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Defining Aggressive Behavior

I became a news reporter for the Marine Corps in the early '70s. I'm now retired and write on a wide variety of subjects in my spare time.

Passive Aggression Is Toxic

Passive Aggression Is Toxic

Aggression is action motivated by angry emotions or hostile intentions, inflicting pain, intimidation, anxiety, or emotional suffering on others. Acts of aggression intentionally cause pain or harm to others. Here are a few examples of aggression:

  • Harry was driving home from work, feeling angry and frustrated about problems at work. He was also aggravated with the bumper-to-bumper traffic on the freeway. To top it all off, the car's air conditioner had decided to quit working and it was an uncommonly hot August day. Just as traffic was starting to move a little faster past a stretch of construction work, a battered black vehicle cut him off forcing him to hit the brakes and swerve to the right. Acting instinctively and aggressively Harry sped up, pulling alongside the offending driver, honking, gesturing and swearing obscenely. In other words, he was acting aggressively.

Suddenly, the other driver flourished a pistol and fired three times. Fortunately, Harry wasn't injured, but the sight of the pistol flashes, loud gunshots, and his windshield shattering quickly brought him back to his senses. As the other driver sped away, Harry pulled over to the side and waited until his pulse and respiration returned to normal. Meanwhile, he examined his own aggressive behavior.

  • When it comes to disciplining her daughters, ages four and seven, Cindy claims to “spare the rod and spoil the child.” But if she could actually see her “discipline” style, she would see very little true disciplining. She lets them have their own way, that is until they cross the line and do something that makes her mad. When the lamp breaks, blinds are pulled off the wall or violence occurs, then she decides it's time to apply the “rod.” She screams, hits, and shakes her children, believing she is practicing normal discipline. But the truth is, she is exhibiting aggression, and passing along her own aggressive behavior patterns.

Aggressive Punishment of Children

Aggressive punishment of children can be a short-term fix to suppress their behavior, but research shows it tends to produce aggressive children. They in turn, act out their aggression against smaller children.

Cindy's discipline style is clearly incorrect. Parents shouldn't provoke their children to wrath because aggressive behavior at an early age can lead to later problems. However, all children need a minimal level of aggression, otherwise they may become targets for other children. Anger and aggression only become problems when a child attacks another child or adult. With children this might be shown by biting and hitting.

We all know what anger is. We've all experienced it. It's a normal, usually healthy, emotion. But when it gets out of control and turns destructive, it can lead to problems. Problems at work, and personal relationships,


Simple relaxation tools, such as deep breathing and relaxing imagery, can help curb hostile feelings. There are books and courses available that teach relaxation techniques. In relationships where both partners have short fuses, it might be worthwhile for both to engage in studying these techniques.

Some simple steps you can try:

  • Breathe deeply, from the diaphragm, not chest.
  • Slowly repeat soothing words or phrases such as "relax," "take it easy." Repeat them while breathing deeply.
  • Visualize relaxing experiences.
  • Non-strenuous, slow yoga-like exercises can relax muscles and make one feel much calmer.

    Practice these techniques daily. Learn to use them automatically when you're in a tense situation.

    Cognitive Restructuring

    This means changing thought patterns. Angry people tend to swear. When angered, thinking can be exaggerated and blown out of proportion. Try replacing them with more rational and positive ones. For instance, instead of saying "oh, it's awful, terrible, or everything is destroyed," say, "it's frustrating, but it's not the end of the world.”

    Don't use words like "never" or "always" when talking about yourself or others. For example, "You're always forgetting things," or nothing ever goes right around here.” They aren't just incorrect, but also serve to make ones anger seem justified. They also alienate others who might otherwise have been willing to help. Becoming angry isn't going to fix anything. It won't make you feel better, but may actually make matters worse.

Angry people must become aware of their demanding nature. and translate their expectations into desires. Saying, "I would like" something is better than, "I demand" or "I must have" something. When you're unable to get what you want, you will experience normal reactions—frustration, disappointment, hurt—but not anger. Some angry people use this anger as a way to avoid feeling hurt, but that doesn't mean the hurt goes away.

Problem Solving

Sometimes, our anger and frustration are caused by real, problems. However, not all is misplaced, and frequently, it's a natural response. Some have said every problem has a solution. But that isn't a realistic statement. It can be upsetting to find this out. The best solution is not to focus on finding a solution, but on how to handle the problem.

Resolve not to punish yourself if an answer doesn't come along right away. Approach problems seriously attempting to face them head on. You will be less likely to lose patience.

Better Communication

Angry people tend to jump to wrong conclusions. It's natural to become defensive when criticized. Slow down and consider possible responses. Listen to what others have to say and take time before responding. See if you can discover what the root of the anger may be. It may take a lot of patient questioning and require some breathing space, but be careful not to let a discussion get out of control. Give yourself a break. Make "personal time" for times you know are particularly stressful.

Some Other Tips for Easing Up on Yourself

Timing: If you and your spouse tend to fight when discussing things at night, perhaps you're just tired, or distracted. Try rescheduling times when important matters are discussed.


Active Aggression vs. Passive Aggression

Aggression can be acted out in a variety of ways, but these forms of aggression generally fall into one of two categories: active or passive aggression. Both forms are hostile and are ways of attacking people we feel deserving of our hostility. Active aggression isn't hard to spot. It's expressed openly and frequently quite loud, and in extreme cases sometimes furiously.

Active aggression is an attempt to preserve one's sense of self-worth, at the expense of someone else. Even very mild-mannered people, when they sufficiently threatened can become actively aggressive.

Aggressive people are prone to loud, conflicts with family members, at work, and even churches. They tend to expend a lot of hostile energy on petty issues. Even petty scraps, are often defended with ferocity. These feelings are often rooted in a deep sense of insecurity. Whatever the issue, the real message is, “Respect and notice me!”

Active aggression is one option, but it's usually a destructive one. The other option, passive aggression, is no more constructive than active aggression.

Some examples of passive-aggressive behavior:

  • The silent treatment.
  • Procrastination.
  • Lying about feelings.
  • Backstabbing, rumor spreading, and complaining.
  • Engaging in irritating and aggravating behavior, but not crossing any lines that may lead to open conflict.

People often confuse anger and aggressive behavior. Passive aggression is an attempt to control or wound, another without risking open conflict. Healthy relationships don't need score cards to determine how many times one is right or wrong. Passive-aggressive individuals continually keep score. Passive aggression can be as destructive as active aggression, and often more so. It's more difficult to confront passive aggressors.

It's possible to be assertive without being aggressive. Behavior associated with wrath, bitterness, evil speaking, and malice is aggressive behavior. Assertive behavior, is healing and restoring.