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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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?

Walking the Talk

It is all well and good espousing a way of being, and suggesting there is power available as we engage with others in a love-based responsive way and not from a fear-based reactive mode but putting the philosophy into action can sometimes be really challenging. Recently I hit one of those “character building” episodes.

Hair-pulling turmoil
Hair-pulling turmoil

Having spent significant energy redesigning and redeveloping my business web site I met a series of roadblocks to going live that related to supplier misrepresentation or incompetence. One example was a hosting provider, before sign up, stating I would be able to load my site and test it prior to going live. This proved false. After signing up I loaded my site and was then told, on asking how, that I could not view the site without changing my domain pointer to the new site, effectively putting my untested site live and taking the live site on-line. Misrepresentation!

Having found a suitable hosting provider and being ready to go live I then approached my original, then current, provider and indicated the steps I wished to follow for an ordered transition. On their recommendation I decided to leave my Domain Name Server (DNS) record with them. When I cancelled my hosting account, in line with their recommended change to my approach, they destroyed my DNS record. I had no email or web site. All gone.

Within hours of losing my email and web site I flew out-of-town with my wife on a holiday to attend a wedding and had significantly reduced capacity to follow-up and pursue a solution. I found myself anxious, furious and frustrated, with bouts of powerlessness and helplessness. I work in the IT and Telecommunications industries. If I were to cause a client severe (or any) inconvenience or was negligent in any way then I would be held liable, and would be expected to resolve any issues with all expediency. Not so for a large supplier with a small client. They showed no interest in resolving the situation, and had plenty of excuses. I found my emotional turmoil magnified. It turned out that I was without a web site and email for five days. The provider updated my file to include “sorry” but there was no personal acknowledgement.

At the height of this crisis I was totally without my power, consumed and crippled with emotional turmoil, leaving me in a highly reactive, fear-based state. What to do? This was a thoroughly unhelpful and unproductive way of being. I could not positively resolve my hosting issues, and was not enjoying my holiday.
In my book “Appreciate the Fog” I write about power-based, thrive responses (Assert, Attend, Act and Authenticate) that are positive alternatives to the fear-based, survival reactions (Fight, Flight, Freeze and Fabricate). I was well and truly reactive, not really even surviving. The key question for me was “How do I reclaim my power?”

For me, in that moment, awareness that I needed to shift was key. My second aid was to share my struggle and that I wanted to reclaim my power with my wife. She listened, allowed me to vent as a way of clearing myself emotionally, and then asked, “So what can you do now?” Great coach! Within minutes I was in a place of clarity, had taken a couple of small actions that positively moved things a little and I was largely free of my turmoil. I had reclaimed my power, and I had a great weekend. Yes, I still had to wait for the Telco monster to take their steps and resolve their incompetence, but I did so in a better place than if I had remained worked up. It can be difficult walking the talk, but it is worthwhile.

Anger Management

I wouldn’t call it a great movie but the movie Anger Management‘ released in 2003, starring Adam Sander and Jack Nicholson, did highlight an aspect of anger that is often overlooked and ignored, that of inappropriately not feeling or expressing anger. I can totally relate to this.

I spent many years believing I was patient and tolerant as a person, and that I was naturally even tempered, and well in charge of my emotions. I did not get angry. I did not feel angry. I felt composed most of the time. If I did not feel composed I squashed the feeling response until I did. I grew up with little emotional response to things that occurred around me, and my judgement of myself was that this was good. As an approach it kept me safe, and I now know that is what it was all about, feeling safe. By stifling my experience and expression of emotion I was able to control my external response to people and situations. I looked calm and did not take any sudden action, or cause any ripples with those around me. In fact I had layers of protection that ensured I kept myself to myself.

I had a four-year-old part or role that ran away and hid, feeling unwanted and inadequate. I had a seven-year-old part that looked after the 4-year-old part, keeping him safe and hidden, and could be quite comforting. He was very vigilant to danger and emotionally shutdown. I could cope better as a 7-year-old if I did not show my emotions. The 11-year-old part of me was even more protective, even more emotionally shutdown, keeping both the 4 and 7 year old parts safe, with less of the caring component. At 17 I developed another role within myself that was a response to anger and physical danger. It would use anger and urgency to silence any part of me that wanted to speak out or be noticed. Anger was buried very deep within me under all these layers.

For more than 15 years I have been developing awareness of each of these roles within me, understanding the events at the time that encouraged these roles to develop, addressing the threats and fears that these various roles were created in response to, and learning to express myself more immediately and authentically, sometimes with anger. I now know that anger was a strong part of my life, but feeling unable to express it, I directed it at myself. That was damaging on many levels. Unexpressed anger is problematic and needs to be worked through so full, authentic expression is possible.