Aggression versus Assertiveness

I was standing in a room filled with people when Clifford (not his real name) came up to me. Clifford was a large set man, a little shorter than me. He stood very close, our noses only a few inches apart, and for five minutes he screamed at me, accused me, and was generally aggressive without physically touching me. For my part, I maintained my presence, spoke occasionally as his anger permitted, and took on board none of the venom he was clearly filled with. It was an interesting period because I did not feel threatened or unsafe. I did not feel his comments were accurate or justified. When he finally exhausted himself, largely because he was unable to get a rise from me, he disengaged and went about his business. Others in the room were more shaken than I was. My boss had observed the episode, and I said to him, “I need to learn to be assertive.” His response, which I have always remembered was, “You are assertive. Clifford is aggressive.” I gained sudden and clear insight that there was indeed a difference.

Are you maintaining your boundaries (assertive) or invading someone else’s (aggressive)?

I don’t claim to be assertive all the time; that I should be so perfect. In fact it was a positive point when I learned to connect with my anger properly because it is a powerful tool for someone seeking to be assertive. Anger, misused, is a weapon of the aggressor. Anger, cultivated and targeted with skill, is a tool of the assertive person. The aggressor invades other people’s boundaries. The assertive person protects, strengthens and maintains their boundaries with the appropriate use of anger, and seeks what they want without invading the boundaries of others in the process.

The following is a simple self-assessment of whether you are assertive or aggressive. It is not intended to be an exhaustive description of contributing factors. The intent is to stimulate thought and raise questions. You hold the answers.

Do you allow other people to trample your boundaries and invade your personal space without response? If this is a consistent experience, you are neither aggressive nor assertive. You quite likely lack self-esteem and self-confidence, and/or have little clue about what really matters to you (lack of direction). The result is a lack of clear boundaries and/or lack of integrity in maintaining and enforcing them. Check yourself for issues related to self-worth. In exchanges with others, do you come away feeling violated, that something in you is not pleased with the treatment you receive, yet you still do nothing about it? You probably rely on being aloof or calling for pity from others as a means for controlling situations and gaining advantage. Other qualities of the ‘doormat,’ for want of a better term, is that you concede on all issues, and put others first because you feel they are better than you. Often you act from some sense of duty, to meet others’ expectations, to people-please, or because it is safer than putting yourself forward. To stop being a doormat, recognise that you are important, worthy, and that you do not deserve the garbage being dumped on you. Find your individual value and self-worth, and develop it so you believe you have value and know you deserve to be treated as such. Reach the point where you can say, “Enough is enough. I will not put up with this any more.” A doormat is easy prey to the bully.

Do you take the offensive and seek to gain power from others by overwhelming them? Whether this is emotionally, physically, intellectually or spiritually, you are aggressive. You are manifesting classic control and dominate tendencies. A great question to explore is what insecurity is driving you? In what way do you feel inadequate so that you feel the need to control others? Such is an illusion and at some point you might well meet your match and be confronted with all the inadequacy you have sought to protect yourself from. Aggression or the violation of others’ boundaries is violence, seeking power over others by invading their space. Simply stated, you are a bully. The exit path for you is to recognise that wanting something or someone does not create entitlement, and that others also deserve space to live and breathe. Get real about the number of people you have hurt, cajoled into submission, and over whom you have attempted to dominate. As a bully you prey on those you consider weak and easy fodder. At heart, if you are a bully you are a coward! What is the fear that is driving your need to dominate? How can you develop the areas in which you feel inadequate so you may develop real power in your life?

Do you manage your personal boundaries from invasion by others, exerting sufficient power to prevent yourself being violated and your integrity intact? If you do this without having to attack others, you are being assertive. If your response is a counter attack into the other person’s space, you are responding to aggression with aggression. The assertive individual is clear about their boundaries, will use the power of positive anger to strengthen and defend boundaries but does not seek to impose or force others in the process. As an assertive person, you are comfortable with your own views, values, beliefs, and do not impose on or expect others to have the same stance. You are also tend to be comfortable with your inadequacies. The assertive person has self-confidence, exudes personal power, and does not need to manipulate others as part of being true to self.

