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 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.


30 thoughts on “Book Review: The Dance of Anger

  1. HAHAHAHAHA That video is HILARIOUS! Thanks for sharing it. (And it shows exactly what we’re up against 😉
    Brilliant post TR. I loved the quote: ““Many of our problems with anger occur when we choose between having a relationship and having a self.” It’s so true, isn’t it? Acon’s are always faced with this dilemma when dealing with Nrelatives, because it isn’t possible to have both when it comes to them. That’s the realisation I came to – in the end – about my relationship with my sister. They just don’t leave any room for us. What doesn’t help is that in a Nfamily the feeling of anger is not allowed to be expressed and that’s why it takes so long to work out that it’s there -underneath the feelings of depression -. In my FOO, the expression of anger was “used” as a tool by my father to get us to behave or be quiet, but it was never a real feeling. Real anger is, how you very well explain in the post, like a fire alarm: is there to let us know something is WRONG, and we have to do something about it.
    Kara xx


    • “Acon’s are always faced with this dilemma when dealing with Nrelatives, because it isn’t possible to have both when it comes to them. ” This is a very good way of putting it, Kara.
      Great review, TR. And thanks for sharing. It gave me a lot to think about.


    • Thank you. So true, the video is a reminder of what we are up against, I love the last line! Indeed, we are faced with the dilemma: how do we get our ‘self’ back. ACoNs have seen the repercussions of doing so. Lerner talks about the repeated ‘change-back’ moves the other family members will make when we define our sense of self. She doesn’t focus directly on dysfuctionality although from the examples she had a number of clients dealing with one. Lerner does take a stance on dealing with the FOO (even dysfunctional) and although I don’t entirely agree with her thoughts on this, her message about anger was insightful when it comes to improving how we express it to someone (we can have relationship with) and discovering what that bottom line is for each of us.

      You bring up a good point of how anger is used in dysfunctional families. I agree anger is one that is fundamentality ‘deactivated’ in the dysfunction. Either it is only allowed with certain members or not at all. It is the one emotion, imo, that gets a person to change their situation. And, as we know, the dysfunctional family is all about maintaining the status quo. It really helped me see how very little change my FOO and my in-laws want and embrace – even when it comes to stuff that changes in society naturally.

      You hit it on the head, “is there to let us know something is WRONG, and we have to do something about it.”

      Hugs, TR


  2. Hi TR, wonderful post. I was driven into therapy twenty-eight years ago by anger that was becoming soul-destroying. I think I read Dance of Anger then, and it was the single most clarifying and helpful book I’d ever read to that point. Her concept of anger resulting from chronic “de-selfing” was a big Aha moment for me. That book was the first inkling I had that my anger was legitimate, that it served a purpose, and that I needed to work on myself. It was shortly after that that I began therapy, and wrote that “letter from 1986” to my mother. Lerner also talks about how the moment you stop habitually de-selfing, the moment you establish boundaries, everyone in your FOO will start the “change-back” testing. Brilliant review of this book, which began my long long LONG path to claiming ownership of a self.


    • Hi CS,
      Thank you and thank you for sharing your thoughts on the book. It was so interesting that although Lerner doesn’t use words like dysfunctional or enmeshment, there is such a strong message about anger to ones that have grown up in such an environment – the constant de-selfing, indeed!

      I felt like that too. It helped me investigate the purpose and I needed to find out what that message was in myself so that I could communicate it better. Your letter is a great example of that.

      Yes, exactly! The change-back manoeuvres. Right now, I am dealing with a lot of anger towards my in-laws and because of this book I learned that it is a response to expect (which knowing it up front helps in a way) and when I addressed my anger towards DH, he pulled a change-back manoeuvre. It was really interesting, in that respect, to see what she wrote play out in real life. xxTR


