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Meaningful Text Series: The Dance of Anger by Harriet Lerner

If there is one psychologist whose work has influenced my life more than anyone, it’s Dr. Harriet Lerner. And Dr. Ramani. And Dr. Eger. And Dr. Judith Herman. Ok, there are many. But if you don’t know who Dr. Lerner is, this podcast is a good place to start.

Dr. Lerner’s book The Dance of Anger (terrible title, wonderful book) quite literally blew my mind in the first chapter where she writes what I will share below in this week’s Meaningful Text(s): A Series I Made Up As An Excuse To Share Work I Love and That Moved Me, With You.

I was taught to believe anger is illegitimate, irrational, untrustworthy – and most of all – unattractive. There are historically relevant reasons for this that require understanding what anger is and how it works (hint: power, control, and change).

Dr. Lerner opens her book with no-bs and gets straight to it (bolding mine).

From The Dance of Anger, page one, chapter one:

“Anger is a signal and one worth listening to. Our anger may be a message that we’re being hurt, that our rights are being violated, that our needs or wants are not being adequately met, or simply that something is not right. Our anger may tell us we’re not addressing an important emotional issue in our lives or that too much of ourselves, 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.

Just as physical pain tells us to take our hand off the hot stove, the pain of our anger preserves the very integrity or our self.

Our anger can motivate us to say “no” to the ways we are defined by others – and yes to the dictates of our inner self.

Women, however, have long been discouraged from the awareness and forthrightness of our anger…Women who openly express anger at men are especially suspect. Even when society is sympathetic to our goals of equality, we all know that those “angry women” turn everybody off, unlike our male heroes who fight and even die for what they believe in – women may be condemned for waging a bloodless and humane revolution for their own rights. the direct expression of anger, especially at men makes us unladylike, unfeminine, unmaternal, sexually unattractive, or more recently – strident….

When a woman shows her anger, she’s dismissed as irrational, met with rejection and disapproval from others

Why are angry women so threatening to others?

If we are guilty, depressed, or self-doubting, we stay in place. We do not take action except against our own selves, and we’re unlikely to be agents of personal and social change.

In contrast, angry women may change and challenge the lives of us all…Change is an anxiety-arousing and difficult business for everyone…We too learn to fear our own anger, not only because it brings about the disapproval of others but also because it signals necessity for change.

We may begin to ask ourselves questions to block or invalidate our own experience of anger: Is my anger legitimate? Do I have a right to be angry? What’s the use of my getting angry? What good will it do? These questions may be excellent ways of silencing ourselves and shoving off our anger.

Anger is neither legitimate nor illegitimate, meaningful or pointless. Anger simply is. To ask, “Is my anger legitimate?” is similar to asking, “Do I have a right to be thirsty? After all, I just had a glass of water 15 minutes ago.”

Anger is a feeling and we have a right to everything we feel. It exists for a reason….The goal is not getting rid of anger, but getting clarity on its sources and taking action on its behalf.

Feeling angry signals a problem. Venting anger does not solve a problem. It maintains and rigidifies the old wounds and patterns in a relationship, thus ensuring change does not occur.”

💥. She goes on to explain how to clarify your anger and what to do with it (“clarify your position”). She also calls out the way “nice ladies” deploy insane levels of passive aggression to mask their anger (guilty) and why that doesn’t work either. Everything we are (or at least I was) taught to do to metabolize anger basically makes it worse or keeps you stuck forever pretending you aren’t angry when you are in fact, very, angry.

Lerner shows you how to break free and use anger in the way that it is meant to be used: to evoke change.

When you deny your anger, you deny your self.

It’s powerful stuff.

I recommend the audiobook because the narrator sounds like an old lady who still watches VHS tapes and has a landline with a chord. It is delightful. If you enjoy self-help books from the 90s and evidence-based nonfiction about psychology – you’re going to love Dr. Lerner.



PS: If you want to go deeper down this rabbit hole, treat yourself to some Audre Lorde who says this in her essay, Uses of Anger:

“And while we scrutinize the often painful face of each other’s anger, please remember that it is not our anger which makes me caution you to lock your doors at night, and not to wander the streets of Hartford alone. It is the hatred which lurks in those streets, that urge to destroy us all if we truly work for change rather than merely indulge in our academic rhetoric.

This hatred and our anger are very different. Hatred is the fury of those who do not share our goals, and its object is death and destruction. Anger is the grief of distortions between peers, and its object is change.”

Its object is change.


Read the Meaningful Text excerpt for Audre Lorde here.​

“Questioning ourselves for being oversensitive is a common way women disqualify our legitimate anger and hurt” – Dr. Harriet Lerner