Challenge

As humans, none of us are perfect. I use all of the above at different times. Self-improvement comes from awareness of our behaviours, and then consciously intercepting the inappropriate behaviours and choosing better alternatives. Life has a habit of providing plenty of opportunity for us to see our inadequacies, at which point we get to make a choice: do we continue as we are, or do we choose an alternate response to a circumstance, and thereby change our outcomes? Until we see ourselves, have awareness, we are as animals operating from instinct.

Awareness is the first step to greatness, and greatness is consciously choosing and acting with authenticity to ourselves. The next time you are in a situation where someone is being aggressive, or wonder where your own burst of anger came from, start explore how you may be more assertive, and how you can create a positive result from the circumstances that you are in. Determine how you can promote what you are seeking without denigrating others or their ideas in the process. Your assertiveness is the increasing, and you are working more fully from personal power.

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Caring for Self

With so much happening, how can I care for myself?
With so much happening, how can I care for myself?

I have often heard people say, “I put other people first”. Exploring what they mean invariably uncovers a belief that to be loving, caring and compassionate (a “good” person) being selfless and putting others first is important. With COVID-19 bashing the planet with anxiety, illness, death, we have a fantastic opportunity to re-examine how we care for ourselves and others.

Here are some ideas on how we might care for ourselves:

Address common beliefs that may get in your way.

First, do you know you matter? Some people really do not know this, and from that space it is a difficult belief to adjust. If you really do not believe or know you matter, find someone who does believe that about you, someone without another agenda who can assist you gain and strengthen that belief. Love, trust, acceptance, understanding are all vital elements of developing the belief that “I matter.” It is probably the most important aspect of self-care.

Second, “I am here to help others.” Common among those in helping professions. The belief is worthy so long as it is not applied at the expense of yourself. Selfless service for others at the expense of yourself serves no one. Why? If you do not take care of yourself, you won’t last long helping others.

Third, some believe they thrive on stress and pressure. To quote Richard E. Boyatziz, noted professor in fields of psychology and emotional intelligence, he said:

If someone says “I love being under pressure. I do really well. Just give me a couple of Red Bulls and I can really perform”. If you were present when someone says that, I have got to tell you, you are listening to an idiot, because the human body cannot do that.

Richard E. Boyatziz, “The Science of Effective Coaching”, Webinar for ICF Team and Work Group Coaching Community of Practice, May 2019.

Stress increases adrenaline and other hormones that, if permitted to stay at high levels for sustained periods, wear the body down and lead to physical illness and impaired mental acuity. You may fool yourself that you are great with stress, but your body will let you in on the alternate facts when it is good and ready.

Physical Safety

When learning first aid, one of the first lessons is STOP and check it is safe before approaching an injured person or applying first aid measures. Not doing so can place you in jeopardy, may require someone else to rescue you, and might not even help the person who is in need. When I was 14, I was on a school trip and one boy pulled another from a whirlpool under a waterfall to get sucked in himself. His body was found by divers 68 feet under water. He was lauded as a hero, and indeed was, but he was a dead hero, and could not assist anyone else, not to mention his family, friends and community left deeply grieving.

In our current circumstances, we each need to suitably protect ourselves by physical distancing, wearing appropriate protective barriers, and asserting our right to have others honour our distancing needs.

Mental, Emotional and Spiritual Safety

There are plenty of stimuli assailing us that can stir up strong emotional responses, trigger anxiety, and even challenge our sense of purpose and value. I tend to immerse myself in news from around the world, and self-care for me necessitates some degree of stepping back from the unrelenting negative news of death, negative speculation and people making ludicrous decisions and statements (unbelievable how many conspiracy ideas are circulating now!). Maintaining clarity, balance and purpose is more crucial now than ever given there is so much more that can aggravate an already challenged sense of self.

