Summary: The Dance of Anger By Harriet Lerner
Summary: The Dance of Anger By Harriet Lerner

Summary: The Dance of Anger By Harriet Lerner

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The Challenge of Anger

It is never easy to move away from silent submission or ineffective fighting toward a calm but firm assertion of who we are, where we stand, what we want, and what is and is not acceptable to us. Our anxiety about clarifying what we think and how we feel may be greatest in our most important relationships. As we become truly clear and direct, other people may become just as clear and direct about their own thoughts and feelings or about the fact that they are not going to change. When we accept these realities, we may have some painful choices to make: Do we choose to stay in a particular relationship or situation? Do we choose to leave? Do we stay and try to do something different ourselves? If so, what? These are not easy questions to answer or even to think about.

In the short run, it is sometimes simpler to continue with our old familiar ways, even when personal experience has shown them to be less than effective. In the long run, however, there is much to be gained by putting the lessons of this book into practice. Not only can we acquire new ways of managing old angers; we can also gain a clearer and stronger “I” and, with it, the capacity for a more intimate and gratifying “we.” 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

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. If we try, we can end up in a relationship in which a lot of personal pain and emotional intensity are being expended and nothing is changing.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to change someone else. The problem is that it usually doesn’t work. No matter how skilled we become in dealing with our anger, we cannot ensure that another person will do what we want him or her to or see things our way, nor are we guaranteed that justice will prevail. We are able to move away from ineffective fighting only when we give up the fantasy that we can change or control another person. It is only then that we can reclaim the power that is truly ours—the power to change our own selves and take a new and different action on our own behalf.


Circular Dances in Couples: When Getting Angry Is Getting Nowhere

Emotional pursuers are persons who reduce their anxiety by sharing feelings and seeking close emotional contact. Emotional distancers are persons who reduce their anxiety by intellectualizing and withdrawing.

Emotional pursuers protect emotional distancers. By doing the work of expressing the neediness, clingingness, and wish for closeness for both partners, pursuers make it possible for distancers to avoid confronting their own dependency wishes and insecurities. As long as one person is pursuing, the other has the luxury of experiencing a cool independence and a need for space. It is hardly surprising.

When a pursuer learns to back off and put her energies into her own life—especially if she can do this with dignity and without hostility—the distancer is more likely to recognize his own needs for contact and closeness . . . and begin to pursue. But beware, this is no easy task. Most women who are emotional pursuers go off into a cold or angry “reactive distance,” which only temporarily reverses the pursuit cycle or has little effect at all.


Using Anger as a Guide: The Road to a Clearer Self

Learning to use our anger effectively requires some letting go—letting go of blaming that other person whom we see as causing our problems and failing to provide for our happiness; letting go of the notion that it is our job to change other people or tell them how they should think, feel, behave. Yet, this does not mean that we passively accept or go along with any behavior. 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. The main issue is how we clarify our position.

When we use our anger to make statements about the self, we assume a position of strength, because no one can argue with our own thoughts and feelings. They may try, but in response, we need not provide logical arguments in our defense. Instead, we can simply say, “Well, it may seem crazy or irrational to you, but this is the way I see it.” Of course, there is never a guarantee that other people will alter their behavior in the way that we want them to.


Tasks for the Daring and Courageous

Begin to observe your characteristic style of managing anger. Do you turn anger into tears, hurt, and self-doubt, as Karen did with her boss? Do you alternate between silent submission and nonproductive blaming, as Maggie did with her mother? We all have predictable patterned ways of managing anger and conflict, though they may vary in different relationships. For example, when conflict is about to surface, you may fight with your mother, distance from your father, underfunction with your boss, and pursue your boyfriend.

Give some thought to your usual style of negotiating relationships when anxiety and stress are high. Women are trained to be pursuers and underfunctioners with men except in the areas of housework, child work, and feeling work, where we may overfunction with a vengeance. Men characteristically distance under relationship stress and are excused, if not rewarded, for this style. Both sexes blame, but women may do it more conspicuously than men, and for very good reasons indeed. These reasons include our deep-seated anger about our culturally prescribed de-selfed and one-down position, combined with the taboos against recognizing and directly protesting our subordinate status, as well as our fear and guilt about the potential loss of a relationship.

In thinking about your own patterns of response, 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 one of these categories or if you are unable to observe and change your pattern when it is keeping you angry and stuck.

Begin to observe other people’s characteristic style of managing anger and negotiating relationships under stress. How does their style interact with your own?

Get as much practice as you can observing the interactional sequences in which your anger is embedded. That is, when things get hot, step back a bit in order to keep track of who does what, when . . . and then what. Observing is a skill that is definitely worth developing before you attempt to perform a daring and courageous act!

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