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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Embrace Change with Power and Purpose

Changing your mental context
Changes, a new mind-set required

According to James Baldwin, the American novelist, “Most of us are about as eager to be changed as we were to be born, and go through our changes in a similar state of shock.”

Regardless of its nature, we need to embrace change with power and purpose. While there may be some change we do want, I also refer to those changes we do not want or seek. It is the challenge found in the unwanted and significant changes that truly tests our character.

Resilience, fear, and letting go are three factors we need to address when responding to change.

As humans, we have physical, emotional, mental and spiritual bodies. Our emotional and mental bodies are similar to our physical in that without exercise and challenge they become flabby and lose tone. Our spiritual body does not so much get flabby. Rather we disconnect from it and lose sight of the being we are, or become aware we never have truly known who we are. It is our relationship with who we are that gets flabby. Change is the catalyst for encouraging and requiring “whole-of-being fitness”. How cleanly and powerfully are you able to respond to change? Does change throw you into a stressful place? Can you ride the wave of change and maintain your composure? The fitness of our whole being forms the basis of our resilience. Physical health, emotional intelligence, mental acuity and a powerful sense of who we are amidst change ensures we are internally resourced.

Fear is a natural reaction to change, even when we want the change. We fear losing the status quo, our current state. There is comfort in the familiar. We don’t KNOW what the end state will be like, even if the grass seems greener. There is the motivating force that pushes for change, and our reactive fear that retards our fluidity. If the reactive fear is greater than the motivational force, we are stuck.

When faced with fear we tend to be reactive and the four F’s come into play: FIGHT, FLIGHT, FREEZE and FABRICATE. The first two are instinctual, reactions driven by the reptilian brain, the amygdala. Freeze is related to higher brain function becoming overwhelmed with information and decisions, and shutting down. We become stuck. Fabricate relates to creating or projecting a mask, a false image, like a chameleon changing colours, so we don’t have to fully face what we fear. It is a learned behaviour, often from our childhood, used to cover our fears. Whether belligerence, shyness, a whimpering “poor me”, these devices seek to control the actions of others in relation to us. We often use fabricate so fluently, these manufactured behaviours become confused with our personality, embedded patterns.

When I received the surprising news that I had a six cm benign tumour in my brain I left the specialists office and told my wife, Juanita, very matter-of-factly that I had a life threatening condition that needed urgent surgery. An observer could have misjudged me as being remarkably calm. I certainly portrayed calm. I was in fact overwhelmed, emotionally closed down. I coped by distancing myself from my emotional world. I was fabricating calmness. All natural, understandable, and in fact necessary. Time and space was needed for me to internally process and get my ducks in a row. However, I had to move past this initial reaction and connect with what was really going on for me to powerfully and purposefully work with the change.

To move forward powerfully, we need to bring the fullness of our being forward. We need to change our F’s to A’s. Fight, flight, freeze and fabricate need to transform to ASSERT, ATTEND, ACT and AUTHENTICATE. Assert who we are and what we need. Stay present. Take action. Be real and call on others to be as well, in themselves and in relationship with you. Then we are responding to change rather than reacting.

For the first few days I maintained my calm demeanour. There was also some overwhelm, self-pity and helplessness. I couldn’t be bothered looking for ways to be powerful or purposeful. Knowing the specialist was referring me to a surgeon, I was prepared to let the hospital process take its own natural course. My wife proactively followed up on it and found it was stuck in the system and would have never got to the surgeon without intervention. I would be dead without her efforts.

My overwhelm shifted. I took ownership of the process. I researched the tumour, and thoroughly understood its impacts and what the surgeon could do, and what the implications would be. By the time I saw the surgeon he was telling me what I already knew, apart from the date for surgery. A friend was a grief counsellor. In speaking with her, she suggested I actively enlist the support of friends as that would make the process easier for me and Juanita. I informed friends in various networks I was part of about my situation. I had been a facilitator of programmes for men for a number of years. I attended a meeting of men and shared my news, my terror and my uncertainty. I experienced a wonderful outpouring of love and support. That grew when the network of several thousand men were informed. We had friends from all around the world in a vigil while I was under anaesthetic, praying or otherwise actively sending positive energy in my direction. Over 120 people were on the update list who chose to be kept informed of my progress for the first few months. Many of those who were local visited me as I had strength to receive them. As shocking and frightening as the news was for me that I had a tumour, I never would have learned the power and support available in such time without it. It really was quite humbling. There was more good will available than I had the capacity to receive.

