Some psychologists claim that aggression is an undesirable trait. At Wikipedia, aggression is defined as an “overt, often harmful, social interaction with the intention of inflicting damage or other unpleasantness upon another individual.” Assertiveness is acceptable, these experts say, aggressiveness is not.
I disagree. Now, of course, I’m not discounting the value of assertiveness. And I obviously understand that some forms of aggression are completely unacceptable. But natural aggression can be seen and experienced as positive strength. It’s exactly the kind of verbal power and emotional force that’s needed to counter the aggression that’s often dished out by bullies, petty tyrants, and ignorant people intent on getting their way.
In this post I want to explore the subtle yet important distinctions between aggressiveness and assertiveness. The distinctions are important. We want to be as powerful as possible and trust that we’ll use that power wisely. Further along, I provide an example of the power and effectiveness of natural aggression.
A lot of people have a tendency to be passive and defensive. Often, though, they can swivel in an instant into reactive, angry aggression. Frequently, the passive person sees neither his passivity nor the inappropriateness of his reactive aggression. He often feels that his combative bluster is his saving grace. One passive fellow I knew polished his self-image with daily reminders of the aggressiveness he could muster when confronting people. His aggressiveness, however, was usually rude, demanding, and ultimately self-defeating.
Neurotic people can be very aggressive at times, though what they harbor is reactive or self-serving aggression, not the healthy kind. Many politicians and corporate executives rise to power because of how they can mobilize self-serving aggression. Such aggressiveness needs to be countered by a combative force for good. Such healthy aggression, whether practiced individually or collectively, is needed to stop dysfunction in the family or to prevent unethical or unevolved people from doing damage to the social fabric and the planet. We can take a lot of personal satisfaction in the practice of this aggression.
Assertiveness, in comparison, is often insufficient. We don’t usually speak of police officers practicing assertiveness. It’s understood that to curb criminal conduct they must have aggression at their disposal. Police officers sometimes overreact and fail to practice healthy aggression. The appropriateness of their aggression hinges not just on the quality of police training but also on the emotional health of individual policemen. Officers who practice healthy aggression are not easily triggered and their ego is not on the line. Their aggression is intended, whenever possible, to produce a peaceful outcome.
All of us can benefit by having healthy aggression at our disposal. What does it take, for instance, to countercheck a defiant, belligerent family member who is tearing the family apart? This person’s improper aggression is a powerful force. Some other family member likely has to muster natural or healthy aggression—not just assertiveness—to save the family from harm or disintegration.
Aggression is inherent in human nature. Early humankind needed an abundance of aggression to survive in hostile environments. This biological aspect remains inside us. We sublimate it successfully in sports activities and in striving vigorously for fulfillment, success, and romantic partners. In early childhood, much of our aggression becomes deposited in our inner critic from where it is diffused into our emotional life as self-aggression, often as self-doubt, self-criticism, self-rejection, and even self-hatred. Our challenge is to become strong and smart enough to reconfigure that self-aggression and turn it into an asset. If, instead, we remain passive to our inner critic, we’ll not likely be able to get a feel for natural aggression.
Let’s look further into the difference between assertiveness and aggression. Both strengths, when practiced wisely, refrain from “going negative,” and both involve respect for the other person. But assertiveness, according to Wikipedia, holds the “behavioral middle ground” and appears intent on avoiding escalation. So the person who feels strength solely in terms of assertiveness is likely to back off under the threat of escalation. This is important to understand because the person who is inclined to slip back into passivity or submissiveness often needs only the slightest excuse to do so.
For many people, natural aggression simply feels wrong because they have so many emotional associations with having been abused by the aggression of others. It’s hard for them to sense how natural aggression can be appropriate. Yet the blockage of our natural aggression due to psychological factors usually produces suffering and self-defeat.
