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Assertiveness vs Aggression

January 17, 2019

“Today, we’re going to hear stories about knowing when and how to fight. I don’t know about you, but when it comes to physical fighting, I’m not that up to the task.”


This declaration is how Catherine Burns began a recent episode of The Moth, one of the world’s most popular podcasts.


Those of us in the self-defense field hear comments like this all the time.


“I’m not comfortable with violence.”


“I don’t believe in fighting violence with violence.”


“Self-defense isn’t for me. I’m not an aggressive person.”


When we dig a little deeper, we often find that the women saying these things aren't interested in learning to deal with conflict, whether verbal or physical, because they’re afraid of becoming aggressive.


That was certainly the case for Batoul Saleh, a student who chose to not participate in a self-defense class that her high school was offering.


And then, there’s the other side of the coin. We also hear women talk about wanting to become aggressive.


Whether it’s to be taken more seriously at work or for physical self-defense, the idea of aggression seems appealing.

Like in this episode of The Fosters, when Mariana, wants to join a roller derby team:


"I just wish there was like, a sport that I loved. Something that made me aggressive and empowered. Like when Mom tried to teach me with the self-defense? Something that made me more confident."


But here’s the thing. In empowerment self-defense courses, we don’t teach women to be aggressive, and we definitely don’t teach them to be violent. 


Instead, we teach them to be assertive.


What's the difference?


What does it mean to be assertive?


Before we get to that, let’s talk about what assertiveness is not.



Passive Behavior -- Letting Somebody Cross Your Boundaries


“We all need to be safe before we can thrive.”


~ Ellen Snortland


Love and War and Snow” is one of the most popular episodes of Gilmore Girls, likely because it’s so cozy and charming.


But the scene where Lorelai puts up a boundary, which literally involves her front door, and then proceeds to let Max, a man she hasn’t known long, trample all over it, is a great example of passive behavior:


LORELAI: See, I have really strict rules about dating. I keep my personal life totally separate from my life with Rory. You know, I never want her to feel unsettled or like her life could just shift at any moment.


That could not be more clear, yet Max starts to push:


MAX: What if I promised you that if you let me in, all I’m expecting is a cup of coffee, that’s it. Nothing weird or funny. Unless, of course, you’re into weird and funny. . .




And then he pushes even more:


MAX: At some point in your life you’re gonna have to decide that some guy is worth opening that front door for. I am just volunteering.


Here’s Lorelai’s passive response:


[Lorelai opens the front door and starts to walk inside. She turns back to him.]


LORELAI: Would you like some coffee?


[Max smiles and follows her inside]


The next morning, Rory is not exactly thrilled when she finds Max, her teacher, asleep on her couch.


At first glance, this might not seem like a big deal. But we argue that Max’s behavior is a red flag, similar to that of the male character in the song "Baby It's Cold Outside." At best, it’s pushy and rude, neither of which are desirable traits in someone you’re dating. At worst, behavior like this could, in some cases, be a precursor to date rape.


Either way, in this situation, Lorelai is not safe emotionally or physically. So how could she, or the relationship possibly thrive (even with the help of a thousand yellow daisies – which were a problem in themselves)?


Aggressive Behavior -- Crossing Somebody Else’s Boundaries


“When we fail to set boundaries and hold people accountable, we feel used and mistreated. This is why we sometimes attack who they are, which is far more hurtful than addressing a behavior or a choice.”


~ Brené Brown


When women talk about not wanting to become aggressive, they’re likely referring to behavior like this (language alert):


No doubt Sally had a right to be angry. And she was dealing with a close friend, so there was no real threat of physical danger.


In real life though, a slap like that, with swearing to top it off, could escalate the situation and put Sally in danger. (And imagine if roles were reversed.)


Here are two more examples of aggressive behavior:


1. Julia and Ray Don:



Hilarious, right? Not to mention entertaining. The problem? Julia’s rant was filled with things Ray Don could argue with or even just comment on, which makes the challenge of staying at the table and pushing Julia’s buttons more appealing. The rant creates a game that has the potential to become dangerous.


And by being insulting, she’s crossing his boundaries when all she needs to do is protect her own.


2. Dorothy and Stan:



Again, classic and fabulous. The problem is that a door slam, like Sally’s slap, has the potential to escalate the conflict. A door slam is aggressive and, as you can see, does not prevent Stan from returning.


So what type of response to those situations would an empowerment self-defense instructor recommend for Sally, Julia, and Dorothy?


To answer that, let’s talk about what assertiveness is.


Assertive Behavior -- Not Allowing Somebody to Cross Your Boundaries


“‘No’” is a complete sentence.”


~ Anne Lamott


Contrary to popular belief, asserting yourself doesn’t require being rude or unkind. And more often than not, assertiveness doesn’t require any kind of physical violence.


This scene from Supergirl is one of our favorite portrayals of assertiveness: