Aggression Appreciated: A Defense of the Fight Response

Aggression: readiness to attack or confront.

I imagine that when you hear the word “aggression” you think of a slightly different definition. Something along the lines of “hostile or violent behavior.” But both can be found in Webster’s dictionary. And Oxford’s, and several others. I checked.

It’s a word charged with danger and judgment. I can only think of two contexts in which it isn’t considered entirely bad. Someone aggressively chasing a dream might be praised for their determination…though they might just as equally be judged for it. The other context is in martial settings, like planning fictional or real campaigns or in martial arts or other combat classes, where the term is merely technical.

In general, our society does not like this word. Yet I always have. I’ve often identified with it. I usually euphamize it by saying “assertive,” and there are definite differences between the two, but a readiness to confront isn’t an inherently bad state to be in. In fact, in many cases it is encouraged. It is an element of confidence.

Assertive: having or showing a confidence or forceful personality.

One could argue that aggression is a natural part of assertiveness. An assertive person can easily enter and inhabit the space known as “aggression” because they are confident in their ability to confront, and can and will wield the force of their personality in said confrontation.

As a Christian I am commanded by God to be ready to confront wrongdoing, first in myself and secondly in my faith community, and thirdly in the world at large.

A certain amount of readiness for confrontation has been a necessary skill in both my personal and professional life as I vie for respect and opportunity against myth, mistake, and misanthropy.

Aggression in a human being is often vilified, deemed the cause of conflict. But what causes the aggression? What signals the human being to enter into a posture of readiness for confrontation?

A young woman grew up in a house full of criticism. Cutting commentary on her daily life filled her mind and set it on fire. She watched her parents’ withering words flatten everyone around her from other family members to her own friends, and determined not to be among them. She learned to fight back.

Launching litanies of their own imperfections back at them, this young woman discovered that they flinched when faced with their own faults. So fearful of their own inner critics, her parents retreated before her, and she felt free for the first time.

So she honed her skills, learned to take note of what people were most sensitive about. She could defend herself with their weaknesses. Now primed for all the social danger the world had to offer, she stepped out into adulthood in search of her future.

Cowardice is no longer the crime it once was. The face of fear is cherished and soothed. But when it puts on the mask of aggression, do we recognize it?

Our case study is now sitting with her friends in a cafe, regailing them with the dramatic tale of her most recent break-up. He’d made that same comment about how they wouldn’t be late as often if she’d just remember to put her purse away each time she came home, and she found her sense of personal responsibility under attack.

“Well, I’d had just about enough of his nagging and whining,” she declared. “So I up and told him if he was so worried about being late all the time he could exercise more so we could walk a little faster to get there instead of blaming me for his problems all the time!” that, naturally, lead to a fight, which led to its inevitable dissolution.

Her friends congratulate her on not taking any flak, on being clear on what she wanted, on not settling for less. They applaud her confidence, standing up for herself was something they admired about her. She basks in their approval, and the power she wielded to gain it.

Our Dog trainer, Kim, made an interesting observation about Greta’s socially inappropriate behavior last week. (I bet you were wondering if I was ever going to wander my way back into my niche at some point!).Seeing Eye dogs are trained to walk as far to the left as possible. Their bodies shield the handler from obstacles on that side, and by walking as far left as possible they avoid a lot of right-side obstacles, too.

Naturally, Greta disapproves of people walking on her left side, be they moving in her same direction ahead or behind her, or coming toward her on that side.

This is slightly inconvenient for Americans, who all like to travel on the right side of the road, hallways, and stairways. But since most handlers are right-handed, The seeing Eye trains their dogs to work on the left-hand side so the blind person has their dominant hand free to do things like open doors, press elevator buttons, work phones, and perform other travel-oriented tasks.

Greta’s left-side pre-occupation is what we in the counseling field call a “coping skill.” Since the term is pretty well understood in the vernacular, I won’t bother to define it. But I will explain that we are moving away from language like “healthy coping skill” and “unhealthy coping skill.”