Assertiveness is more dependent on achieving one’s goals through rational or reasonable means. Natural aggression, on the other hand, understands that reason doesn’t always work. People acting out emotionally are often quite irrational; reason isn’t necessarily going to restrain them, and insistence on being reasonable might provoke them to behave even more irrationally. The answer is to fight a raging inferno with a controlled fire. Natural aggression doesn’t go looking for escalation but it’s not afraid of it, either. Of course, it’s another matter entirely if the other person “goes nuclear” and threatens violence. At this point the person with natural aggression is fully prepared to back away and consider other options, perhaps calling for the intervention of civil authority. Seeking outside help can itself be an act of aggressive self-protection. As well, natural aggression is not triggered into retaliation and thereby has a patient quality to it.
Natural aggression arises alongside one’s developing sense of self. Let’s look at an example. Rachel is being confronted on a regular basis by her verbally abusive husband. She wants to save the marriage, yet the present circumstances are intolerable. She understands she has to stand up to him. She starts to see a psychotherapist and read up on the subject of marital conflict.
Rachel struggles to access feelings of courage and integrity. She recognizes more insightfully that fear and passivity have weakened her in the past. She can’t afford now to be intimidated. She has to fight for herself and her prospects for happiness.
A feeling starts to grow inside her, a kind of do-or-die spirit, through which she understands that she will not allow herself to be mistreated. Rachel has to find her voice. That voice has to be fearless and it can’t be afraid that her husband will escalate the conflict in order to shut her down. She has to match his aggression, yet without yelling or even raising her voice. She has yelled at him in the past, but that only produced an escalation of their conflict.
At first, Rachel can’t quite access that power, and she feels awkward in trying. She wonders, “Who am I to have this power? It doesn’t seem right.” She can’t quite find the words that express her longing for peace and love. But she knows she’s getting close, and she’s patient over many months because she can feel something good happening within herself. Strength is consolidating within her and fear is subsiding. She realizes, too, that at this stage her spirit of aggression doesn’t need to be expressed outwardly. Instead, it’s an inner comfort that affirms her own goodness, and it’s protecting her more and more from her husband’s criticism and condemnation. Soon her growing aggressive spirit is effectively deflecting her husband’s aggression. She doesn’t have to take his cruel words personally. He’s spewing out only his own conflict and negativity, she sees, and his words as they apply to her contain no truth of any significant measure.
The words start to come as Rachel’s self-trust deepens. Rather than feeling hopeless to change her husband, she now expects to succeed in reforming him. That expectation of success arises because her aggressive spirit, as she can now feel it, will not back down. She’s going to lay down the law. She has no need to yell or even raise her voice. Yet her voice has a new quality to it—the ring of truth, the force of law—as she delivers words to this effect:
“I do want to save our marriage. But I’ll not sacrifice my self-respect for it. I understand that, on some level, you do not wish to hurt me. Your disrespectful manner of speaking to me mirrors how you feel about yourself. Our only hope is for you to take responsibility for this negativity in yourself. I’m done with it. I can no longer live with it. I don’t want you to live with it, either.”
He starts to interrupt her, and she says, “Be quiet! Let me finish. Starting today we’re changing the way our relationship has been working. You are no longer to speak to me with anger. This is not negotiable. You have to start treating me with full respect. I’m a good, kind person—not perfect, of course, but very loveable. If you find that being consistently kind to me is difficult for you, you have to look deep inside yourself to see where your negativity is coming from. It certainly has little or nothing to do with me. You have to take responsibility for it and immediately stop dumping it on me.
“I acknowledge that, up to now, I have been part of the problem. I let this go on. I likely provoked you at times. So it wasn’t just you. But now it has to stop.
“You can look beautiful to me, right now, if you have the courage to recognize the necessity and the truth of what I am telling you. If not, I’ll only see you as more and more ugly. Be a man! Be the husband I have yearned for. We can do this! We have one last chance.”
Of course, a man who has been passive can also acquire such natural aggression and deliver his “moment of truth” to a partner who consistently has been critical or unsupportive.
It takes aggression to speak in such a manner. The surest way to acquire this power is to resolve one’s inner conflict. We come into the realization of our goodness and power when inner conflict is resolved. Resolution involves our growing awareness of the unhealthy and inappropriate aggression that emanates from our inner critic. It also involves recognition of the unhealthy passivity that lurks in our psyche and serves as an enabler of that self-aggression.