Self-Maintenance

Beyond basic safety is the need for ongoing attention to maintaining resilience (easily worn down through anxiety and shock), strengthening your emotional and mental foundation, and ensuring you are adequately connected to people who support and strengthen you.

I am very fortunate. I live with Juanita, my wife, and after five weeks of isolation with her, I am still extremely grateful it is her I am with. I sometime get snappy and apologies become necessary, but not because she has done anything to me. And she does receive any apology as genuine contrition. When she is annoyed with something I have done, or not done, she makes a clean, direct request of me. She does not fume, get moody or harbour resentment. Once we have had a discussion it is gone. Nice! Those qualities, and other reasons I love her, make the fact I am isolating in a bubble with her much more than tolerable. Also, having worked from home for the best part of 25 years, I am not learning new skills or imposing a new routine on myself, other than a few specific outings to meet people that I now do over Zoom or Skype. The one thing that is disappointing is the bacon and blue cheese scone that I have every Thursday morning, the one day per week the café makes them, and I believe making those scone available for me ought to be an essential service.

Even in my blessed state, looking after myself is still important. Juanita and I haven’t been able to traipse through the hills of Wellington as we did most weekends. Walking around the block has had to suffice. Emotion does build up. In situ exercise, stretching, journaling, and manual labour help alleviate pent up physical, emotional and mental energy. Reading and meditation can shift your attention, and bring space from a busy inner world. Connecting with friends, perhaps coffee appointments (over Skype or Zoom), keep the social muscles working. Actively connecting with someone you trust and sharing what is really going on for you, how you are feeling, can be beneficial, bringing relief through letting go. I recognise that some find this incredibly challenging or impossible.

I know that soon a member of my family, my dad, will be dead, and that I will not be at the funeral. I live in New Zealand and my dad lives in England. He has already lasted longer than the few weeks the doctors gave him. As I consider how best to take care of myself, I have shared with him all I needed to say, “Dad, I love you and I am glad you are my dad.” While I know grief will be part of my package of emotions, gratitude for how blessed I am is current for me. Expressing gratitude is a fantastic way of pushing the scales away from the negative and reminding self that some good stuff is happening.

Some questions for reflection to conclude:

  1. What are you doing to care for yourself?
  2. Where important is your sense of self, your well-being, and your self-maintenance to you?
  3. Are you noticing heightened reactions to stimuli over what your normal? If so, it suggests your resilience is depleted.
  4. What are you doing to let off steam/reduce pressure without negatively impinging on others?
  5. Where do you place your emotional and mental attention? How is that serving you? Are there any adjustments you can make that will strengthen your wellbeing?
  6. How is your relationship with yourself? Is that one working for you?
  7. Which of your relationships are strengthening and caring for you? Who else can you and do you rely on for sustenance? Is there any action you need to take that will strengthen and support meaningful connection with others?

Co-Counselling: A Doorway to Self-Directed Healing and Transformation

I have been practising Co-counselling for over six years, and as a result I am equipped to process emotions, identify and resolve patterns of belief and behaviour that get in my way, and am able to create my own positive future. These and other outcomes are directly accessible by learning and practising Co-counselling.

I became aware of Co-counselling as a result of the Essentially Men programme, the skills learned being a core to the programme. As I learned Co-counselling my capacity to work with myself and support others increased; I became more emotionally competent. Now, as a facilitator of Essentially Men programmes it is a vital part of my tool-set.

When I first attended training I realised I was harbouring significant anger and was distancing myself from women because of a then recent betrayal by a woman who had been a dear friend for many years. Consequently I would not allow women close to me, and I was failing to form and maintain intimate relationships. I carried so much distress that I didn’t know how to act differently. As a direct result of my Co-counselling training I was able to identify and dislodge patterns based in fear, grief and anger, and opened up to new possibilities. I was able to re-engage with women in an open, wholesome way, and that led to healthy relationships.

