I remember back to when The Dance of Anger was first published in 1985. Harriet Lerner broke new ground by weaving together lessons from her psychoanalytic training and her feminist background.
Lerner and other feminist therapists at the time framed anger as a signal, worthy of being listened to. The Dance of Anger invited us to pay attention to our anger and to make friends with it. The book guided us to consider that “anger may be a message that we are 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.” It addressed the “difficulties women have not only in getting angry but also in using their anger to gain a stronger, and more independent, sense of self.”
Thirty-three years later, the guidance offered by Harriet Lerner remains useful for evaluating and managing feelings of anger. Lerner suggests that we ask ourselves the following questions: “What am I really angry about? Is my anger legitimate? What is the problem and whose problem is it? 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?”
In the current day #MeToo era, public displays of women’s anger is growing by leaps and bounds. Women feel more invited to claim their fury and talk about personal experiences of being shamed and humiliated. I haven’t seen this much direct expression of women’s anger since the 1970s. Women today are having honest conversations about sexual harassment and abuse and more dialogue about the ways we get demeaned or dismissed by others, especially in the workplace.
Recently a client was telling me about anger she held toward a colleague who was falling short on the job. She wasn’t sure how to talk with her co-worker, but knew that she would need to broach the subject at some point. Remembering the book on my desk, I jumped out of my chair and grabbed Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger. The author, Rebecca Traister, tracks the history of female anger and examines the ways in which women’s anger is received, expressed, discouraged, mocked, and de-legitimized.
In September 2018, when the book was first published, I listened to several podcasts of interviews with Traister. Similar to my experience in the mid-80’s with The Dance of Anger, I couldn’t get enough of hearing Traister’s analysis of the social pressures and media messages that discourage women from expressing anger. Then in November I got to hear her as a keynote speaker for the 28th Annual Renfrew Center Foundation Conference on Eating Disorders in Philadelphia. She has inspired me to ask more about the ways that people deal with anger.
Needing to find a way for dealing with her own feelings of helplessness and rage after the 2016 presidential election, Traister started interviewing other women to understand the feelings that they were having. She asked women what they hoped to gain by telling her about their fury. “The overriding answer boiled down to one word — validation. It became clear to me that women must come to recognize our own rage as valid.”
As Traister makes clear, “there is a lot to get mad about.” What advice did she have for the 500 psychotherapists in the room? “Be curious and pay attention to the anger of others. Once we start to recognize the patterns of how women’s anger is dismissed and shamed — we’ll notice it over and over again.” As is true in so many situations, once we notice the patterns that restrict us and hold us back, we can begin to break those patterns and empower ourselves (and others) to take forward moving action.
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