Wednesday, April 12, 2006

The Dance of Anger by Harriet Goldhor Lerner, Ph.D.

Most women of the 21st century feel as though they've come a long way. We got through the turmoil and bra-burning days of the 60s and 70s; we gritted our teeth through the mindless chatter of the 80s; we found ourselves on fairly equal ground in the 90s; and today we have the opportunity to stay home with our children, work outside the home, or both. As many women would say, we can have it all and we can have the best of both worlds. Many women, in fact, believe they are better off than men because they have more choices overall. But some of us disagree. Some of us are still trying to fit into roles and shapes that society has placed on us - not just the traditional Judeo-Christian roles, but the day-to-day minor roles. We still find ourselves keeping all the burden of the family emotions on our backs. We allow our children and our husband's needs and wants to consume us while ours hang in the balance. We work hard for our families, our parents and our friends, but we often neglect ourselves. What ensues is a slow, burning anger that gets repressed over and over.

In her book, The Dance of Anger, Harriet Goldhor Lerner, Ph.D., explores the anger that is often buried deep within the heart of women. The subtitle of the book is "A woman's guide to changing the patterns of intimate relationships," and it is all that and more. This book, written in the mid-1980s is a revolutionary, eye-opener to women who think they have it all. Ms. Lerner gently but firmly points out in her book that women develop and accept patterns of behavior that are unacceptable to them. We concede and concede in order to keep peace, to keep a relationship, or to keep quiet, and consequently, we often compromise those things about which we feel the strongest. Ms. Lerner explains that the only way to deal with this buried anger is first to acknowledge it, and then to begin changing the patterns of our own behavior. Since relationships are people working, living, and moving together, if we change our own patterns, or dance steps, as it were, our partners, children, parents, co-workers, and friends will have to either change their dance moves to keep in step with us, or face head on that there are some differences that must be worked out.

The problem, however, is also fear. Ms. Lerner explains that most of us are afraid of change. Much like the dog that keeps coming back to the abusive master to be kicked, most of us want to stay in our comfort zones, even if the comfort isn't very comfortable. While we often begin to make changes, too many of us revert back to our comfortable patterns and never make any progress.

While the book focuses primarily on women, it is very helpful for anyone who discovers that they are unsatisfied with the status-quo, but they are not sure why. They may blame another person - a spouse, an aging parent, a troublesome child, or a difficult co-worker. But the reality is that the only person any of us can change is ourselves.

The Dance of Anger goes through chapter after chapter of examples of real people who have worked through difficult relationship issues. Not every story is an easy one, but with hard work, patience, perseverance and determination, behavioral patterns in relationships can be changed. The changes must happen gradually and progress is often slow; yet the final analysis is that both parties are being honest with one another, and each is taking responsibility for his or her own behavior. The blame game does not work and no person can change another. Ms. Lerner exhorts us to work on our own issues. She says, "Defining a self or becoming one's own person is a task that one ultimately does alone. No one else can or will do it for you, although others may try and we may invite them to do so. In the end, I define what I think, feel, and believe. WE, as a partnership, do not define what I think, feel and believe."

The task of sorting out ones own responsibilities from that of a marriage, friendship or other relationship can feel lonely at first, but the result will be learning about ourselves, who we really are, and what we really want. Only then can we be complete and have something to offer someone else in relationship.

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