Aggression and Assertiveness Part I: What is aggression?

Due to trends in therapy, and also due to the trends that have been manifesting in many social topics I have been writing about, the themes of aggression and assertiveness have been becoming increasingly salient. But one of the things I have discovered in this process is that aggression is an incredibly murky topic to discuss in the common culture. In practice, we seem to think about aggression the way we think about pornography:

  1. we can’t quite define it, but we know it when we see it.


  1. Many people are proud of their indulgence in it, Many people abhor it, and many people pretend to abhor it while keeping it their dirty little secret

One of the consequences of all the myths and lack of clarity on aggression is that we have become very good at identifying what we think is aggression in others but are very good at denying it in ourselves. This trend has become both dangerous and counterproductive in common discourse, as it has not only served to propagate myths and misconceptions, but has both blinded people to their own aggression that thwarts their own efforts to make needed changes, and also turns the conversation about aggression into a weapon of aggression itself.

Since I will be discussing aggression, passivity and assertiveness in depth in the future, it is prudent that I spend some time defining the concepts for this future use. For reference, the information I am using is drawn from the Assertiveness skills training material I use with my clients in therapy as designed by Dr. Fiona Michel and Dr. Anthea Fursland of the Centre for Clinical Interventions as well as the research by Stuart Twemlow on bullying.

So what is aggression?

Aggression in its primitive form is attacking something seen as a threat. When someone is coming at you with a knife, it is appropriate to respond with physical violence (aggression) if there are no other ways to protect yourself. However, very few incidents that a person will encounter are as directly life threatening as the above example, but people seem to be aggressive none the less. According to Michel and Fursland, aggression can be defined as a means of having wants and needs met or expressing thoughts and feelings in ways that ignore or violate the rights of others. Physical aggression can be easily identified, as it often involves the use or threat of violence to get what the person wants. Nelson beating up Bart for his lunch money is a clear and simple act of aggression. It’s when you get past the physical manifestation that things start to get fuzzy. While some forms of verbal aggression, like mockery and humiliation and threats are also easily identified, other forms, such as blaming, labeling, and even using phrases like “should” and “ought” are so commonplace that they don’t often register as aggression. At the heart of aggression are a few core beliefs and cognitive patterns.

First and foremost is that aggressive people assume aggression in others. The reason that they are able to justify aggressive and often violent actions is that they really believe that everyone else is ready to do the same violence to them. This often causes them to believe that the only way to get ahead is by being aggressive and pushing others down, leading to more abusive behaviors. This also causes them to be on guard, seeing potential threats everywhere, and reacting violently to such potential threats, even if no real threat was present. It is important to understand this core assumption because also shows that aggressive people aren’t necessarily evil or sadistic people, often they are scared, confused, or desperately frustrated. It is also important to understand this because this belief is what causes a lot of resistance that arises when people try to address aggression. When aggressive people are told not to be aggressive, they believe they are being forced into an unfair handicap, because they assume everyone else is going to be aggressive towards them while they are being told to do nothing and be vulnerable to attack.

Second, aggressive people are highly blame oriented. When a problem arises, the issue becomes about who is wrong, not what it wrong. Because of this aggressive individuals tend to focus on finding blame, they are prone to making character judgments. Combine that with the afore mentioned assumption of aggression in others, and you often find they engage in mind reading cognitive distortion in which they accuse others having thoughts, feelings, and motives that are aggressive or blame focused. Aggressive people will often tell you what you are thinking and feeling, and it is always negative and very often not true.

Aggressive individuals tend to externalize problems. This is also consequence of their blame orientation and assumption of aggression. If the source of a problem comes from the aggressive individual, then to admit that is to admit not only badness, but also vulnerability and weakness. The source of a problem must always come from the outside, and because it is always outside, the person is just reacting to it and the problems it causes. This assumption absolves responsibility for bad decisions and behaviors, because someone else always made them do it.

Finally, aggressive people tend to confuse opinion and fact. Because aggressive individuals are so prone to judgment and blame, they cannot allow themselves to be wrong, because they would then have to turn that judgment upon themselves. As a result, their beliefs need to be unassailable, inarguable, and absolute, because of they can be challenged, then the person is vulnerable. People need to agree with their beliefs, and if they cannot agree, then that person must be judged and dehumanized so their disagreement won’t matter. The words “should” and “ought” roll off their tongues reflexively. This is not the same as being argument prone, because one can be able to assertively defend a strongly held belief. Rather, this is a desperate lashing out that will not end until the threat to their ideas is destroyed in character and spirit.

Next: Defining Passivity

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4 thoughts on “Aggression and Assertiveness Part I: What is aggression?

  1. Pingback: Aggression and Assertiveness Part II: Passivity and why contradiction is not argument | Dr. Zack's Blog

  2. Pingback: Aggression and Assertiveness Part III: The Aggressive/Passive Cocktails | Dr. Zack's Blog

  3. Pingback: Aggression and Assertiveness Part IV: Assertiveness – The real alternative | Dr. Zack's Blog

  4. Pingback: The Broken Geek | Dr. Zack's Blog

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