Book Notes: The Dance of Anger by Harriet Goldman (1985)

01 Sep

Notes gleaned from the book, with [my comments]

The Challenge of Anger:

Anger is a signal (worth listening to) that something is not right: injustice, failure to address an important issue, compromising too much of our self… [inability to process or react to an experience in a better way… & maybe frustration and/or shame at knowing this about ourselves].

Women are taught that it is unfeminine to express anger, so we (& others) fear it. It may bring others’ disapproval; it signals the necessity for change [in situation and/or how we think about or handle it], which is scary.

“Anger is neither legitimate nor illegitimate, meaningful nor pointless. Anger simply is…Anger is something we feel…It exists for a reason and always deserves our respect and attention. We all have a right to everything we feel.” (pp. 3-4)

Good questions:

  • What am I really angry about? (clarity)
  • What is the problem, and whose problem is it? Who is responsible for what?
  • How can I express my anger in a way that won’t leave me feeling…[ashamed]…and/or powerless?
  • How can I communicate about the issue without attacking or becoming defensive?
  • If getting angry isn’t working for me, what can I do differently?

Venting anger does not solve a problem, and may rigidify the problem & relational patterns/rules.

We must use anger to clarify and change our own behavior, and resist the desire to force someone else to change.

Submitting to unfair circumstances inevitably brings feelings of depression, low self-esteem, self-betrayal, and even self-hatred. [Not so if a higher purpose is chosen for submitting, a spiritual or historical purpose “over the head” of the perpetrator.]

“Nice lady”:

  • stays silent, becomes tearful, self-critical, “hurt”; avoids open conflict lest she make anyone uncomfortable & expose differences
  • cultivates guilt and self-doubt to blot out feelings of anger
  • rewarded by society, but high personal cost

“The amount of creative, intellectual, and sexual energy that is trapped by this need to repress anger and remain unaware of its source is simply incalculable.” (p. 8)


  • vents anger openly, but ineffectively, reassuring others that she is out of control and doesn’t need to be taken seriously
  • the more infuriated, the more calm others may become [overfunctioning/underfunctioning]
  • tries to change the other person [never a very viable option]

Ineffective styles of managing anger:

  • silent submission
  • ineffective fighting and blaming
  • emotional distancing


  • What about this situation makes me angry?
  • What’s the real issue [for me]?
  • What do I think and feel?
  • What do I want to accomplish?
  • Who’s responsible for what?
  • What, specifically, do I want to change [that I can change]?
  • What are the things I will and will not do?

[and let’s not forget to help the other person(s) ask & answer these questions]

Pseudo-issues hide the real issue, which is more complicated and difficult to address. There may be triangles with a third person, or the real issue may be with someone else (who am I really angry with?).

Use communication skills to maximize the chance of being heard and that conflicts and differences will be negotiated.

Observe and interrupt non-productive patterns: calm down and stand back a bit to sort out the part we play in a problem (response-ability, not blame), so we can change our steps in the dance.

Deal with countermoves (pressure to change back, even to negative but familiar patterns) from within and from the others involved, who have investments in the old ways of relating. This brings strong anxiety, defensiveness of attempts to disqualify what is being said. We choose to do things differently as others choose their own way (old or new).

Identify de-selfing: When too much of one’s self (including one’s values, wants, beliefs, and ambitions) is “negotiable” under pressures from the relationship.

Underfunctioning: a form of de-selfing (common to women) in which one accepts the role of the weak, vulnerable, dependent, or otherwise dysfunctional partner. This allows the partner to deny these qualities in himself and direct most of his emotional energy toward reacting to the spouse’s problem, rather than identifying or sharing his own.

Fighting and blaming vs. assertive claiming:

  • We do not have the power to make others see things our way and affirm our desires, plans, and opinions.
  • We do have the power to choose what we will do, and what risks we will or will not take to act on these desires, plans, and opinions.

“Right or wrong, good or bad, I need to make this choice for myself” is appropriate at times. We may fear the other’s reaction, but it’s their choice how they react and we can trust them to be mature about it. [And we can communicate our choice in a way that maximizes the possibility for a mature reaction, based on our insight into that person.]

At times the choice is between doing something that is likely to upset the other, and doing something that forces us to struggle with our own upset to avoid upsetting the other.

“Fighting and blaming is sometimes a way both to protest and to protect the status quo when we are not quite ready to make a move in one direction or another.” (p. 33)


Bowen (family systems theory): In all families there is a powerful opposition to one member defining a more independent self. [I don’t think that’s so in a very healthy family, or at least it might be weaker or confined to the least mature members of the family.]

Opposition to change goes in 3 steps:

  1. “You are wrong” with volumes of reasons.
  2. “Change back and we will accept you again.”
  3. “If you don’t change back, these are the consequences,” which are then listed.

[4. Punishment (verbal, passive, aggressive, etc.)]

Countermoves are an expression of anxiety, as well as closeness and attachment.

Our job is to keep clear about our own position in the face of countermoves–not to prevent them from happening or tell the other person they should not be reacting that way.

Internal resistance to change:

  • fear of going into unknown territory, especially if we have not seen many examples of balanced relationships (generational patterns)
  • surfacing of other unresolved issues, e.g. about our family of origin

[In all this it seems good to encourage the other person who’s feeling anxious at possible change by appealing to their higher motives–they, after all, surely desire growth and maturity in the relationship, and would be glad to allow positive change in the one they love. Surely they do not want to knowingly contribute to your painful, destructive de-selfing and resentment. “It will be worth the temporary turmoil in the relationship, dear–you’ll see!”

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Posted by on September 1, 2012 in Writers & Books


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