many of our problems with anger occur when we choose between having a relationship and having a self.  This book is about having both.” ~Lerner

Further Reading & References

Lerner, Harriet Ph.D., The Dance of Anger;  Harper Collins Publishers; 2005.

Lerner, Harriet Ph.D., The Dance of Connection; Harper Collins Publishers; 2002.

For a bit of humour Karla McLaren shared this video.

 

Aggression and Passive-Aggression

Thank you to all the comments and stories from the the recent post about gift giving as they helped me understand more about my in-laws’ behaviors.  Shortly after, I read the book, Emotional Vampires, by Albert J. Bernstein, Ph.D., where he briefly discusses acts of kindness and gifts as a passive-aggressive behavior.

“Your BiL’s gifts to your husband went beyond passive aggression and entered the zone of ‘insult gifts.’” ~CS (@ Caliban’s Sisters).

gifts

It was hard for me to pinpoint what was happening when my in-laws’ gifts looked so harmless.  The nicely wrapped box with the bow on top disguised something all together more primal – aggression:

“To a psychologist, aggression refers to a continuum of thoughts and actions that have to do with imposing your will on the world.” ~Bernstein

Bernstein further outlines that at one end of the continuum are simple attempts to act in our own self-interest and at the other, assaultive behavior.  This continuum exists in all of us.  At one end, when I stand up for my needs by directly expressing them to the person I need it from that is a form of aggression (assertiveness).  But at the other end, I have thought of duck-taping my sister-in-law’s mouth to stop her from speaking and at really difficult times, I have thought of B613-ing her (for fans of the TV series, Scandal).  DH has said he has wanted to stick his foot out to trip his co-worker whom he can’t stand.  Most of us don’t act on this aggression, however enticing it is in our minds.  The one thing that stops us is ‘impulse control’.

On the other hand, passive-aggression involves poor impulse control of aggression involving two circumstances: (1) where there is conscious awareness of anger and aggression or (2) where anger/aggression is denied all together (thereby the aggression is not under conscious control).  Under both circumstances, the aggression is expressed indirectly.

With the first type, when I was angry at Lydia (former friend) I purposely did not capitalise her name when I wrote an e-mail to her but capitalised everything else – “I” and “TR”.  Yes, I did that consciously.  As for the later, I have realised (in hindsight) that I handle my anger poorly through selectively listening and in many other indirect manners (still discovering).

When it is regarding those that give until it hurts (you), the passive-aggressiveness is due to the later.  This type of severe denial is a form of splitting, where one accepts the loving and giving parts and denies the whole aggression continuum (a symptom of childhood abuse, as a child does this to protect against psychological pain of the abuse).

This denial which starts out as protective can lead to the belief that one has no inappropriate impulses to act on.  This law of nature, then, does not come to fruition:

“Everybody takes…Everybody wants something, and everybody gets angry at not getting it.” ~Bernstein

Continued denial of this is often found in people who behave consistently with the behavioral patterns of Passive-Agressive Histrionics.  Their giving may be sincere but they give and give and give until we get the hint that they want something from us.  They believe in the binding contract of quid pro quo: “If they do unto others, others are supposed to do back.” ~Bernstein.

“Gifts are either passive aggressive or have strings attached.” ~Kitty (@ Brave New Kitty)

The problem with the binding contract is that you are not aware that you are signing one.  AND the payback is more than you signed on for!  Reading the fine print is a must.

FiL said (about Christmas gifts): “I figured that will bring in dividends throughout the year, ya know.”

Bernstein wrote about pathological givers: “…, in their own minds at least, their accounts payable look great.”

How funny that Bernstein would use similar accounting terminology?  His true intentions with his ‘acts of kindness’ became more apparent with his neighbors at his retirement community:

When I helped FiL sort through MiL’s clothes (after she passed away), he wanted to give her ‘new’ clothes (clothes with tags still on, never been worn) to his neighbors.  The woman who got them was very grateful.  The woman said to FiL (paraphrasing): “Thank you so much, I have a wedding to go to and I needed something, let me know if there is anything you need.”  FiL immediately responded: “Just make me dinner.”  The ‘payback’ dinner was not only ONE dinner, I found out later that this had lasted once a week for six months.

Since FiL doesn’t believe in the law of nature that everybody takes, he has no conscious control of it and therefore, it is not under self-regulation.  He can only see the ‘good’ aspects of himself which are reinforced by his need to foster as much gratitude.

“…it seems to me that Ns want a lot of appreciation for their gifts and get angry if you don’t like them…” ~Kara (@ Through the Looking Glass)

A simple “Thank you” is not enough for FiL.  He is a master of highlighting what he does for us and others so often that the need to feel appreciated is exaggerated and when this exaggerated need is not met, he gets angry – passive-aggressively (like mentioning it over and over again).

“A passive-aggressive gift is a real crazy-maker. It’s an insult that requires the receiver to appreciate/thank the giver.” ~CZBZ (@ The Narcissistic Continuum)

That is maybe one of the most frustrating things about receiving gifts or help from my in-laws.  There are two conflicting feelings making us feel crazy.  The double message: they are actually taking (time, money, emotional draining) in the act of giving (often to others it looks like they give so much, reinforcing the double message).  Such double messages work well in dysfunctional families.  

“In fact, when they (dysfunctional families) encounter an adult who does not communicate this way, they think something is wrong.  Thus, they shy away from people who communicate in healthy ways, and in so doing, manage to recreate the dysfunctional system they grew up in.” ~ J. Friel & L. Friel

 Further reading & References

Caliban’s Sisters: Passive Aggression, a Primer

Otrazhenie Reflections: Be Assertive!

Related posts @IBC: The Give/Take Ratio — Summin’ It Up

Bernstein, Albert J., Ph.D.: Emotional Vampires – Dealing with People Who Drain You (2nd edition), McGraw Hill, 2012.

Friel, John & Friel, Linda: Adult Children – The Secrets of Dysfunctional Families, Health Communications, Inc., 1988.