What Selling 3 Million Copies Of 'The Dance Of Anger' Has Taught Renowned Psychologist Harriet Lerner

Apr 23 2014, 2:26pm CDT | by

As a trained marriage and family therapist and a career coach, I’ve worked with thousands of women in the past 10 years dealing with a wide array of emotions, including rage and anger, despair, resentment and hopelessness.   My clients have brought every form of career and relationship problem to the table as well, trying to sort out how to reconnect with others in mutually satisfying, productive and loving ways.  Of all the books written about women’s personal relationships and how to improve them, Dr. Harriet Lerner’s The Dance of Anger (which is celebrating this year the milestone of 3 million copies old) has been highly instrumental to me and so many others, and is considered “the bible” on women’s relationships.

I was thrilled and honored to catch up with Harriet, a nationally-renowned voice on the psychology of women and marriage and family relationships, as she celebrates this important milestone.  I asked her everything I wanted to know about the book, her process in writing it, and what she learned from the experience.

Harriet answers my questions below.


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Kathy Caprino:
Do you consider anger a negative emotion, especially in our culture of positivity?

Harriet Lerner: No.  Anger is neither positive nor negative.  Anger simply is.  It’s an important emotion that deserves out attention and respect.  But most of us have little experience using our anger as a vehicle for positive change. Instead we silence our anger, or vent it in a way that leaves us feeling helpless and powerless.

Caprino: Why is anger such a difficult emotion?

Lerner: Often we march off to battle without knowing what the real issue is, or even with whom the real issue is.  For example, a wife and mother-in-law slug it out while the man stays out of the ring.   The negative intensity lands between the two women.  But the real issue is that the husband is not able to find his voice and take a position with his own mother.

Anger is a tricky emotion.  It signals that something is wrong but it doesn’t tell us what is wrong or how to approach the problem in a growth-fostering way that leads to lasting change.  I wrote The Dance of Anger to help readers identify the true sources of their anger, and then to take new steps in relationships stuck in too much distance, intensity and pain.

Caprino: You’ve were a staff psychologist at the Menninger Clinic for decades, and published numerous scholarly papers. How did you get into writing self-help books?

Lerner: With enormous reservations, really.  Women in particular can’t be cautious enough with the advice-giving industry which is sensitively attuned to our insecurities, our purses, and our endless and impossible pursuit of perfection.  I always tell my readers to take advice that fits and run with it. But to never forget that you are ultimately the best expert on your own self.

Caprino: What was your earliest inspiration to write?

Lerner: When I was growing up in Brooklyn, I always kept one of those lock-and-key diaries.  I wrote faithfully, every night, year after year. This helped me to see writing as an ordinary daily activity and to find writing comforting. And my diaries were my place to tell the truth.

Caprino: I imagine those diaries showed a glimpse of your future talent?

Lerner: Quite to the contrary. There is absolutely no evidence of talent or writing ability. This makes my diaries a valuable teaching tool. I bring a diary along whenever I’m invited to talk to students in the public schools. If they’re sixth graders, for example, I bring my sixth grade diary.  It inspires the students who say to each other, “Wow, if she can write a book, I can do it too.” This insight is worth a lot.

Caprino: The Dance of Anger became a New York Times bestseller and is still flying off the shelves. Would you have predicted such success?

Lerner: The Dance of Anger was rejected for five years.  I’ll always remember that long stretch of frustration and sorrow, when I sat hunched over a gray typewriter, the speediest technology of the day, with scissors and scotch tape as my cutting-and-pasting editing tools. I couldn’t walk into a bookstore without getting depressed because there were countless relationship books sitting on the shelves, none about women’s anger, and few based on a solid theory of the process of change. When the book was finally published, I thought no one would read it but my mother and my five best friends.

Caprino: Did you toughen up as the rejections accumulated –or begin to doubt yourself?

