What do you think of when you hear aggression? Do you immediately jump to wars, killings, guns in schools or other violence? The Psychotherapist Jeanne Bunker in Austin, Texas, speaks of violence as a “perversion of aggression.” She warns that the idea that aggression is only violent means that we lose our efficacy and power.
Fear of our aggression keeps us stuck in fear of advocating for our needs. But aggression, if handled with consciousness, is a necessary and powerful catalyst for change.
Florence and Rick came to see me because their teenage daughters had asked them to. While the parents had little hope left for their marriage, the kids wanted them to try counselling. To understand what was happening in their marriage, we needed to look at their history.
Florence and her sister Juliette grew up in Canada with a mother of British background but a father from Corsica. Their dad used to get emotional and expressed his joy and anger loudly. So when Juliette’s equally passionate husband gets emotional, she is not phased by any outbursts. Instead, she remains stoic and can have a discussion with him, advocating for her wants and needs.
Juliette’s sister Florence, however, is married to Rick, who grew up with soft-spoken parents. In his family of origin, anger was never directly expressed but rather hinted at passive-aggressively. Any expression of annoyance or anger from his wife shut Rick down. He perceived her as overly aggressive and felt attacked. He froze and became paralyzed. His mind went blank, and he could not respond or express his needs.
Rick had a similar response to his boss, who immigrated from Italy 20 years ago and who Rick also perceived as capable of “inappropriate anger outbursts.” Around his boss, Rick lost his ability to think clearly and express himself effectively. His boss felt unpredictable, and he was too intimidated to ask for a long overdue raise.
How we perceive and handle anger and aggression is cultural. For example, Corsica and Italy are both known for places where emotions are loud and outspoken. In Great Britain, Canada and even the US, on the other hand, the unbridled expression of anger is generally viewed as more or less of an issue.
When we examine the energy of aggression free of a cultural context, we realize that it is one of our instinctual energies as humans. The terms anger and aggression are often used interchangeably. However, anger is a feeling, and aggression is a behaviour associated with emotions like anger or fear.
In 2017, I wrote about anger being the tip of the iceberg with hidden, vulnerable emotions underneath the surface. My blog from 2014 compares anger to the maintenance required light in your car because it gives us feedback that something needs to be addressed. All emotions are good because they give us a piece of information. Sadness, for example, lets us know that we are missing something and might want to find a way to replace it. Likewise, anger also tries to get our attention; perhaps we perceive a situation as unfair or another more vulnerable feeling needs to be acknowledged and expressed.
All energy that exists in the world, including aggression, is useful or beneficial if we use it with consciousness. Every energy exists on a continuum. The energy is weak or hardly present on one end of that continuum. At the other end of the continuum, the energy is dialled all the way up and feels perhaps uncontrollable. We need to dial up our aggression to just the right amount to use it as vital energy that propels us forward. When we learn to fear the power of our aggression, we are stuck in non-action.
Aggression paired with desire and courage is a fabulous catalyst for change. For example, when Rick linked his desire to have a fulfilling marriage with Florence to courage and aggression, he moved towards a true connection with his wife and co-created a marriage that fulfilled both their needs. When Rick also linked his desire for a promotion and success in his career to courage and aggression, he successfully pushed against his inertia. He took action to get the raise and promotion he wanted.
We always have a choice in how we express aggression and how much we dial it up. It takes practice to dial it up to assertiveness rather than an uncontrolled force. It can be messy when we are still unskilled, and we will have to repair, but that is okay. We will not be totally competent when we decide to be more assertive. Sometimes things will come out stronger than we intended or be not clear enough.
However, if we don’t express ourselves, the discharge of anger still has to happen. It might then burst out uncontrollably and in a destructive way, for example, when Rick had had too much to drink and became hurtful and sarcastic with his wife.
What also often occurs is that the anger is turned towards the self. Without being able to express anger and channel it into a healthy form of aggression, there is despair, hopelessness, and giving up. Rick confirmed that he had a strong critical inner voice attacking him aggressively. This inner critic can mercilessly beat us down and tends to be stronger when we have not learned how to show up with a healthy amount of aggression.
Unacknowledged aggression causes a disconnect. However, aggression used with consciousness creates intimacy in a relationship. When something is not working in a relationship, we might hesitate to hurt the other person’s feelings. Based on limiting beliefs learned earlier in life, we might also be afraid that our needs don’t matter and we won’t be heard. As a result, we end up pulling away and are less present. There is less and less connection, less intimacy.
It takes different components of self-awareness to connect our desire with aggression. It requires
- becoming aware of our needs and feelings
- noticing that we are withdrawing
- activating our desire to still be in a marriage or relationship with the other person
- deciding that the risk of expressing our feelings and needs is worth it
Rick had pulled away from Florence. He avoided conversations or even spending time together. His view of her was judgmental. He felt she should control her emotions more and express herself less directly. Their lack of emotional connection affected their family life and their sex life. Rick was waiting for the kids to grow up and fantasized that he would leave once they were both in university.
Florence was very much aware of him being emotionally unavailable. She was sad and felt abandoned but expressed this with an angry pursuit. So their relationship dance was one of distancer and pursuer. Even their children noticed that they had to change up their dance steps.
Image by 👀 Mabel Amber, who will one day from Pixabay
To do that, they needed to experience each other’s vulnerability and learn to feel safe with each other. Florence had to work on tuning her expression of anger down. Rick first needed to understand that aggression is valuable and to trust that he can handle this instinctual energy. Then he had to find the courage to step into the discomfort of connecting with his own aggression to speak up. After several coaching sessions, he told Florence, “I need to talk to you. I am very nervous about this, but our relationship is important to me to risk this conversation.” Meanwhile, I coached Florence to use active listening and remain curious until she understood what her husband felt and needed. When Florence and Rick could connect again for the first time in many years, they both cried with relief.
We might hold back from expressing our true feelings out of the misguided concern of hurting the other person’s feelings. If that is your challenge, it might help to keep in mind that it is actually belittling to your partner when you use them as an excuse not to be courageous and not to tell them the truth. We are choosing our own fear to avoid discomfort over the relationship and the potentiality of real intimacy.
So, we are more respectful and hold our partners in higher esteem by expecting them to be adults who can manage their emotions. And even if the other person does not appear to handle their emotions well, we need to be okay with them feeling that unpleasant sensation. Emotions are part of life and cannot be avoided.
Nobody makes us feel a certain way. Others can trigger our emotions, but when we choose to stay in an emotion beyond the initial response, there is a story that we are telling ourselves about why we feel this emotion. We choose that narrative and can also change it. When we own our emotional responses, we can expect other grown-ups to do the same. Then we can learn to be comfortable in the face of their feelings and any situation of conflict.
It is through conflict that we build secure attachment. When conflict happens, we disconnect, but we can utilize conflict to get closer if we repair and communicate well. The more skillful we are at repairing, the deeper the connection becomes. Over time we also learn that reconnection creates a securely attached trusting bond after a conflict.
Rick and Florence learned to reconnect and become more proficient at expressing their needs and wishes to each other. As a result, they became excellent role models for their teenage daughters on how to “do conflict well” and lean into their assertiveness to have a fulfilled marriage.
Expressing your needs and desires assertively needs to be practised.
To create a stronger and more connected relationship, reach out for individual sessions or couples coaching.