Assertiveness vs Aggression

“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:

We love this because there’s absolutely no violence involved. Nia is able to deescalate an extremely threatening situation with her assertive voice and her body language. Notice her straight back and steady feet. She’s not making fists.

In other words, she’s putting up a boundary without inviting a fight.⠀

It also shows that the examples of aggressive behavior that we mentioned above could have been taken care of with two simple words:

“Go away!” (“Back off!” and “NO!” work too.)

When “go away” or the more polite “please leave” don’t work, the phrases can be repeated until the boundary crosser gives up.

"Go away," "back off," and "please leave" are effective phrases because:

  • There’s no way to misunderstand, misinterpret, argue or contradict those statements.

  • They aren’t accusatory.

  • They are clear.

  • They don’t present a challenge.

  • They show that the encounter is over, thus ending the power trip and thrill.

But when they don't work, there’s always the option of walking away. As Gavin De Bekker points out in his book The Gift of Fear, “If you tell someone ten times that you don’t want to talk to him, you are talking to them—nine more times than you wanted to.”

Here’s another example from Gilmore Girls, this time with Lorelai’s ex-boyfriend Chris crossing Lorelai’s boundaries by forcing his way into her childhood home.

The issue isn’t so much the argument itself.

The issue is that Lorelai engages him by arguing, which prevents him from leaving.

But look at how her mother, Emily, solves the problem:

Helping Women Embrace Their Assertiveness

We’re all born with the ability to be assertive. Babies cry, and loudly, when they want something. Toddlers throw tantrums and make their likes and dislikes known to the world.

But as women, after constantly being told to lower our voices, be kind, and not cause trouble, our ability to assert ourselves gets buried.

The good news is that our assertiveness can be uncovered and rediscovered.

Here are some of our methods:

1. We teach women to breathe in through their nose, deep into their abdomen, and yell “NO!!!” as they exhale. To help them become more comfortable with their voices, we have a variety of drills, like going around in a circle and having each woman say a letter of the alphabet, each louder than the next.

We also make sure that they understand that their "NO!" never, ever, needs to be justified or explained. "NO!" may be a tiny word, but it deserves respect even on its own.

And we're allowed to use it, guilt free, whenever we feel the need.

2. The “fight" response is often accompanied by an instinct to move towards the source of danger.⠀


We’ve all seen the way superheroes like Buffy approach a villain. They make fists and rock back and forth, signaling that they are ready to attack.⠀


But we teach students to stay in their stance as much as possible, with one foot slightly behind the other and both hands up, palms out, and back straight. Our stance, especially when we don’t lean forward and remain steady, creates a boundary instead of inviting a fight.

And it's important to maintain the stance even if things do get physical.

3. Most women who come to a self-defense class for the first time have never hit anyone. To help them get used to the sensation and build their confidence, we use play.

Our favorite games involve pool noodles:

Final Thoughts:

As our president and founder, Yehudit Zicklin-Sidikman, likes to explain,

“If you look at at the animal kingdom, puppies, kittens, lions, tigers, and bears, all teach both genders to protect their bodies, their food, and their offspring equally.”

Humans are the exception.

As Yehudit has also explained, boys are encouraged, even supercharged to fight, even though it would be a good idea for them to learn to freeze every now and then.

And yet, women receive the message early on that fighting, whether verbally or physically, even for the sake of their own well-being, is taboo.

Which is ridiculous, because we know that the more we set boundaries that allow us to take care of ourselves, the more we are able to have healthy relationships with and be there for the people we care about.

So there's no reason for this double standard, and no reason that boys and girls shouldn't be given the tools to protect themselves.

How many male podcast hosts would have started a discussion about fighting by proudly admitting that physical aggression makes them uncomfortable?

In empowerment self-defense classes, we don't advocate physical aggression. It's actually quite the opposite. We teach women to use their assertiveness to do everything they can to avoid a physical fight, and we do everything we can to make sure our students understand the difference between the two terms.

At the same time, we teach them that when their physical boundaries are crossed, they have every right to, and are absolutely capable of, fighting back.

Someday soon, we hope to hear something like this in the media:

“Today, we’re going to hear stories about knowing when and how to fight. I don’t like the idea of violence, but when it comes to defending my emotional and physical well-being, I'm up to the task.”

* How do you define aggression? How do you define assertiveness? And in your opinion, what's the difference between the two terms?

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