The ability to identify my core needs, the distress associated with them not being met, and discharging the built up energy, has enabled me to autonomously direct my own healing process. I have become my own healing detective, able to find a symptom that indicates a blockage in my own flow of life, and track back to the source and resolve it.

Far more than focusing on and healing past hurts, Co-counselling supports and encourages actively creating positive futures. Validations are core to the practice, tapping into the positive truths we hold about ourselves, and expressing them, perhaps reversing what may be a lifetime of self-criticism. Action planning is used to map out next steps. Celebration magnifies the positive experience of success and acknowledgement. These are founded on authentic connection with self, and not on the fabricated distress of a lifetime of pain. Learning the skills and practices of Co-counselling is liberating and enlarging, and enables you to write a new script for your life. I have for mine.

More than at any time in my life, I am now living the life I always wanted. I am married to the woman of my dreams. I have written the book I had known was in me. I am increasingly working in the way I have always dreamed of. I am manifesting my purpose and vision more fully than ever before, and I know that more is to come as I continue to open to myself and allow my essence to emerge with greater freedom and passion.

I have learned that how I feel is not hard-coded. I can change my experience, my attitudes, beliefs, patterns of behaviour, and even how I feel. I am captain of my ship, navigator of my life, and that I have proven I can withstand storms with a certainty that comes from knowing and loving myself. And Co-counselling has assisted me to achieve this.

If you are struggling with self-limiting beliefs, burdened by pain that seems unrelenting and overwhelming, are deafened by your own internal voice of criticism, or want to shape a better future, I encourage you to add Co-counselling to your toolset. It is personal and portable, can go with you wherever you choose to travel. It will assist you to feel and experience life more fully, so that whatever you believe and want to create can become a reality. It will bring you into community with others who are interested in creating a better planet by creating better selves, themselves, and then living their purpose more fully.

Me and My Shadow

Me and my shadow
The shadow in one of it guises

A recent experience reminded me of the power and potency of my shadow. I don’t mean that dark outline on the ground when a light is shining. The shadow I am referring to is the collection of behaviours, beliefs, attitudes and traits that have been hidden within.

As we grew up we learned that some behaviours, no matter how natural they were, were not socially acceptable. Children playing with their genitals quickly learn they shouldn’t. Or that they need to keep their clothes on. Temper tantrums are generally ruled out, as are many other behaviours. We learn that our life is easier when we comply with social norms. Those parts we bury as we socially comply are collectively referred to as our “dark shadow”. We also have a “light shadow”, which is where socially acceptable behaviours that we did not feel safe to display are hidden. Examples might include playfulness, innocence and creativity.

As I have become acquainted with my shadow over the years I have been shocked by some aspects and surprised, even disbelieving, of others. My shadow’s repertoire includes common themes of anger, sexuality, and power, common themes throughout society, though the specifics vary person to person. The environment we grew up in shaped our shadow. One shadow character I have become acquainted with is the Seducing Assassin. She beguiles the man in power and kills him before he gets his sexual desires met. That character embodies all the elements of power, sexuality and anger. At the other end of the scale my shadow includes the Potent Virgin, a young, vital woman committed to protecting her chastity for marriage, and is totally equal to resisting all pressures and recognising all subtleties from others wanting her to relinquish it. What? I have feminine shadow characters? Yes, or as the psychologist Jung named them, anima. And women have animus, the masculine portion of their psyche. We all have mixtures of masculine and feminine energies that comprise our shadows.

Recently I found myself in a situation that awoke me emotional to:

  • Fear and powerlessness in the face of overwhelming aggression directed at me from someone of superior physical strength;
  • Rage felt for someone who betrayed my trust and abandoned me; and
  • Helplessness when confronted with suicide attempts of a loved one.