However, the surgery was only part of the journey. I found that as the post-surgical reality set in, I had enormous grief related to loss of function – primarily hearing, balance, and emotional composure. From time to time, uncontrollable grief welled up, and I would burst into tears for no apparent reason. I would have fits of rage, something entirely alien to me before surgery. These, among others, told me I was not functioning correctly, that I was broken. That is where the third major factor came into play. I had to let go of being who I had been and learn to accept my new self. Over time many of the extremes have disappeared, but my emotional world is much more volatile than it used to be, and some of the qualities I really liked about myself prior to surgery have been lost. Part of the process of letting go has been to reframe my new reality into something meaningful and workable for me. Reframing provides the brain with rationale for why the new situation is okay, positive, good. Once the brain becomes can then settle and find new and productive ways of working within the new context.

This experience has been a series of challenges for me. I have not always managed to embrace the change with power and purpose. In fact, sometimes I have struggled against my new reality, a thoroughly futile thing to do. However, I have never lost sight of the fact it is up to me, no one else, to create the life I want moving forward. While potently and patiently supported by my wife, who has been my rock, it has still been up to me to positively move forward, to assert myself, stay present, take action and be real.

What challenges are you currently facing? How could you strengthen your response to the changes so you claim and maintain your purpose and power? Whatever it is you face, I wish you potency and strength to face up to the challenges. May you find your resilience, your way to overcome your fears, and a means for letting go of what is no longer available in ways that work for you.

What is Your Social Footprint?

Footprint in the sand
What is your social footprint?

Yesterday while enjoying coffee by a beach, my wife and I watched an enjoyable series of related social interactions. A grandfather and two young granddaughters (or so they appeared to me as an outsider) parked their car and got out. Half the car was blocking an entrance to a parking garage, well over the painted yellow writing “NO PARKING”. The grandfather took no notice of this, getting the girls, no older than 5 or 6, out of the car. As he continued preparing for their day at the beach they started to quiz him about where the car was parked. One even paced out the portion of the car that was in the NO PARKING area and challenged him about it. He finally took on board what they were saying and bundled them back into the backseat of the car, belted them in, and got in the car himself. Just as he was starting his engine, a car across the road in a legitimate car parking space started up and pulled out. Granddad reversed his car back to exit his space when another car came along, indicating it would take the newly vacated park. Granddad had not even indicated he was moving, let alone that he wanted that space, but he put his hands together, as if pleading with the man who had just arrived to take the space. With a smile directed at Granddad the man granted granddad the space and carried on. Granddad and the girls parked in the legitimate spot and then went off happily to play on the beach. Any number of those events could have played out differently. A few examples:

  • Granddad leaves his car in the original, bad parking position and someone is blocked that needs to exit or enter the parking building. Granddad gets towed and possibly fined. Unhappy outcome.
  • Granddad could have argued with the granddaughters that they should respect their elders, ignored them, rather than giving them an experience of their own legitimacy, and the beach could have been a less than happy experience. The girls clearly liked their granddad. It was great that they could reason with him and have him take on board what they clearly identified as a problem. Granddad added a lot of value to his granddaughter’s self-concept.
  • The man in the car, with legitimate right to claim the car space, could have. That would be a neutral result for him, parking and knowing he was justified, but instead he made someone else’s day. He added a lot of value in that moment to granddad and the girls with some inconvenience to himself.

Counter that with a story my wife then told me, having watched this episode, of how she was waiting to turn into a car parking space a few days ago, paused and indicating to allow the exiting car the time and space it needed to reverse out. Once the car was out and before she could move in, a man sped into the space, stealing it from her. From an ego perspective he may feel he won the space, battled for or stole it, perhaps feeling smug with himself. It reminds me of a quote from Nelson Mandela: “I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken away from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity.” While not in the same league as the experiences of Nelson Mandela, stealing a car space is to be aggressive, to invade another’s space, to rob them of what is theirs, to withhold one’s own compassion, and to diminish humanity in that moment.

In every moment where we interact with another human being we leave our social footprint. Does yours add value, or does it leave a polluted mark on this planet. There is enormous concern and attention placed on ecological footprints, and we often hear that as individuals we cannot make a difference. It’s a global problem. The social footprint you leave is entirely up to you and the choices you make and the actions you take in the moment with another being. Do you pollute or improve this planet by being here? Do you recognise the impact you have on others? Do you choose to improve the experience of those around you? Are you so focused on yourself and what you want that you fail to miss precious moments of value adding opportunity with another being? If we were to check your social ledger, would your social footprint show you as reducing the net value of social interactions or of positively contributing? Do you experience compassion towards others or do you remain isolated and attentive to your own world alone? Each moment with another is an opportunity to, through even the smallest of choices, make a positive contribution to your life’s social footprint.