The art of arguing, part III: how can individuals distinguish between assertiveness and aggression during arguments?

This question really helps us get at the loud part of arguing and helps us distinguish between what a lot of people might think of as “healthy” and “unhealthy” versions of holding our ground or pushing for more.

angerIn my office, I regularly talk with my clients about anger. In our culture, as in many cultures, anger is highly regulated. And this isn’t a mistake—more than the other major emotion groups, like say sadness or fear or shame, anger is the most likely to bring us to violence. It’s just true that anger is not risk-free. And so most of us grow up learning to keep a tight lid on our anger. What’s fascinating is that in our culture these methods of anger suppression are very gendered. I won’t get into the details here, but you will notice there are both methods and judgements about anger suppression that fall starkly on gendered lines. Men’s anger suppression is considered stoic, in both good and bad senses of that term, but also contains the roots of toxic masculinity—brute emotional numbing that doesn’t permit authentic rousing of emotion but still leaves space for the coercive behaviour of aggression designed to dominate others through a show of strength. Women’s anger suppression is constrained on different axes, primarily through the shaming of any behaviours or communications that aren’t submissive—women are taught labels like bossy and crazy. We struggle as a culture, together but in different ways.

I want to avoid making an academic distinction between assertiveness and aggression, but let’s say that assertiveness does not have to be loud or provocative. Rather, it is firm and has the characteristic of conviction. It simply says “this is a line for me”. It can be small or big. Assertiveness in this simple form is often hard for people to articulate, because it requires a certain inner sense of authority: that I can give myself permission not to be collaborative here, just to say what I want and what I need. Because gentle assertiveness requires this inner confidence that isn’t always present, novice assertive behaviour often gets a boost from anger or defiance, which deforms it while simultaneously energizing it. As we grow in our sense of self—our groundedness, our respect and trust in others—assertiveness can become much cleaner. Anecdotally, as a therapist, women are more likely in my practice to identify that they want to work on their assertiveness. For men, there is more enculturation to act with assertiveness.

Aggression looks like anger, but it is a mode of dominance and coercion, a show of strength designed to compel behaviour through fear. Aggression can be deliberate, but it is more often, in my experience, an unskillful expression of frustration, or helplessness, or anger. And, perhaps obviously, we expect this more from men.

Though that was all a bit abstract, it’s actually quite simple to learn skills in this area. Simple, as in not very complex, but I’m not saying it’s easy!

I often engage my clients in a game to learn more about anger itself, as a productive emotion. Anger is there for us as an emotion aroused when we are transgressed upon (the same conditions that illicit behaviours of assertion or aggression), but it is far more varied in the ways it moves us to take action. Because most of us learned to suppress anger, we don’t let it motivate us, we don’t try to surf on it. I ask my clients to hold off to the side their learned disrespect and fear of anger and to try to start surfing small waves.waves

I ask them, “What does 2 out of 10 anger look like? How about 3?” How does it feel inside? How do you know you’re feeling it? Can you point to the object that caused it? How might you express it authentically, without amplifying or diminishing it?

Rather than trying to avoid the perils of misguided or amateurish assertiveness or aggression, we learn to surf—by both experiencing and expressing—the thing that is really there.