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.