Lerner - The Dance of Anger

The following are extracts which resonated with me. Any typos are dictation errors.

Our anger may tell us that we are not addressing an important emotional issue in our lives, or that too much of our self – our beliefs, values, desires, or ambitions – is being compromised in a relationship. Our anger may be a signal that we are doing more and giving more than we can comfortably do or give. Or our anger may warn us that others are doing too much for us, at the expense of our own competence and growth.

(As women) it is our job to please, protect, and placate the world. We may hold relationships in place as if our lives depended on it.

Anger is something we feel. It exists for a reason and always deserves our respect and attention. We all have a right to everything we feel – and certainly our anger is no exception.

There are questions about anger, however, that may be helpful to ask ourselves: What am I really angry about? What is the problem, and whose problem is it? How can I sort out who is responsible for what? How can I learn to express my anger in a way that will not leave me feeling helpless and powerless? When I’m angry, how can I clearly communicate my position without becoming defensive or attacking? What risks and losses might I face if I become clearer and more assertive? If getting angry is not working for me, what can I do differently?

If feeling angry signals a problem, venting anger does not solve it. Venting anger may serve to maintain, and even rigidify, the old rules and patterns in a relationship, thus ensuring that change does not occur. When emotional intensity is high, many of us engage in non-productive efforts to change the other person, and in doing so, fail to exercise our power to clarify and change our own selves.

Anger is inevitable when our lives consist of giving in and going along; when we assume responsibility for other people’s feelings and reactions; when we relinquish our primary responsibility to proceed with our own growth and ensure the quality of our own lives; when we behave as if having a relationship is more important than having a self.

Those of us who fight ineffectively are usually caught up in unsuccessful efforts to change a person who does not want to change. We may be so driven by emotionality that we do not reflect on our options for behaving differently or even believe that new options are possible.

This book is designed to help women move away from styles of managing anger that do not work for us in the long run. These include silent submission, ineffective fighting and blaming, and emotional distancing… The ability to use anger as a tool for change requires that we gain a deeper understanding and knowledge of how relationships operate… In a nutshell, we can learn how to use our anger as a starting point to change patterns rather than blame people.

If we do not learn to use our anger first to clarify our own thoughts, feelings, priorities, and choices, we can easily get trapped in endless cycles of fighting and blaming that go nowhere. Managing anger effectively goes hand-in-hand with developing a clearer “I” and becoming a better expert on the self.

Learning to observe and change our part in relationship patterns goes hand-in-hand with an increased sense of personal responsibility in every relationship we are in. By responsibility, I do not mean self-blame with the labelling of ourselves as the cause of the problem. Rather, I mean the ability to observe ourselves and others in interaction and to respond to a familiar situation in a new and different way.

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

Old moves, new moves, and countermoves

De-selfing means that too much of one’s self (including one’s thoughts, wants, beliefs and ambitions) is negotiable under pressures from the relationship. Even when the person doing the most compromising of self is not aware of it, de-selfing takes its inevitable toll. The person who is doing the most sacrificing of self stores up the most repressed anger and is especially vulnerable to becoming depressed and developing other emotional problems.

… Fighting per se is not the issue. What matters is the degree to which we are able to take a clear position in a relationship and behave in ways that are congruent with our stated beliefs.

Making a long-term relationship work is a difficult business because it requires the capacity to strike a balance between individualism and togetherness. The tugs in both directions are very strong. On the one hand, we want to be separate, independent individuals – self-contained persons in our own right; on the other, we seek a sense of connectedness and intimacy with another person, as well as a sense of belongingness to a family or a group. When a couple gets out of balance in either direction, there is a problem.

If two people become one, separation can feel like a psychological or a physical death. We may have nothing – not even a self to fall back on – when an important relationship ends.

If we are chronically angry or bitter in a particular relationship, that may be a message to clarify and strengthen the “I” a bit more. We must examine our own selves with a view towards discovering what we think, feel, and want and what we need to do differently in our lives. The more we carve out a clear and separate “I”, the more we can experience and enjoy both intimacy and aloneness.

All of us are deeply affected by the patterns and traditions of past generations even if – and especially if – we are not consciously aware of them.

Married couples and family members are especially prone to behave as if there is one reality that should be agreed upon by all. It is extremely difficult to learn, with our hearts as well as our heads, that we have a right to everything we think and feel – and so does everyone else. It is our job to state our thoughts and feelings clearly and to make responsible decisions that are congruent with our values and beliefs. It is not our job to make another person think and feel the way we do or the way we want them to.

