Most of us learned that aggression is wrong. We learned to behave politely, to be courteous, agreeable and kind. We learned to anticipate the lenses through which other people see us, and then, to fear their judgments. “What will people think if I say what’s on my mind?” “What will people say if I look aggressive?” As a therapist, I hear all kinds of concerns—fears that people will judge and talk about us—and by almost every measure, being called aggressive means we’ve behaved inappropriately. As a result, we avert the impulse to be honest about our thoughts and feelings because we’re not sure we’re allowed to be forthright. Out of the dilemma about how we will “look,” many of us actually prefer passive aggression as a means to escape our fears of being straightforward. We work ourselves into knots withholding our real feelings, but other people usually sense them anyway. Passive aggression doesn’t work no matter which side you’re on.
We’ve forgotten that aggression holds an important place in the spectrum of human emotion, that it’s a feeling that reveals information about how we can attend to ourselves and our relationships. Aggression, like any emotion, contains wisdom that points the way towards alignment with our higher selves.
Of course we won’t resolve aggressive feelings by being hostile or by aggressing others. Lashing out won’t work, nor will other approaches that amplify aggression. But neither will we come to a positive relationship with aggression by disavowing our feelings.
Aggression was a complex issue in my family. When I expressed feelings like sadness or anger and tried to talk about it with the people involved, I was usually made aware that such expressions were unwelcome. There was plenty of aggression; it just got expressed by talking about people outside our family unit. Feelings lingered uncomfortably under the surface to be felt but not spoken about. Because my parents hadn’t learned in their families, I didn’t learn how to communicate safely and effectively with them. We didn’t work through challenging feelings in a way where we could experience true listening and resolution. On more than one occasion, I was told my feelings were wrong.
I acted out my predicament in many ways. My grades suffered and I behaved poorly in friendships. On my own passive aggressive roller coaster, I pretended one thing with people I “cared” about, then contradicted myself when talking about them with others. I was a terrible friend. It wasn’t until I reached my thirties that I began to grow a different relationship with honesty and power.
But what exactly is aggression? “Aren’t we talking about assertiveness here?” one helpful person suggested.
In part, yes. Aggression is a feeling like any other, and assertiveness is one of many ways we can respond to aggressive impulses. We might know aggression as a sense of urgency, irritation or even a desire to fight. Anger and hostility can also be a part of aggressive feelings. Healthy aggression would not include the use of violence (except to defend oneself physically), and verbal sparring isn’t productive either. Violence and raging are abusive. So what good can possibly come from tuning into our aggression?
I tell my clients something that might sound radical at first: aggression can be a good thing. Not aggressing, being hostile, or malicious, but allowing ourselves to become aware of aggression so we can register it consciously and attend to the needs it suggests. In my work as a psychotherapist, I don’t set out to fix or change anyone’s feelings; I support people in finding healthy ways to care for themselves and be with their experiences.
What are safe ways we can respond to our own internal aggression? Aggression should be harnessed with wisdom and balance, not acted out mindlessly. Healthy aggression involves embodying our boundaries such that we can respond to challenging situations with power and clarity, ideally while holding compassion for ourselves and the other people involved. To respond to our aggression wisely, it need not look aggressive.
I recently encountered a woman in a language class who tried my last nerve. She had a gregarious manner and frequently interrupted both the teacher and my classmates. While I would have enjoyed meeting her at a cocktail party, I found her to be disruptive and grating in class. When directed to work on a project with her and another student, I tried to share an idea I had, but she cut me off and interjected her own thoughts. Anger and irritation rose, but this time I wasn’t silent. “Wait, let me finish,” I managed to get out in a patient tone. She stopped speaking, and I got to finish my thought. Later, during our break, the other member of our group came over and thanked me. “I didn’t think I could say something so simple,” she mused. “And you said it so nicely.”
Lots of us get stuck because we learned to turn off “bad” feelings and suppress undesirable thoughts. While it can definitely be challenging, it can also be simple to begin to form a healthy relationship with aggression inside.
What are some positive ways we can engage our aggression?
1. Ask for what you need
Maybe you got annoyed by someone, but you didn’t feel you could say anything. If you notice the swell of aggression, you may want to ask for what you need to help provide resolution (like I did with the interrupter). Keep it simple.
2. Defend your rights
Someone I know recently needed a specialized type of surgery. Her insurance company directed her to see a doctor who was not a specialist in the field. Already adept at healthy aggression and determined to get the care she deserved, she pushed her insurer to cover the specialist.
3. Defend the rights of others
From the bullied child on the playground to groups with marginalized status, harnessing our feelings and reactions to support other people’s rights (and our own) is a great way to use our aggression. There are many historical examples where groups and individuals supported one another through nonviolent resistance which ultimately led to critical policy change. Through engaged dialogue and activism we can help promote education and equality.
4. Make simple, nonjudgmental remarks
When in doubt, non-attacking statements like “I don’t know if I agree with that,” or “That doesn’t feel right to me,” are less risky ways to convey dissent without cutting off the feelings inside. These statements also give us time to consider our evolving perspective and needs. Depending on the quality and type of relationship, we might also consider sharing our feelings once we’ve made some space for ourselves.
5. Let yourself be powerful
When we’re afraid of stepping into our bigness, we sometimes falter out of a desire for approval—even when we’re entrusted with positions of authority. Here we can benefit from experimenting with incremental risktaking as we grow into our confidence.
6. Take space from difficult situations
Direct communication isn’t always the best solution while under physical or emotional duress, or in situations that are unlikely to change. In these cases, simply removing yourself from the dynamic for a period of time is a clear communication to yourself that you can meet your needs in other ways.
7. Share your experience with supportive people
Seeking support from trusted friends, family members, therapists or spiritual leaders who bolster our confidence and aid our empowerment is a necessary component of growth and healing, especially when we get discouraged.
What do we have to lose if we don’t form a healthy relationship with aggression? I hope you can see, a great deal. We can feel stuck, isolated or powerless. We can remain in unhealthy relational patterns, letting others in our social spheres take power from us because we haven’t embraced it inside. We can perpetuate submissive behaviors, allowing someone else to control our potential. Without forming a healthy relationship to our natural aggression, we model to others that it’s risky to be strong. And by cutting off the experience of aggression, we cut off the flow of emotions and ideas that might require all our strength to work through. If we think we’re never allowed to look aggressive, we might never let ourselves feel entitled to good boundaries and meaningful, fulfilling relationships. We might never go after our dreams.
In the heart of our conflict, our very purpose is at stake. Wise and measured use of aggression is crucial not only to self-actualization, but at rare vulnerable moments, to our very survival. A balanced relationship with aggression encourages us to speak up when we need to, to take action and hold clear limits in tough situations. We do a great service to our wellbeing when we embrace this part of our strength.
It can be hard to wrap our minds around the idea that aggression could be anything but harmful, but the origins of the word offer one little hint about its benefits. From the Latin, ad, toward; and gradi, to step, we can see that the root of “aggression” essentially means to come forward. To me, that’s an encouraging reframe. We don’t need to live in fear of our strength or convolute our true feelings. We can embrace our power and use healthy aggression in our everyday lives.