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?

Building Resilience

Lone palm
Bend rather than break, a quality of resilience

The idea of developing resilience has been embraced by many businesses only to be put on the back burner, with so many other good ideas, as the requirement for a longer-term commitment and conscious effort became evident. Those organisations that are mature enough to commit energy and resource to the long haul do realise value beyond what any short-term initiative could enjoy.

The ability to actually hang in for the long-haul, exert energy and attention over time, even when apparent benefits are not immediately noticed, is a quality of resilience, whether speaking of individuals, teams or organisations. Resilience enables us to bend without breaking, and to adapt and find our way to back to the surface when immersed in a flood of trial, trauma, adversity or other challenges. Like a muscle, resilience is developed with practice, by engaging with “reasonable” amounts of stress. Developing resilience facilitates the growth of self-esteem, self-efficacy and other intra-personal capacities. As we develop our own resilience we are then better placed to lead teams and organisations, and support the development of resilience in others.

I have just finished reading “Long Walk to Freedom”, the autobiography of Nelson Mandela, and as a result have found myself reflecting on the subject of resilience. Unwavering in his commitment to the freedom of his people, a concept placed higher in his value system than personal freedom, Nelson passed through 27 years of imprisonment to come out conqueror. I specifically don’t say “suffered through”. Suffering is a choice. While he certainly experienced significant trauma, his capacity to reframe his moment-by-moment experience within the context of his higher purpose gave his life meaning and shifted his experience from what could have been severe suffering to clean struggle. While not a perfect being, and he does admit to many flaws, Nelson consciously looked for the response from within himself that would create the most significant, beneficial outcome. As he struggled under significant oppression, he sought to move from fear to love, consciously chose powerful responses over fear-based reactions, and maintained a consistent internal dialogue regarding purpose and meaning regardless of external pressures to change his core beliefs. His struggle brought meaning, and ultimately victory, though the latter is never assured.

In “Man’s Search for Meaning”, writing from his personal experiences and his professional background as a psychologist, Viktor E. Frankl asserts that it is those who found meaning in the adversity that they experienced who were best able to survive the traumas of the World War II concentration camps.

Some well recognised techniques for developing resilience include:

  • cognitive reappraisal: re-framing negative experiences using a more positive perspective
  • mindfulness meditation: develop the capacity to observe stimuli and the physical, emotional and mental responses in an impartial way that enables objective detachment and an increases one’s capacity to stay present
  • aerobic exercise: well recognised for reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety, and improving mental capacities of attention, memory, decision-making and planning.
  • Stress inoculation: taking on increasingly difficult challenges in a deliberate manner to develop the resilience muscle
  • Backing of trusted people (without advice): increases self-confidence, provides a safety net and supports the development of problem solving, reappraisal and actively engaging with challenges

How resilient are you? How do you handle the challenges that come your way? Do you find your inner mettle in times of challenge, or do you look for external circumstances and people to blame? What strategies have you got in place to develop your capacity further?