Changing our own self can feel so threatening and difficult as it is often easier to continue an old pattern of silent withdrawal or ineffective fighting and blaming. And, finally, de-selfing is at the heart of our most serious anger problems.

Circular dances. When getting angry is getting nowhere

Opposites do attract, but they do not always live happily ever after. On the one hand, it is reassuring to be with someone who will express parts of oneself that one is afraid to acknowledge; yet, the arrangement has its inevitable costs.


The problem is… All the unresolved emotional intensity is likely to get played out in another important relationship, such as that with a spouse, a lover, or, if we are ourselves parents, a child… emotional distancing from our first family prevents us from proceeding calmly and clearly in new relationships.

(Maggie) alternated between seething silently, emotionally distancing herself, and finally blowing up. None of these reactions was helpful to her. Maggie was deselfing herself by failing to address issues that matter to her, and as a result, she felt angry, frustrated, victimised, and depressed.

Simply giving vent to stored up anger has no particular therapeutic value.

The degree of independence that we achieve from our own family of origin is always played out in the follow generation… although Maggie is not yet aware of it, the work that she did is the best parent effectiveness training that money can buy.

Using anger as a guide

If our goal is to break a pattern in an important relationship and/or to develop a stronger sense of self that we can bring to all our relationships, it is essential that we learn to translate our anger into clear, non-blaming statements about our own self.

(Karen) was afraid of transforming her anger into concise statement of her thoughts and feelings less she evoke that disturbing sense of separateness and aloneness that we experience when we make our differences known and encourage others to do the same. Separation anxiety is based on an underlying discomfort with separateness and individuality that has its roots in our early family experience, where the unspoken expectation may have been that we keep a lid on our expressions of self. Daughters are especially sensitive to such demands and may become far more skilled at protecting the relational we then asserting the autonomous I.

Karen had a long-standing pattern of attempting to restore the togetherness of her relationships by crying, criticising herself, becoming confused, or prematurely making peace.

In some instances, however, our problem is not the fear of clarity but the absence of it. That we are angry is obvious. But we may have little perspective on the I, as a result of focusing exclusively on what the other person is doing to us.

I used my anger to clarify a request based on my own personal wants, and not because I sought to become an uninvited authority on how Susan should best conduct herself. 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.

Learning to use our anger effectively requires some letting go… Yet this does not mean that we passively accept or go along with any behaviour. In fact, a live and let live attitude can signal a de-selfed position, if we fail to clarify what is and is not acceptable or desirable to us in a relationship.

If we feel chronically angry or bitter in an important relationship, this is a signal that too much of the self has been compromised and we are uncertain about what new position to take or what options we have available to us. To recognise our lack of clarity is not a weakness but an opportunity, a challenge, and a strength.

Up and down the generations

Few people are able to listen well when they are being criticised or told what’s wrong with them. Diagnosing the other person is a favourite pastime for most of us when stress is high. Although it can reflect a wish to provide a truly helpful insight, more often it is a subtle form of blaming and oneupmanship.

Who has the problem? is the question that has nothing to do with guilt or culpability. The one who has the problem is simply the party who is dissatisfied with or troubled by a particular situation.

If we do not use our anger to define ourselves clearly in every important relationship we are in – and manage our feelings as they arise – no one else will assume this responsibility for us.

Learning how other family members have handled problems similar to our own, down through the generations, is one of the most effective routes to lowering reactivity and heightening self-clarity. We are never the first one in our family to wrestle with the problem, although it may feel that way. If we do not know about our own family history, we are more likely to repeat past patterns or mindlessly rebel against them, without much clarity about who we really are, how we are similar to and different from other family members, and how we might best proceed in our own life.

Who is responsible for what

It is tempting to view human transactions in simple cause and effect terms. If we are angry, someone else caused it. Or, if we are the target of someone else’s anger, we must be to blame; or, alternately – if we are convinced of our innocence – we may conclude that the other person has no right to feel angry. The more our relationships in our first family are fused the more we learn to take responsibility for other people's feelings and reactions and blame them for our own.

We begin to use our anger as a vehicle for a change when we are able to share our reactions without holding the other person responsible for causing our feelings, and without blaming ourselves for the reactions that other people have in response to our choices and actions.

Women in particular have been discouraged from taking responsibility for solving our own problems, determining our own choices, and taking control of the quality and direction of our own lives. As we learn to relinquish responsibility for the self, we are prone to blame others for failing to fill up our emptiness or provide for our happiness – which is not their job.