  3. Great review and thank you for bringing this “Classic” to the forefront. Considering it took her 5 yrs. to finally find a publisher speaks to her tenacity and belief in her own work.
    Confidence in ourselves as ACs was undermined from our earliest memories/experiences secondary to all the dynamics employed by our Cluster B/NPs through gaslighting, lying, parentification etc. On the one hand, we were treated as “Less Than” (human-not “dolls,” innocent, unique children with our own very real needs etc.) and on the other, “More Than” in that we were the Emotional and often practical “Sherpas” for the NPs completely self-absorbed focus and emphasis on Appearance over substance. Our roles (Scapegoat, Golden, Lost) were developed to support and maintain the NPs illusions.
    Why would we *not* be angry?! I agree it is not possible to have a genuine relationship with ourselves *and* with a CB/NP: The relationship allows *only* the NP to determine the nature as well as the parameters of the relationship. Lacking reciprocity, the AC becomes angry, frustrated, anxious, depressed as our “default” thinking/response appears to be in my observation, “What am *I* doing wrong here? How come Boundaries etc. aren’t working?”
    And we try harder, we engage in a great deal of introspection regarding how we can “make this work-somehow.”
    Which is one of the primary realms in which the NP work their particular brand of “magic”-keep the focus of responsibility for the relationship off THEM and on US. And we are ungawdly tenacious, eh?! NO ONE wants to limit or terminate the relationship with a parent. As you and other’s have experienced there is scant support for ACs which is even more infuriating and painful yet.
    As you wrote, anger is so powerful (ESPECIALLY) when we allow it to afford us the opportunity to “take a step BACK.” And note the NPs response to your “step back.” Very instructive in terms of personal self-reflection and often, yet more confirmation of what we “expect” from them in return: Typically, the NPs response is faaarr beyond your initial “crime” of behaviorally making yourself LESS “available” rather than allowing them carte blanche to your life, beliefs, thoughts etc. It’s an excellent opportunity to consider something that does not appear to occur to ACs: *WHAT is YOUR PERSONAL BOTTOM LINE?* What are *you* willing to tolerate etc. to have a relationship (which will not be reciprocal) with your CB/NP? In my experience this required some blistering, unvarnished self-examination in the light of REALITY, not endless “hope” and wishful thinking. Yes, my own ego was involved here-neither “good” not “bad” but I continued the relationship long beyond it’s expiration date. As an adult I would not have allowed the same behavior to fly I “allowed” with my walking Cluster B “Mother” which was based most fundamentally on shared DNA, the dynamics of growing up Cluster B “parented” and societal expectations. < This was the result of determining my personal Bottom Line.
    Anger was instrumental in allowing me to engage in introspection, make behavioral changes to limit her ability to reach out and poke me at her onus (this "limit" did NOT go over well!) and ultimately terminate the relationship. As painful as it was to acknowledge, my presence was NOT "helping" EITHER of us; consequently, my absence wouldn't hurt-EITHER of us. Did she scream, stomp her feet and throw a tantrum? Of course. Not my problem or my responsibility: In reality, it never had been.
    I was no longer angry. I was sad, yes: To genuinely acknowledge my own experience, truth and reality placed the responsibility on me to accept what was and is, and act on those realities.
    This is a very personal, painful and often lonely experience. Anger is instrumental in allowing us to find our own True North and act on our lifetime of experience with our CB/NP.
    Life was never IMO meant to be a Life Sentence.


    • Hi TW,
      Thank you. You bring up great points about reciprocity and responsibility. Anger plays very much into reciprocity. How much are we willing to ‘give’ until we have had enough. Anger is that signal and often that message is hidden and hard to clarify for ourselves for the mere reason we were not allowed that type of exploration because of fulfilling the ‘role’ prescribed by dysfunctional parents. To what you say about allowing us that opportunity to figure out what we need of a relationship is what makes anger purposeful.

      The responsibility and what is our ‘share’ is a point I too took away from the book. How we can take on responsibility for another person, even by being angry for them. We assume so much that part of the purpose of anger is to establish the part that is only us – the part we can change and deal with. We can’t have a self if we take on the another’s responsibility. This is a very good point you highlight from her book.

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts. xxTR


  4. I read this book some time ago, and it was nice being reminded of its important lessons. One of the key ones is one you mention: that the focus of the anger often is on the “other” when the battle is really for self. That was crucial to me going NC because getting pissed off at my mother wasn’t improving my own self worth. I’m still angry, but it tends to be more about how what was done to me by my NM affects present day and redirecting he energy from that anger into some sort of positive change within myself.

    Thanks for the reviews! I may need to pull this one off my bookshelf for a second read.


    • Hi PV,
      Thank you for sharing you thoughts, love hearing from others who have read the books. I know what you mean about the anger about realising what happened with our mothers. I agree, that can fuel changing the status quo that was there. That is the positive element of it. xxTR


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  6. I adore the little video – I’ve just played it 3 times and each time, I laugh hysterically – can’t even tell you how many times I’ve had this conversation! I haven’t yet read The Dance of Anger, but after this review, it’s on my list. I’m so grateful for the anger that finally propelled me out of my crazy NFOO, which allowed me to discover who I really am.


    • It is hysterical. Exactly! So many conversations are like that. Glad to hear the journey is going well and thank you for reading and commenting. xxTR


  7. I am still laughing over the video and I watched it last night! People who refuse to ADMIT they are angry, are the angriest of all. You know they’re angry because they’re the ones with a pasted smile stretched tight over the teeth they want to sink in someone’s neck. It’s like they’re guarding their teeth with a positive smile. Oh, I truly dislike talking to people whose lives are a total wreck yet insist on being optimistic ‘cuz otherwise, they’re inviting negativity. They already have enough negativity in their life to defeat Pollyanna! So I think their optimism is a rigid defense against reality. I prefer growling when I’m angry rather than taking a chunk out of someone’s hide when “the biter” or “the bitten” least expects it.

