I recently read The Dance of Anger by Dr. Harriet Lerner, and I loved it so much that I’m going to tell you all about it. The book is directed toward women and addresses cultural expectations that affect women in particular, but I think the book is fantastic regardless of the gender of the reader.
A bit about tears made me think that the book is based on interactions with white women, but I imagine much of the information is applicable regardless of race. If you’re a woman of color with an opinion on the book, let me know what you think (if you want to), because I am very interested in what you have to say and whether you found the book helpful.
Here are some highlights.
The Guilt Connection
When guilt works properly, it tells us when we need to change our behavior. However, for women in particular, we sometimes feel guilt when we don’t need to, such as when we assert our own needs.
Unnecessary guilt is a sign that we need to get in touch with our anger. If we don’t meet our own needs, then we’ll likely harbor resentment or bury anger, which may explode out of us later.
Directions for Conflict
Dr. Lerner contextualizes her claims with feminism so that her claims don’t come across as anti-feminist, and I particularly appreciate that when she talks about how we need to express our anger. One of the core teachings of the book is that we often express our anger ineffectively — either keeping silent or raging ineffectively against a power structure that won’t adjust its behavior — thus avoiding the core issue.
While asking for what we want and need is important, Dr. Lerner asserts that ultimately, we need to put our anger energy into things we can do to change our reality.
The Dance Metaphor
Dr. Lerner’s metaphor for setting boundaries is that our actions in relationships are like a dance. We can’t change the other person’s movements, but we can change ours. Since the two of us are dancing together, the other person then has to adjust their portion of the dance. While the new steps they choose may not be what we want, we can use our own actions to set boundaries and meet our own needs.
The Underfunctioning and Overfunctioning Theory
The Dance of Anger talks about the underfunctioning/overfunctioning theory, which describes how in a relationship, people often underfunction or overfunction in accordance with society’s expectations or in response to other people.
For example, in heterosexual marriages, women are encouraged to overfunction with emotions and childcare and to underfunction in relation to personal goals. These expectations can make marriages unbalanced.
Fascinatingly, Dr. Lerner says that research indicates that when a man and a woman get married, they’re typically at equal levels of independence and emotional maturity. But over the course of the marriage, both partners tend to under- or overfunction in accordance with society’s expectations.
Applying the lessons of the book is a work in progress, but I’ve already noticed how a lot of my behaviors are ineffective.
For example, I realized that when something negative happens in my boyfriend, Jake’s, life, I tend to emotionally overfunction. If he doesn’t express emotions on par with what I’d expect him to, I worry that he needs me to encourage him to talk about his feelings because society encourages men to repress them.
I unconsciously expect him to react to situations like I do, but he doesn’t have the same inhibitions that I do. I feel guilty about feeling angry, so I like for other people to express that anger for me so that I feel safe to express my own and not doubt the “validity” of my anger. To me, emotional overfunctioning feels like being supportive.
But Jake doesn’t have that mental block, so my emotional overfunctioning doesn’t help him at all. In fact, if I were more upset or he were less emotionally savvy, then he might feel like he needs to be calmer in order to support me. And that’s the opposite of what I want.
The book talks about how our reactions to other people often worsen and perpetuate the problem, and it teaches better ways of expressing anger and setting boundaries. And she doesn’t do this in a victim-blaming or woman-blaming way. It’s refreshing.
Have you read this book? If so, what did you think?