Aggression versus Assertion, Why Crossing the Line is So Easy

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There is a fine line between assertively standing up for yourself and aggressively attacking. This is because the emotions that push us to stand up for something we believe in are the same ones that often make us overreact. When we are fueled by anger, good things are rarely the result.

So, the first thing I teach people about being assertive is that standing up for themselves, or what they believe in, is a gift to themselves. It’s about making sure their thoughts or needs are recognized – by authentically sharing their message – rather than changing the other person’s behaviour.

In other words, the assertive part is about honouring your need to be heard and not about getting your way. Thankfully, by speaking our mind in a strong, confident voice we will often see positive changes happen around us, but that is a bonus and not our reason for using this skill.

Unfortunately when we react out of anger, fear or embarrassment we often disconnect from what’s really going on for us and allow our brain to feed our emotion rather than our needs.  When we allow strong emotions to fuel our fire, we must be aware there is a chance for things to rage out of control.  This is similar to a dog viciously attacking someone when a tiny growl or raise of the lip would have done the trick.

Interestingly, it is walking my dog that often reminds me of this situation first hand and allows me to practice what I teach.  My current dog has been with me for five years and I have worked hard to establish myself as her pack leader.  I know that my calm, assertive energy is all that is required to achieve this goal.  I use an authoritative voice and body posture that clearly tells the dog she needs to listen to what I tell her to do.

Then I go out for a walk.

On occasion my dog will decide she doesn’t need to listen to me because whatever is going on around her is far more interesting than what her pack leader is telling her to do. When this happens, I invoke my teachings and calmly tell her what I need.  She ignores me.  This sends an angry message to my brain – “she’s ignoring you, better amp up the volume.”

If I can remain calm and in-control the blood will continue to flow to the thinking part of my brain and allow me to assertively make my stand. In this situation should my dog continue to ignore me I could; turn back home (if she’s on leash), walk away (if she’s off), assert myself again, walk over to her and put her back on her leash, etc.  If I stay calm, I might even catch her.

About once a month, I take the outcome of my calm response (my dog ignoring me) personally – and allow my thoughts to start feeding my anger.  Our brains have no access to the outside world so all mine understands is that I’m angry and unchecked anger means danger.  When the brain gets this message, it naturally moves into a fight or flight response and diverts the blood away from the thinking part of my brain, to the more primitive survival area. In this case, I typically choose ‘fight’ and become the angry cave woman who, quite honestly, nobody wants to listen to…including my dog.

Being assertive never involves yelling, threatening, accusing or bullying. Behaving in this manner doesn’t strengthen us or increase our confidence, but allows us to vent in an uncontrolled fashion (similar to a volcano erupting) only to be followed by feelings like, shame, guilt, disappointment or blame.  It lowers us in the eyes of those we are dealing with (even dogs) and makes it harder for others to respect us.

The more we practice maintaining our self-control and recognizing when we are about to strike out rather than assert, the more we can keep the thinking part of our brain working for us.  Clearer thinking, allows us to stay calm and practice being assertive, which – when it comes to standing in our power – is half the battle.