The Ten Commandments of Character – Number 8

In my new book Character Disturbance, I discuss the essential values and principles to which a person must reliably adhere to develop strength and integrity of character. Some of the most important of these principles are embodied in what I call the “ten commandments” of sound character development, some of which have been featured in prior posts.  These commandments address issues such as a person’s need to overcome inherent egocentricity and to acquire a realistic sense of their place amid a much bigger reality, to be very mindful of the impact we all have on others and the world around us, to guard against a sense of entitlement by striving to be grateful for the many gifts we have been given, to maintain a balanced sense of self-worth, and to be honest in our reckonings with others as well as with ourselves.

It’s hard to think of any problem in human relations that doesn’t stem from a failure to adequately discipline one or both of our two strongest instincts: sex and aggression, and in Character Disturbance I give much attention to the need for persons of sound character to be masters of their urges and appetites, including their sexual appetites and aggressive urges.  While classical theorists spent a lot of time examining what can go wrong with a person’s psychological health when these two important drives are severely frustrated, there’s been little attention given to how character development can be seriously harmed when these drives go untamed and mismanaged.

Managing our aggressive instincts is perhaps one of the biggest challenges for character development.  As I first pointed out in my book In Sheep’s Clothing people have always done a lot more “fighting” in their daily lives than we (especially traditionally-minded mental health professionals) have been willing to admit. In the arena of human relations, if we’re not making some kind of love, we’re generally making some kind of war. Our instinct to aggress is a close cousin of our survival instinct. We go after the things we think we need to survive and prosper. How we go about that daily fight, however, marks our character. When we fight for what we need but with principle, with respect for others’ rights, and with care not to injure others — in short, when we fight constructively as opposed to destructively — it’s more correct to say that we are being assertive rather than aggressive. But one doesn’t have to reflect very long on the nature of the conflicts that rage around the world or even in our homes and workplaces to know that people don’t always take the assertive as opposed to the aggressive and destructive path.

Learning how to manage our aggressive instincts is a task we must all learn early and learn well. Hence, the eighth “commandment”:

Neither your tendency to anger nor your instinct to aggress is inherently evil, although wrath is a “deadly sin.” Anger is nature’s way of prompting you to take action to remedy a bad situation. You have the right to look out for your welfare. But you also have an obligation to consider the welfare of others. Some things in life really do have to be fought for. But when you do fight, fight fairly. Above all, fightconstructively and for a truly just cause. Do not strive to simply injure or to gain advantage over others. Expend your aggressive energy in a manner that builds as opposed to destroys. Take care to respect the rights, needs, and boundaries of those with whom you might struggle. And most especially, appreciate when it’s in your best interest as well as the interest of others to back-down, back-off, concede, or capitulate. Managing your aggressive urges thoughtfully and effectively is the task of a lifetime. Yet it is a task that when well-done — perhaps more than any other task you face in life — defines your character.

Over the years I’ve counseled many individuals whose life became a shipwreck because they never gained mastery over their aggression. Some of these individuals struggled with longstanding “anger issues.” But some did not. Remember, anger is not necessarily the precipitant of aggression. Sometimes, the precipitant is simply desire. Many of the individuals I’ve counseled simply never learned how to temper or moderate themselves in the pursuit of what they wanted and ended up running over others in the process, thus making a mess of their relationships and bringing untold pain into the lives of many. For these individuals, acquiring the controls necessary to assert as opposed to aggress truly was the task of a lifetime.

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