Once a relationship is locked into a circular pattern, the whole cycle will change when one person takes the responsibility for changing her or his own part in the sequence… It is a position of dignity and strength that allows us to say to ourselves or others “You know, I observe that this is what I am doing in this relationship and I am now going to work to change it”. Such owning of responsibility does not let the other person off the hook. To the contrary, we have seen how it brings our separateness into bold relief and confronts others with the fact that we alone bear the ultimate responsibility for defining ourselves and the terms of our own lives. It respectfully allows others to do the same.

Learning how not to be helpful requires a certain attitude towards relationships and an ability to strike the right balance between the forces of separateness and togetherness. Learning how not to be helpful requires that we begin to acknowledge that we do not have the answers or solutions to other people’s problems.

There is nothing wrong with giving another person advice as long as we recognise that we are stating an opinion that may or may not fit for the other person.

Stepping back and allowing the other person to struggle with his or her own problems is not the same as emotional withdrawal.


… The work they each did with their own families was like money in the bank for Billy and his two siblings, because children are the carriers of whatever has been left unresolved from the generations that went before… Yet all of us are vulnerable to intense, non-productive angry reactions in our current relationships if we do not deal openly and directly with emotional issues from our first family – in particular, losses and cut-offs.

Tasks for the daring and courageous

It is not what you do or don’t do with your anger at a particular moment that counts. The important issue is whether, over time, you can use your anger as an incentive to achieve greater self-clarity and discover new ways to navigate old relationships. We have seen how getting angry gets us nowhere if we unwittingly perpetuate the old patterns from which our anger springs.

Begin to observe your characteristic style of managing anger. Pursuer, distancer, underfunctioner, overfunctioner, blamer..?

Remember that none of the above categories are good or bad, right or wrong. They are simply different ways of managing anxiety. You will have a problem, however, if you are in an extreme position in any of these categories or if you are unable to observe and change your pattern when it is keeping you angry and stuck.

If you are emotionally disconnected from family members, you will be more intense and reactive in other relationships. An emotional cut-off with an important family member generates an underground anxiety that can pop up as anger somewhere else.

If you are feeling angry, think very carefully about what new position you want to take before doing anything. By its very nature anger propels us into quick action, so guard against this. You will only fall on your face if you attempt to take a new position that you are not yet ready to take or that you have only casually thought through.

  1. Speak up when an issue is important to you. To simply let something go can be an act of maturity. But it is a mistake to stay silent if the cost is to feel bitter, resentful, or unhappy. We de-self ourselves when we fail to take a stand on issues that matter to us.
  2. Don’t strike while the iron is hot.
  3. Do take time out to think about the problem and to clarify your position.
  4. Don’t use below the belt tactics.
  5. Do speak in “I” language. A true “I” statement says something about the self without criticising or blaming the other person and without holding the other person responsible for our feelings or reactions.
  6. Don’t make vague requests. Don’t expect people to anticipate your needs or do things that you have not requested. Even those who love you can’t read your mind.
  7. Do try to appreciate the fact that people are different. If you’re fighting about who has the truth, you may be missing the point. Different perspectives and ways of reacting do not necessarily mean that one person is right and the other wrong.
  8. Don’t participate in intellectual arguments that go nowhere.
  9. Do recognise that each person is responsible for his or her own behaviour.
  10. Don’t tell another person what she or he thinks or feels or should think or feel. Remember that one person's right to be angry does not mean that the other person is to blame.
  11. Do try to avoid speaking through a third party.
  12. Don’t expect change to come about from hit-and-run confrontations.

Learning about your family

You’ll be surprised at how many things – birth order of aunts and uncles, marriage dates, causes and dates of grandparents’ deaths – you don’t know… The more you can enlarge your focus to a broader multigenerational picture, the less likely will be to blame or diagnose yourself or others... Most of us react to other family members, but we do not know them.

The less we know about our family history, and the less we are in emotional contact with people in our family diagram, the more likely we are to repeat those patterns and behaviours that we most want to avoid. Remember the old adage “What you don’t know won’t hurt you”?Well, research on families just doesn’t support that one!


Defining a self or becoming one’s own person is a task that one ultimately does alone. No one else can do it for you, although others may try and we may invite them to do so. In the end, I define what I think, feel, and believe. Yet this lonely and challenging task cannot be accomplished in isolation. We can only accomplish it through our connectedness with others and the new learning about ourselves our relationships provide.

Self-help advice can be bad for our emotional well-being if it ends up conveying the message that major changes can be made easily or quickly… many of the women described in this chapter has had the benefit of long-term psychotherapy to help them along.

Finally, self-help advice always runs the risk of fostering a narrow focus on our personal problems, to the exclusion of the social conditions that create and perpetuate them. This book has been about personal anger and personal change, but as feminism has taught us, “The personal is political”.