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.


Guilt vs Shame

Uttering ‘I am ashamed about…’ was about as close as I got to shame. I never knew what shame really meant.  I think I substituted it for embarrassment.  Often, I used guilt in place of shame.  I learned the difference recently:

Guilt is the emotion you feel you have done something bad, made a mistake – gone against your values, beliefs, etc.  The behaviour is separate from the self.  Guilt can be positive and leads to sincere apologies and changes in future behaviours.

Shame is the emotion when you feel you are bad and not worthy.  You associate your behaviours with who you are rather what you do.  Behaviours become difficult to change or improve if a person sees the flaw within her/himself.  It leads to a fear that we are not worthy of love and belonging.

Yeah, I have a lot of shame, more shame than guilt.  Guilt can turn into shame.  Someone can attack you or repeatedly bring up things you have done and this can turn into shame even if you felt guilt initially.  How weird is that?

I realised that in my story that I recently wrote about in Worth (part 1) that Shame was along my side, enjoying the ride.  (Thanks to Kara for introducing me to the concept of FOG (fear – obligation – guilt) by Susan Forward and Donna Frazier)

When I was 10 years old I failed my first social studies exam of the year.  My mother was furious and she used FOG which led me to study for the next one only to disappoint her by getting a score of 98/100 because it wasn’t 100.  Since 10 years old and until I graduated high school (17 years old) I received really good grades.  Before this, my grades were marginal (mostly Cs and Bs and few As).

Somewhere during my school years I began to associate being a good daughter with getting As and being bad with Bs and lower.  Shame was there every step of the way.  It was shame that forced me to study not the love of learning.   And it was shame that brought me good grades which allowed me entrance into university and to get loans to pay for it.  Shame did me good, right?

I failed my first semester/term at university.

When I moved to campus, I was away from the FOG (fear-obligation-guilt).  My study habits did not stick with me when I was alone.  It was a hard first term and I pulled myself together because fear entered again – this time through the fact that if I don’t get my grades up I might not graduate and some companies don’t hire without a certain grade point average and ultimately that path lead back home (my greatest fear).  I wasn’t going back to the FOG.

Much (not all) of the shame I have stems from my experiences in FOG.  I often wonder if I ever felt guilt for anything I did at home?

And what about the Narcissist?  What’s the N’s relationship with Shame?

xx T Reddy