By Robert Ross
The Dance of Anger*



“Anger is a signal, and one worth listening to. Our 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.”
                                                — From:  The Dance of Anger by Harriet Lerner

Anger, the seductive lover — playful, unpredictable and persistent, is a mistress that can easily destroy relationships and ruin lives. Yet, in an odd way, I’m thankful every time it shows up on my doorstep. This threat, when treated with respect, can yield unknown resources from within, and be a messenger, revealing a host of lessons to be learned.

A project I had been arranging for months was moving in the intended direction. The phone rings, I pick up the receiver, the voice on the other end is laced with self righteous indignation. “Why don’t you do this?” I hear. “Why don’t you do that?” I barely have time to respond. The person continues, “Well, I’m going to fax so and so, and I’m going to do such and such!” My efforts undermined, humiliated, I feel the blood racing to my face. No longer able to think clearly, voice rising to an angered pitch, I’m able to hang up without telling the person on the line where to go. The anger stays with me throughout the day. I attack my household chores with a vengeance working well into the evening.

Shoulds and Shouldn’ts
You shouldn’t let that get to you, was the common response when retelling the story. You’re choosing to be angry; shouldn’t  you choose not to be angry, a talk-radio psychologist tells a caller. You  should work in the direction of a win-win, might be something read in a pop psychology book.

Shoulds and Shouldn’ts make for interesting reading or dinner conversation. But there’s reality. Anger is  unpredictable  and more often than not, unresponsive to the latest personal growth philosophies. Anger, like a lover who has entered your life, does not respond to reason.

There are countless books, web pages and therapies available to help one deal with anger issues. Websites with titles like “anger management” (  and ) are easy to locate. A check of  reveals a slew of books on the subject, from “The Anger Habit” by Carl Semmelroth and Donald E. P. Smith to “The Dance of Anger” by Harriet Lerner. AOL even has a chat group for those who would like to talk with others about anger issues.

When anger visits, I have found only one option — harness its energy. So I do physical work with a vengeance until I’m exhausted. A psychologist would probably have a problem with this approach. After all, I’m avoiding the issues that triggered the anger. But this response  works for me. That vein of energy that is tapped (anger) unleashes an enormous amount of strength and endurance which can be put to use constructively. At the end of the day, I have a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction, and with time to think, am aware of what triggered the anger — vowing usually, to keep my distance from a  particular person, or perhaps to avoid certain subjects of conversation.

Lessons Learned
I would like to think that there are some quick fixes to the anger that I experience from time to time. I haven’t found any. Sure, for the little upsets, verbal expression or the passage of time are often the perfect antidotes. But, for the biggies, more often than not, there’s a sense of being in a world unto itself where the anger controls everything in my immediate sphere. In this world, the postman, the clerk at the supermarket, or my wife is liable to experience, firsthand, the less appealing aspects of my personality. This expression — the destructive kind — usually ends badly.

The lessons learned from episodes of anger are fairly straightforward. Identify the culprit — whether deeds or words — whatever is bringing anger to the forefront. And then, perhaps more importantly, identify some coping strategies to deal with it. In my case, I try to avoid people, and turn to physical work as an outlet. In the end, hopefully, nobody in my immediate sphere is treated shabbily and a lot of house projects get accomplished.

The emergence of anger as an emotion is O.K. with me. It helps to clarify who I am and identify values that are important. How anger is directed is, and will always be one of the more important skills learned in life.

Dancing the Dance
I look back to a time in my life when I didn’t experience anger at all. A closer look reveals that I didn’t experience a lot of emotions with any passion during that time. But the anger genie has been let out of the jar. Anger, an emotion, like sadness, joy, love and satisfaction has equal footing. They’re all on the emotional stage now, waiting for their turn to step forward into the limelight — waiting for their dance.

So I have my dancing shoes in the garage — in this case — three cans of paint and a paint brush. The house needs painting. I’m poised for action, waiting for the call from the stage manager — “hey anger, you’re on in one minute!” After all, there’s a vein of energy waiting to be tapped and work to be done!

*The title of this article was taken from title of the book “The Dance of Anger” by Harriet Lerner.

Robert Ross can be reached at:  

(c) Copyright 2002  by Robert Ross, all rights reserved

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