Lerner: I wanted to put on armor (or at least a wet suit) to protect myself from the pain of rejection, but I never toughened up.  But no, I never doubted myself. I knew there was a serious need for the book I was writing, but that conviction just left me feeling doomed and mystified.

Caprino: Some people seem to let rejection roll off their back. How do they do that?

Lerner: If you’re an authentic , open-hearted person you won’t be immune to the feelings of shame, inadequacy, depression, anxiety and anger that rejection can evoke. Rejection is a fast route back to childhood shame.  It’s not just that you went to a party and no one made an effort to talk to you. It’s that you feel you’re essentially boring and undesirable, and so it is and so it will always be.  It takes a huge amount of maturity, and self-worth to not take rejection quite so personally, and understand that rejection often says more about the person who does the rejecting, than it does about you. I have yet to meet a person who enjoys being rejected.  Of course, I have not met everybody.

Caprino: Any advice about lessening the pain of rejection?

Lerner: When we acknowledge that rejection isn’t an indictment of our being, but an experience we must all face again and again if we put ourselves out there, rejection becomes easier to bear.  You can also succeed by failing, meaning go out there and accumulate rejections—whether it’s asking someone for a date, making sales calls, trying to get an article published or approaching new people at a party.  The only way to avoid rejection is to sit mute in a corner and take no risks.

Caprino: It must have taken great courage to have kept writing The Dance of Anger during the years of rejection.

Lerner: I don’t think it was courage that kept me going when I was so saddled with bad luck during the “Will-I-ever-find-a publisher?” stage. It was my perseverance and stubbornness, combined with my conviction about the book’s usefulness.  Thinking back, it’s remarkable that I wrote and rewrote that book on a typewriter. The very thought of this makes me want to light a little candle for myself.

Caprino: The Dance of Anger is subtitled, “A Woman’s Guide to Changing the Patterns of Intimate Relationships.” Why for women?

Lerner: Women have long been denied the expression of healthy anger and protest. Instead, society encourages women to cultivate guilt like a little flower garden. If we’re guilty and self-doubting we stay in place. We don’t take action against our own selves. Many women I see in therapy still feel guilty if they are anything less than an emotional service station to others.

In contrast, our anger can be a vehicle for change.  It can help us to clarify the limits of how much we can give or do in a relationship, and the limits of our tolerance. It can inspire us to take a new position on our own behalf so that an old dance can’t continue in the same way.

Caprino: Is The Dance of Anger for men, too?
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Lerner: Absolutely.  I believe that humans are more alike than different.  Men get stuck in the same patterns of distance and blame that women do.  I’m pleased that male readers just about equal my female readers these days./>

Interestingly, men lose their voice in marriage even more than women do. They may distance and stonewall, telling themselves, “It’s not worth the fight.”  They may remove themselves emotionally from the relationship, and then feel devastated when a partner leaves them “out of the blue.”

I work with many men who tolerate too much criticism, intensity, and negativity from their partner, rather than taking a firm and loving position on their own behalf. They haven’t found their voice to say, “I’m here to talk to you about absolutely anything.  But you need to approach me with respect.  Let’s set a time on Sunday where you can tell me your concerns and I’ll do my best to really listen.”  Instead the man may distance and stonewall, which invites his partner to angrily pursue—a good recipe for divorce.

Caprino: Anything you’d like to add?

Lerner: If you’re in a relationship now, you can use that relationship as a laboratory to experiment with new behaviors.  It takes two to tango.  It takes only one to make things a whole lot better./>/>

I also want to thank my readers who turned The Dance of Anger into a classic the old fashioned way—by word of mouth. Far outnumbering my old rejections slips are the loving and generous messages I continue to receive, now from four generations of readers. I’m humbled and grateful that the book has helped people change the course of their relationships and that the message continues to resonate.

For more about Dr. Harriet Lerner’s work, visit http://www.harrietlerner.com, and her bestselling book The Dance of Anger, and follow her on Twitter @HarrietLerner.

(To build a happier, more rewarding career, visit kathycaprino.com.)

 
 

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