Further research into the concept has revealed that most coping skills can be classified as both healthy and unhealthy at some level of application, and oftentimes at some point in the user’s life. Instead, we prefer to say things like “That coping skill seems to be causing more harm than good,” or “that coping skill seems under-utilized.” Coping skills are just tools; their usefulness determines whether or not they ought to be present in any given situation.

Let’s go back to our case study for an example. Her aggressive response to criticism, from romantic partners to employers to family members, is a coping skill. In the beginning it served a very valuable purpose; it protected her from verbal abuse. A young child with almost no agency or power, she discovered a way to turn vicious barbs away from her tender soul. Were there perhaps better ways for her to protect herself? Maybe. But who would teach her those? Her tongue-lashing parents? She did the best she could to meet her own needs.

But now, sipping lattes with her friends, none of them has mentioned to her that this is the 9th such break-up she’s crowed about in the last two years. Perhaps all 9 attempts at finding love had introduced her to 9 different criticizers, or perhaps a few of them had only intended to offer some critical feedback or just had bad days and meant to apologize. Maybe a few of them weren’t habitual vipers, but she was so ready to confront this demon from her past she was unable to wait long enough to find out. Her coping skill was now thwarting her intention to find love.

At some point Greta decided that incursions on her left side, primarily coming toward her but sometimes approaching from any direction, were too risky to tolerate. AT some point she had a single outburst, a loud, forceful shepherd “woof!” And all the humans around her flinched, and the offender backed up. And Greta felt relief. She felt safe. Her bark had just been rewarded by a flood of endorphins.

I agree with and highly value the left-side training that The Seeing Eye gave Greta, and gives all their dogs. It makes a lot of sense in almost every situation. They even teach us how to adapt the skill for when a left-side maneuver isn’t possible, so they’re not so rigid in their thinking that they dont’ recognize it as a skill, a tool, which is only useful in situations it was designed for.

But in another Rare break with Seeing Eye philosophy, I am now working with Kim to teach Greta to tolerate people approaching on her left side. Greta’s coping skill is thwarting her intention, which is to guide me safely. It needs to be scaled back.

And our case study? She wants love, but she also wants to be safe in her relationship. She shouldn’t have to give up her ability to defend herself any more than Greta ought to give up her determination to trail along walls and sidewalks to her left. But her hair-trigger response to lash out at anyone who appears likely to criticize her needs to be re-tuned to give people the benefit of the doubt.

Greta is learning, first by having safe, known people walk on her left, that left-side incursions aren’t inherently dangerous, just inconvenient.

And our case study, if she were sitting on the couch in my office, would be collaborating with me to find ways to practice receiving constructive feedback from me and her friends, safe people, so she can begin the work of maintaining her defenses without repelling potential partners before they have a chance to love her.

Is aggression just fear turned outward? Well, we have two definitions to work with.

Hostile and violent behavior? That’s certainly outward-facing. Yes, that’s a coping skill run wild.

But a readiness to confront? That sounds more like it could present as a mindful awareness, with solid preparation underneath it so there’s no need to fly off the handle. Aggression could be the worst tool for the job, or the very best, depending on how well it’s understood, and when it’s used.

We finished off that enlightening training session with a brief exploration of canine life-vests because my upcoming family vacation will include a kayaking trip through the Oregon Redwoods! Greta spotted the hole where her head fits through the vest, and instantly poked her nose up through it. TO her, it was just another harness, and harnesses mean going interesting places and doing interesting things. She let me fasten it around her without trouble. She’ll do fine on our trip.

Puppy Pictures Pending!

Today your favorite blindfluencer asks you to reflect on how your fear, be it expressed inwardly or outwardly, might be soothed with a little understanding of how it’s protected you in the past.

P.S. It’s my birthday! If you want to give me a present, go read and review my Book, and check out more content on this blog. And find a dog to snuggle.

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