I was very aware of my emotional responses as they arose, but it was the emergence of part of my shadow that caught me by surprise. I found myself in a political debate, something I normally avoid like the plague, and was in a thoroughly “take no prisoners” mode of debate. I was unflinching in ripping apart what I heard, and had no tolerance for anything I judged as illogical or unfounded emotional fluff. I found myself suddenly manifesting a part of myself I had long ago, 30 years ago in fact, buried and decided was not how I wanted to present myself.

Now, I recognise that part of my shadow has emerged and as an energy it has legitimacy, providing me with a greater repertoire of possible responses and approaches over the artificially restricted ones I have used. There is power in the energy; there is nothing that dictates how that energy is applied. That is choice.

This experience has reminded me that nothing of my past is lost. Everything I have ever been is still part of who I am. That is only a problem if I have a lack of acceptance for who I have been or who I am. Generally, I am okay with who I am. I am okay as me with my shadow(s).

How are you with your secret, hidden parts? Are you able to integrate the energies that emerge, as and when they do, productively into the rest of your visible psyche?

The FACT of Life

Father with son in play
Supported learning process

Life is full of its surprises and moments. There are some that catch us off guard, with only subtle differences from other situations where we have succeeded against all odds, yet in this instance we come crashing down. From the outside observer it could almost feel random, yet within us there is something new and uncharted that makes the result no less shocking but perhaps less surprising.

We have roles we develop from the moment we are born. Survival functions include eating, eliminating waste, learning and coping. We might have a role of “playful eater” which our parents sometimes found funny, and at other times got angry with us, perhaps because that moment seemed less cute, especially as they were in a rush to go out. The “Inquisitive Learner” is something toddlers are well known for, getting into everything.

As we develop and experience life, we develop roles for each context of life that we encounter, the collection of roles comprising our personality. As we enter a new context we may be able to borrow capacities from similar roles, but there is a period of vulnerability as you familiarise yourself with new areas of development, particularly when there are areas of functioning required in the role that you have not developed. Each role can be underdeveloped, embryonic, adequate, or overdeveloped in some aspect.

Each role consists of Feelings, Actions and Thoughts, and are used within a Context. FACT is an easy acronym for remembering them. When we lack a fullness of expression across any of the feelings, actions and thoughts, we are underdeveloped. Where they exist but have not achieved adequate expression in the given context, they are embryonic. Those that we over rely on, that are patterned behaviour, and that therefore get in the way of us fully, spontaneously and creatively living life are overdeveloped.

Whether moving into a new position at work, starting a new relationship with someone, embarking on a new adventure, or seeking to learn a new skill, we have many unknowns and among those there are roles we will need that we don’t fully embody. That is a great time to consider your preparedness and the possibility of some form of coaching support that can provide you assist you bring to the fore and strengthen those roles that you need to succeed. In a new situation you don’t know what you don’t know, and to have someone that can assist you gain the FACT of life can be a fantastic way to walk with confidence into new environments, responsibilities and relationships.

Speeding Ticket

Confusing speed signs
Confusing speed signs

I cannot claim confusion as this image could certainly create. I was on the Northwestern Motorway on a beautiful, clear Saturday morning doing 100km, and I was photographed by a speed camera and a ticket was issued, a large fine for 30km per hour excess speed due to the temporary speed restriction signs. I did it! And then the mind goes to work and creates fog…

“I was in a line of traffic and everyone was doing the same speed… revenue gathering, not enforcement.”

“There was no one working… it was not a matter of safety… more strength to the revenue gathering argument”

“What about the traffic show on TV a few weeks ago where the motorcyclist got stopped by a traffic officer doing 100km in a 30km temporary signed area, and was let off… unfair! Impartial speed cameras just click away and there is no mercy, justice only. Grrr!”

