Report on "On Anger" by Dr. Harriet Lerner

Elaine Cook

November 14, 2001

In a talk entitled "On Anger: Where your anger comes from and how to transform it," Harriet Lerner describes two ineffective responses that women have to anger, and then uses Bowen Family Systems Theory to demonstrate how women can use their anger as a vehicle for change and to help define themselves.

Lerner starts off by describing her attempts in the late 70s to find books or articles on women and anger. She couldn't find anything. She theorizes that anger is taboo for women, especially anger at men, and explains that "An angry woman will be condemned even if she's waging a bloodless and humane revolution for her own legitimate rights." (Lerner, 1995)

She notes that anger is important for two reasons:

  1. Anger is a vehicle for change, both individual and social/political change. It fuels the efforts to change.
  2. Anger helps us define the self, to determine who I am, what I believe, what I stand for. The pain of anger preserves the integrity and dignity of the self. It helps us define the limits of what we can do and give, the limits of what we find acceptable. It helps us clarify who we are separate from what others expect from us.

However, women don't use anger in these ways. There are two categories for the ways that women mismanage anger. These categories aren't mutually exclusive. Lerner calls them Nice Ladies and Bitches. (Lerner, 1995)

"Nice ladies" follow the culturally prescribed norm. They give in, accommodate, go along with others, avoid anger and conflict at all costs. They avoid any clear statement of self that might threaten the other person, statements that might begin "This is what I think," or "this is how I see it." Lerner explains that in Bowen Family Systems terms, these women end up in a de-selfed position. She notes that while all relationships require compromise and give and take, there is a problem when there is an imbalance, and too much of one person's self becomes compromised. In this case, the woman's thoughts, beliefs, ambitions, and wants have become negotiable under the relationship pressure. It is the de-selfed person who is most vulnerable to symptoms, and often asks "What's wrong with me?" rather than "What's wrong with this relationship?" Lerner explains that the woman is taking too much responsibility for the feelings of others, and not enough for the quality and direction of her own life.

"Bitches" get angry easily. They get involved in an endless cycle of fighting and blaming without any constructive resolution.

Lerner states that while these two categories look very different, they are actually flip sides of the same coin. In both cases the women feel helpless and powerless because nothing changes, since the real issues have not been identified and addressed. She believes that venting anger ineffectively protects the other person as surely as not getting angry. (Lerner, 1995)

To elaborate on anger, the ways it is used ineffectively, and how it can be used effectively, Lerner draws on an example from her book The Dance of Anger. Shortly before a workshop that she and a colleague were presenting, a woman she calls Barbara phoned to cancel. Barbara was angry and tearful, and said that her husband would not let her go to the workshop. Lerner asked Barbara what her husband objected to. His stated objections were that Lerner was a radical women's libber and the workshop wouldn't be worth the money. Barbara told Lerner, "I fought with him till I was blue in the face, but I couldn't change his mind - no was his final word." (Lerner, 1995)

Lerner explains that this shows two universal ways of mismanaging anger. One is fighting about pseudo issues, such as credentials or whether something is worth the money. These are matters of opinions. She speculates on what some of the real issues might be: how is power and authority shared? Who gets to make decisions about what the wife can do? Is there enough flexibility to tolerate change on the wife's part?

Lerner notes that people often have intense fights over pseudo issues. Anger is an automatic response to anxiety, but the cause of the anxiety is often hidden, such as the anniversary of the death of a family member.

Triangles often cause confusion when trying to understand the cause of anger. For example, when a woman and her mother-in-law are fighting, it often masks the fact that the husband has not been able to define himself and take responsibility for his relationship with his mother, so the women are slugging it out for him. Once he works on the relationship with his mother, the marital relationship improves and the women get along better.

The other mismanagement of anger that Barbara illustrates is the effort to change someone else's reactions. Her husband has the right to his own thoughts and feelings about the workshop. Lerner emphasizes that too often we equate closeness with sameness, but emotional maturity requires the recognition that people are different, and that differences don't mean that one person is wrong. (Lerner, 1995) Clearly she is talking about differentiation, though she doesn't use the term.

Lerner discusses filters, and the way they affect our perceptions. One example is sibling position, and another is ethnicity. Without a knowledge of filters, we attribute too much pathology to other people.

Lerner stresses that "It's not possible to change another person who doesn't want to change." It's hard enough to change when we really want to. Change only comes when we become focussed on our own steps in the dance. She comments that Barbara fought with her husband, but didn't challenge the idea that her husband makes the rules. If she wanted to change, she could stand her ground and let her husband know that the workshop was important to her, and she intended to go. However, we cannot decide for someone else whether they should take this step.

Lerner is clear that this type of change is not easy. There is considerable resistance from the partner, as well as from oneself. It takes a lot of courage to take a new position on your own behalf, especially since the change doesn't happen in one hit-and-run session. When taking a stand, it's important to avoid emotional cutoff. It's also important to be clear about our options before we take a stand. If we feel we can't survive without the relationship, we may argue and complain, but we won't be able to get to a bottom line position. She mentions the saying that the best marriages and relationships are between people who could live without each other but prefer not to. (Lerner, 1995)

Lerner also discusses the use of "I" statements, which we can use to describe our feelings rather than making an accusation. This is not a "nice lady" position, but one that is very powerful in helping us take a stand without engaging the other in an argument.

Lerner is a firm believer in genograms, and discusses a situation where there was a problem with a boy who suddenly became irresponsible when he turned 8. Once the triangulation issues of mother-father-child had been reduced, the father became depressed. A genogram showed that his father had died when he was only 8, and he had had to become super-responsible. Now he was extremely sensitive to his son's responsibility (or lack thereof). In addition, he was now 36, the age at which his father had died. The father needed to deal with his unresolved issues around his father's death. This shows the importance of taking a wide angle view. Lerner also mentions that loss and grief are the most difficult adaptational tasks for families to deal with.

Lerner gives some dos and don'ts for handling anger, including:

  • Do speak up when an issue is important to you. We de-self ourselves when we don't speak about issues that are important to us.
  • Don't strike while the iron is hot. It's hard to deal with an entrenched pattern while angry. Being calm is more effective. You may need to create a temporary distance, which is different than an emotional cutoff or withdrawal.
  • Take time to think about the problem and clarify your position. What is the real issue? What do you want to accomplish?
  • Avoid below the belt tactics, such as blaming, interpreting, diagnosing, ridiculing, preaching.
  • Use "I" language. Make statements about yourself without holding the other responsible for your feelings.
  • Don't make vague requests. Instead be clear about what you need.
  • Don't tell the other person what s/he thinks, feels, or should think or feel. Don't tell the other person s/he doesn't have a right to be angry.
  • Do recognize that each person is responsible for his/her own behavior. For example, don't blame Dad's new wife for not letting him be close to you.
  • Don't participate in intellectual arguments that go nowhere.

In her conclusion, Lerner quotes from The Dance of Anger: "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 do not define what I think, feel and believe. Yet this lonely and challenging task cannot be accomplished in isolation. We can only accomplish it through our connectedness with others and the new learning about ourselves that our relationships provide." (Lerner, 1995)

Lerner provides a very interesting feminist perspective on Bowenian thought that is very accessible. Her examples provide some useful insight that makes her suggestions much more powerful.

© 2001 by Elaine Cook


Lerner, H. (Speaker) (1995) On Anger (Tape #A264). Boulder, CO: Sounds True.

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