Dance of Anger, Dance of Fear: Harriet Lerner

We cannot make another person change his or her steps to an old dance, but if we change our own steps, the dance no longer can continue in the same predictable pattern. Harriet Lerner, The Dance of Anger

Clinical psychologist Harriet Lerner is the author of several “Dance of…” books. Below are quotes from both The Dance of Anger and The Dance of Fear.

I. The Dance of Anger: A Woman’s Guide to Changing the Patterns of Intimate Relationships (1985)

The old anger-in/anger-out theory, which states that letting it all hang out offers protection from the psychological hazards of keeping it all pent up, is simply not true….Those of us who are locked into ineffective expressions of anger suffer as deeply as those of us who dare not get angry at all.

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 are unlikely to be agents of personal and social change. In contrast, angry women may change and challenge the lives of us all, as witnessed by the past decade of feminism. And change is an anxiety-arousing and difficult business for everyone, including those of us who are actively pushing for it. Thus, we too learn to fear our own anger, not only because it brings about the disapproval of others, but also because it signals the necessity for change. We may begin to ask ourselves questions that serve 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 can be excellent ways of silencing ourselves and shutting off our anger.

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 cutoffs. If we do not observe and understand how our triangles operate, our anger can keep us stuck in the past, rather than serving as an incentive and guide to form more productive relationship patterns for the future.

II. The Dance of Fear: Rising Above Anxiety, Fear, and Shame to Be Your Best and Bravest Self (2005)

It is not fear that stops you from doing the brave and true thing in your daily life. Rather, the problem is avoidance. You want to feel comfortable so you avoid doing or saying the thing that will evoke fear and other difficult emotions. Avoidance will make you feel less vulnerable in the short run but, it will never make you less afraid.

If there is one over riding reason why our world and relationships are in such a mess, is that we try to get rid of our anxiety, fear and shame as fast as possible, regardless of the long term consequences. In doing so, we blame and shame others and in countless ways, we unwittingly act against ourselves. We confuse our fear driven thoughts with what is right, best, necessary or true.

Men and women tend to manage shame differently. Generally, men have less tolerance for shame, perhaps because they are shamed almost from birth for half their humanity. The so called feminine part of themselves including anything vulnerable or seen as weak. Men often sit with shame for only a nanosecond before flipping it into something more masculine or therefore tolerable like anger or rage or a need to dominate devalue or control.

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