I then imagine all the individuals in the other cars that sunny Sunday morning, all now having received their infringement notices, and all on their own in their grief, anger, frustration, or whatever else they may be experiencing. What fog are they experiencing? It is an individual experience even for a commonly share situation.

I notice my resentment, and know I am struggling with all sorts of stories in my head about fairness and justice. I feel powerless against the impartial machines that snap photos irrespective of what is going on around them, and it takes me back to a period of my youth with an authoritarian stepfather where powerlessness was a frequent experience. I feel angry because I have to pay money, and while I may slow down in the future out of fear of the machines, my 100km per hour was exactly on the speed limit for the motorway I was on except for… that temporary sign. I feel annoyed about the supposed teaching moment, one that has much less potency being confronted with a piece of paper a couple of weeks after the fact than having the ‘taking to’ by a police man at the time.

Of course I could write and argue the point with the New Zealand Police. Would that work? Or perhaps marshal all the other invisible, individually grieving drivers, and create a collective that makes this a bigger social issue.

All of this is fog, clutter that gets in the way of clarity, with feelings that are often rooted in past experience, regurgitated for this one. Much of this is irresponsibility in action, looking for the excuse to put blame for the result on someone else, and the sooner I claim and own responsibility, the quicker and easier my life will become. I still have to pay, and speed cameras will still be snapping tomorrow. At the end of the day (or of this episode) I have to own I was speeding, was snapped doing so, and either choose to follow an appeals process or pay up and let it go. The quicker I get to that place the quicker my life can literally move on to more important matters.

What raises clouds of fog for you? What do you do to process and clear it?

Relationships of Trust

Trusted jump
Trusting child leaps to an adult

When you have a relationship with someone that is full of trust and honesty, fantastic things can happen. Trust is akin to feeling safe. You are able to jump into the scary unknown with assurance that you will be okay. A trusting relationship provides such a safety net in which you can work through your emerging fog in safety. Being able to fully express what is up for you, knowing the other person will not take it personally, and that they will listen without judgement is liberating. It enables you to be open, vulnerable and honest, walk where you might otherwise fear to tread, and as a consequence unearth and resolve older, deeper emotional and mental patterns. This is a significant purpose of relationship. Remembering that whatever arises from within you is your own, not the other persons, to work through, enables clear lines of connection in the relationship, no matter what you are working with.

I have such a relationship in my marriage. We have had some significant and robust discussions that required trust on both our parts, and strengthened our trust as a result. Often the sharing is much smaller but the act of sharing still requires trust, and is still beneficial. The act of giving myself permission to share what is going on inside is a major freeing step to take. Recently I awoke from a restless, dream-filled night, felt quite anxious and full of shame, and was able to share this. A burden shared really is a burden reduced, and my experience was an immediate lightening of my mood and I had a fabulous and fruitful day. In the past I might have carried my mood throughout the day and suffered for it.

Whether a partner, friend, or trusted community, it is worthwhile finding someone you can fully, freely and safely express whatever is going on for you, and be received without judgement. The act of choosing to be witnessed in a vulnerable state provides relief to the soul and a chance to expand into new space.

My Heart Hurts

“I feel fragile and sad. What shall I do?”

Responses vary but many people have a natural response of putting the hurt behind them, looking for the positive way forward, and getting on with life. That’s a great capacity and skill to have. There are times when parking our current feelings and getting on with life is crucial. However, anything overused can be problematic. An alternative, and one not so commonly espoused, is to take some time and be a friend to the part of you that is hurting, or angry, or confused, or whatever it is, and love that part. Ask that part of you what it needs, what it is afraid of, and as a loving friend deeply listen. Loving yourself in those moments of distress and intimately connecting with your feelings and needs, can have potent and lasting healing power, and is a fabulous means to building a meaningful relationship with yourself. It has an integrative benefit where the often shamed and isolated part(s) of you learn to trust, connect and be with the rest of you. Resilience and power can develop more fully in that environment.