    All joking aside, I used to ‘hide’ my anger because it wasn’t ladylike, yet blaming myself for being “inadequate” was. (??#!%&?) I was also afraid of my anger because I didn’t know how to safely express anger without hell fire-and-brimstone raining down upon my head. The more comfortable my anger became (after a therapist told me it was NORMAL and gosh I was incredibly nice considering what I’d been through), the less fearful it was to be angry. The less self-blaming I became. This was a really great post triggering all kinds of thoughts and feelings for me…thank you, TR!


      • Hi CZ and CS,
        Seriously, CZ, have you met my in-laws? They don’t believe they are angry and worse when I express it, I get “don’t say anything” comment to silence it. Hahaha, love the growling comment, their angry comes out when you least expect it, out of context and disproportionate to the situation. Oh no, but they do everything exactly right!

        Such a great point about women and anger and it is amazing how overt and covert it is to keep a woman’s anger silent while she blames herself silently. Don’t get angry, be guilty! seems to the motto. Anger is scary to me and it helps that you share your experience with it. It is scary because I want to express healthily and I don’t know how (and this book help put me in the right direction) and that it helped me realise how much anger I have towards my in-laws and that it was anger I was feeling when I felt ‘weird’. Thanks for your comment! xx


        • Just re-read this post, and the thread, and it went even deeper this time around. How’s your summer going? well I hope!


          • Hi CS,
            The summer is going a lot better now. I survived my last FOO visit, I will write some stuff about it. I have some down time for the rest of it and looking forward to it – reading, doing nothing! How about you? xx


  8. Hi TR…..l love what you write here…..this gives me such an amount of stuff to think about. I have to think more deeply about this anger and guilt issue, though. My mother (and now 94) always fueled my guilt with her constant anger. I have always seen them as the same, or one leading into the other, and rather indivisible. Just the scowl on my mother’s face as she ate her cereal in her armchair would set the tone for MY day. I spent it wondering what in hell I had done now. But these are the terror tactics of Narcissists. Constant.

    I have been under the weather as you know for the past two weeks, and I don’t seem to be able to take much in right now, but this site I am definitely coming back to read again.

    Love, Jane


    • Hi Jane,
      You bring up a great point about how your mother fuelled your guilt through her anger. I think that is how it works in unhealthy relationships. We are so busy feeling guilty or shameful that we never get in tune with our anger, that signal gets dimmed down to such an extreme we don’t protect ourselves and then, we don’t learn how to use that signal to help us out in other life situations and relationships.

      Thinking of you as you recover. Thank you for reading and for your comment.

      Love, TR


        • Thank you, I’m doing okay. I think that I have made progress on this visit and I can totally relate, after the Xmas visit this past year, my DH was not enjoying dealing with me. So far, I haven’t gone into my ‘depressive/shut down’ state as I immediately got back to e-mails and blogging – we will see how the week progresses. 🙂


          • ACK. OK, so you went to a FOO visit. I’m so glad you didn’t go into immediate “shut down” mode. I know the feeling well, the deflations that used to happen. They don’t really anymore, not with me. A few days at most. My recovery time from encounters with Narcs has really shortened significantly. I give ALL the credit for that to the conversations I’ve been having with you guys these last two years, and the way we “keep each other company.” xo CS


  9. I think you have built upon what you have learned over the past year and I think you are doing great! I had to laugh…that depressive/shut down state….well, I did the depressive, but I never shut down or shut up! lol! My husband wanted to kill me after each visit to the Monster-Mother.

    But, I have SLOWLY learned a lot in the last few years. There came a point where I just couldn’t absorb any more ‘facts’ about narcissism and narcissists. I decided that my head would probably explode. I danced around so much for so many years, until I really got sick of myself and especially of them….the foos. I had to go NC because I knew that they wouldn’t deal with me as a human being. I was nothing to them…..a piece of sub-human garbage.

    I have also in the last few years started to fight back against this attitude of former ‘friends’ or even strangers. I have a lot of boiling rage inside and it has served a purpose. Mostly. Yes, I’ve gone through a list of ‘relationships’ and cut them out of my life with a sharp sword. I am seeing that that anger had a purpose: when I was almost numb with the abuse, the anger was actually a warning beacon: “you don’t have to suffer this shit’. But it took a long time to get from my gut to my head.

    We are wounded warriors. We will always carry scars. But by stepping out of the arena of the narcissist, we can see that they and their folk don’t control the world, and they don’t have to control our precious lives. I will get that book this week. And I am not so concerned that I don’t ‘play the lady’ in this struggle. A sharp sword will do nicely, LOL!



  10. “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.” This just spoke to me. This was a great review to read…I will definitely be downloading the Kindle sample to try it for myself. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

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