Aggressive and Assertive Behavior

Recently, I was asked to compare and contrast assertive and aggressive behavior.  In responding to the inquiry, I realized that although I had written about both behaviors many times, I had not posted an article dealing solely with how these two behaviors compare.  Assertive behavior is a key element of healthy, independent, adult functioning.  But because asserting oneself is a form of “fighting” for one’s legitimate needs, it’s easy to get confused about the difference between aggressive and assertive behavior.

When my first book, In Sheep’s Clothing was first released nearly 15 years ago, I was careful to include a substantial material on the nature of human aggression in all its many forms.  That’s because there have always been so many misconceptions about the nature of aggression.  Firstly, many equate aggression with violence, when nothing could be further from the truth.  The vast majority of aggressive behavior among human beings is not violent.  Secondly, the many different forms aggression can take were poorly understood or confused, as exemplified by how often terms like “passive-aggression” are misused (in fact I include it in the “top ten list” of misused psychology terms).

In my new book, Character Disturbance, I try to do a better job not only at explaining and clarifying the various types of aggressive behavior but also how aggressive behavior in general differs from assertive behavior.  The following is an edited excerpt from the chapter in my new book that deals with aggressive personalities and explains not only the various kinds of aggression but also how aggressive behavior compares and contrasts with assertive behavior:

Aggression in human beings is not synonymous with violence.  Human aggression is the forceful energy we all expend to survive, prosper, and secure the things we want or need.  We reflect a deep-seated awareness of this fact in our linguistics:  We say things like, “if you really want something, you have to fight for it.”  We encourage those who are sick or infirmed to do battle with their cancers, infections, or other diseases.  As a society, we even launched a “war on poverty.”

Fighting is a huge part of life…and it’s fair to say that when we’re not making some kind of love, we’re waging some kind of war.  But how and we fight is another matter entirely.  And there are big differences between aggression and assertion.  Assertive behavior is fighting for a  legitimate purpose.  It’s fair and it’s principled.  It’d done with deliberately imposed and observed limits.  And the  rights and boundaries of others are always respected.  Violence is rejected, and the overall goal is constructive goal (to make a situation better).

In contrast, aggressive behavior is fighting for a purely selfish interest and to simply gain advantage over another.  No care is taken to impose limits or restraints, and the rights and boundaries of others are of little concern.  The goal is destructive because the goal is to weaken or incapacitate an opponent, and this can often involve violence.

There are also many types of aggressive behavior.  Aggression can be overt (open and unabashed) or covert (deliberately concealed).  It can also be active (reflected in what we do) or passive (the result of what we refuse to do).  It can be the result of an offensive posture, or a necessary aspect of a defensive maneuver Aggression can also be reactive or predatory (alt: instrumental). There are some really big difference between these two types of aggression:  Reactive aggression is a spontaneous, unplanned response to a genuine threat, it’s prompted by fear, it’s defensive in character (primarily motivated by the desire to keep something bad from happening), and the primary goal is prevention of one’s own victimization. Contrarily, predatory (or instrumental) aggression is calculated and premeditated, prompted purely by desire (sometimes not even precipitated by anger), is of completely offensive character and the goal is causing the injury or victimization of another.

It’s important to understand the various ways people have of fighting with one another and how to protect and empower yourself.  Learning how to stand up for your legitimate wants and needs without trampling the rights of others and without undue apprehension about the right kind of fighting is at the very heart of personal empowerment.  The above material is condensed from almost 14 pages and should be regarded only as a brief glimpse into this important topic.  Perhaps any questions arising from its necessary brevity can be addressed through any comments and replies.

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10 thoughts on “Aggressive and Assertive Behavior

  1. What is the best way of instilling assertive behavior and driving away aggressive tendencies in children before they become entrenched? If they have lived with emotional abuse and are teens, is too late? At what age is a disturbed character formed and how do you know when it is too late with a teenager? It scares me when I see egocentrical, entitled thinking in a teenager and I don’t know how to stop the slippery slide.

    1. Thanks for the question, Anni. First, it’s very risky to assume a direct connection between living with emotional abuse and developing attitudes of entitlement and egocentricity. Second, character formation begins to solidify for most in pre-teen years, but that doesn’t mean that there’s not still room for significant character reformation in teen and early adult years. The very best way of instilling the values needed for proper assertive behavior to develop is through modeling value-driven self-assertion and by doing your best not to reinforce or “enable” strictly self-serving or aggressive behavior. I try to illustrate how to do this in some of the vignettes in my new book.

  2. So would you say that character-disturbed traits are inborn, like certain type of personalities? Some people just seem to like to take charge, be egocentrical, choleric and opinionated. I know that exposure to childhood abuse is no excuse for an adult to be abusive, since an adult can take responsibility for choices made. But poor role modeling, when combined with an inborn trait for aggression (as seen even as a baby), could possibly result in a young adult with a disturbed character?

    Also I find it hard, while coming out of a fog of abuse myself, to distinguish between strictly self-serving/aggressive behavior and reactionary anger in my teens. In some ways, I can relate because I have a lot of anger myself as I try to deal with the reality of what we have lost through the oppression we were subjected to. But I also get triggered when I see self-entitled behavior in kids just as they get triggered when they see me start to get angry. So they explode out of their re-injury when I start being strict but I get strict when I think they are getting entitled because the last thing I want is to raise self-centered, proud, entitled children.

    If what I do is not going to change inborn tendencies then I might as well just put boundaries on my interactions and not expect to influence them, particularly if they are older teens. What I mean is that with a disrespectful, covertly aggressive teen who hasn’t healed of abuse, it might be better to not live under the same roof so the younger ones don’t get affected. This teen was aggressive even as a baby. Discipline only made the aggression covert, it didn’t correct anything.

    1. Of course, it’s not as simple or black and white as all innate predispositions or all environment. Both “nature” and “nurture” play key roles in personality formation and there many personality trait dimensions that influence overall personality style. On top of that, the degree to which one trait or dimension is mostly innate vs. conditioned varies. I make these points in all my writings. Over the years, I’ve seen just as many individuals display problem behavior patterns despite the most supportive and nurturing backgrounds as I have individuals whose formative years were characterized by so much neglect/abuse, etc. that it’s a wonder they turned out as weakly well-adjusted as they did. In any case, however, once a problem behavior pattern begins destroying relationships and any chance for healthy self-adjustment, that pattern must be the target for correction REGARDLESS of the causative factors for it. So, the “reasons” for maladaptive behavior are truly irrelevant. Besides, too many times, “neurotic” individuals try so hard to understand the reasons for inappropriate behavior (and sometimes make unwarranted assumptions about the nature of causal links) that they inadvertently excuse and/or “enable” that behavior. For various reasons, I can’t speak to any individuals particular circumstances. But hopefully, the general principles I’ve outlined here will be of some help.

  3. This comment from “Malcolm” who had trouble with the comment posting feature:

    “I want to join in this discussion as I have recently become aware of my 18 year old daughter’s manipulative behaviour. After a huge row I proposed family meeting to discuss the issues. In preparation for this I decided to write down my thoughts and the key words which came to mind were aggression
    and manipulation. As these are quite strong terms I decided to look then up in an online dictionary to see if I could find phrases that were less inflammatory, which led me to this site.

    It has been an extrordinary revelation to suddenly see what my daughter has been doing, and continues to do. It is like a veil has been lifted and instead of a fog of guilt and self doubt I see her behaviours and their underlying intention. I would say that in a nutshell, she undermines me by making my behaviours out as unfair, unreaonable and bad, where as she is
    reasonable, fair and good. I think this is her primary tactic and she will use this for small avoidances or big wants. With my wife, her mother, she exploits an insecurity of not being a good enough, loving enough, parent. She uses this to get what she wants from her mother and to undermine my wife’s view of me. What has become very apparent to me is that when my daughter is not with us, our live is peaceful and loving (I have an 8 year old son too), but with her life is stressed and
    painful.

    I want to learn ways to dis-empower my daughters manipulative behaviours. My biggest concern is that my wife will (is) finding this view of our daughter too challenging. My wife was very much victimised by her parents, even being sent to a psychiatric hospital in her late teens, and she has a strong
    aversion for labelling blame. From my point of view it is not about blame, but it is about fully realising what is happening and for us as parents to become appropriately assertive.”

  4. Dear Doctor Simon, Thank you so much for your book, “In Sheeps Clothing” and “Character Disturbance.” They have helped me to see what has been happening most of my life in my extended family and now in some of my children. It is clear that the children have learned the ways of the extended family in manipulation and aggression. It has been a hard road but is improving because of the knowledge you have provided. It appears that manipulation and Narcissism has become a way of life for much of our culture. Anyway, I am grateful for your articles and books.

  5. How do you deal with someone (an adult daughter in this case) who is co-opting the language and techniques of assertiveness to avoid admitting error, rationalize inaction that harms others and similar behaviour? I have searched the web for days and have been unable to find anything that addresses this topic. In this instance, one of our other adult children has a substance abuse problem and had been kicked out of his recovery house for violating the rules for having gone on a binge. He was sent to another treatment facility, but we had no idea where or whether he was safe. We were frantic with worry and sadness at his continuing struggle. Unbeknownst to us, he called his older sister (the daughter in question) to say he was safe and with contact information (we happened to be out of cell phone reach). We went five days without knowing any of this; where he was or if he was okay. Finally, we sent a text asking if she had heard anything. She then told us what was going on. When asked why she hadn’t communicated the information to us as this would be the decent thing to do, her response was that she had told her younger sister sister (our other adult daughter) and had left it at that, assuming she would contact us. When we pointed out that, given the seriousness of the situation, she could have made the effort to at least send us a text, she fell back on the assertiveness tactic of saying that this is her boundary and that she isn’t responsible for “care taking” anyone. I should also say that her sister says she received no such communication and checked her call history to be sure. Obviously, they can’t both be telling the truth.

    Assertiveness rights, like the right to act in your own best interests, end where it can reasonably be predicted that by doing so, you are likely to be causing harm to others. My daughter doesn’t seem to get this and maintains she has no obligation to anyone. To make matters worse, there is the strong suspicion that she is not being honest about the claimed call to her sister and, in any case, she had the information and could very easily have made sure she personally contacted all family members.

    So, I would appreciate your take on this (an all too typical exchange I am sad to say) and any references you could suggest that we could point her to that would perhaps give her an understanding that what she is doing is not assertive, but cruelly aggressive.

    1. Scott G. Dr. Simon will be the one to really make the call here but one thing that comes to my mind that makes it all a little tricky is that from what I read in your post, all of your children in this scenario are adults. AND, without knowing the actual background family dynamics it’s just so hard to determine who is doing what and why they might be doing it. It does sound like there is some tension. I do hope you get the clarity you are seeking and wish you luck.

  6. I strongly feel that, as a society, we confuse aggression with assertiveness, and even ‘look up’ to aggressors as ‘leaders’.

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