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 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.