Assertion entails stating what we want, or do not want to attain in a particular encounter or situation and putting our energy behind manifesting that outcome. Assertiveness generally entails some degree of attunement to the effect of our actions on others who may be affected by them.
Aggression, on the other hand, implies our going after what we want in a rather forceful manner, often without regard as to the consequences of our actions on others. Aggressiveness is generally characterized as constituting a rather hostile form of expression.
Being compassionately assertive entails clearly stating our own desire while fully honoring and expressing our compassion for those affected by our actions. This column will focus on how we can enhance the quality of our recovery by cultivating the quality of compassionate assertion, while further elaborating on the distinction between assertion and aggression.
Our culture is heavily oriented toward promoting and reinforcing the quality of aggression, both in our interactions with others as well as in steps we may take to enhance our own performance. While our culture promotes aggressiveness in many realms, examples that immediately come to mind include the business world, politics, the sports arena, and academia.
Almost from the moment of birth, males in particular are conditioned to be highly competitive in many of our interactions with others. In my own family, my brothers and I were raised by two overly zealous teachers who emphasized academic achievement to the max. When it came to grades we were conditioned to be highly competitive with our classmates, and at home we were encouraged to compete against each other.
As a young boy I enjoyed playing softball and wrestling with other guys on the block. When I was introduced to organized baseball, however, I lost all sense of enjoyment in the game. For as long as I can remember, Little League has been a real downer, as the games are often overrun by overly zealous parents pushing their kids to win at all costs. It goes without saying that commercially organized sports represent the epitome of cutthroat competition on steroids.
While the political realm has always been highly charged with aggressive competitiveness, in recent years the ruthless, cutthroat nature of political expression in our country has escalated to an astronomical level. Representatives of both parties receive marching orders to cast aside any semblance of decorum in ruthlessly striving to undermine the competition. Most sadly in today’s toxic political environment, earnest efforts to strike a bipartisan compromise in settling contentious issues are often viewed with disparage as a “quaint relic of the past.”
Based on my observations and experience throughout my adult life, I am convinced that in many cases the corporate business world inculcates an orientation toward hyper-aggressiveness among its workers. In today’s highly competitive business environment, corporate leaders are often overly-obsessed with performance as measured by this quarter’s bottom line. Carrying that orientation to an extreme is very dehumanizing to employees. This highly aggressive corporate culture views workers as mere tools of production, to be dispensed with at the drop of a hat when bottom line results fall below projected performance.
In the executive suites of too many corporations, the over-seventy-hour-workweek is viewed as a badge of courage, while concurrently rank-and-file staff are constantly on call via a barrage of after-hours texts and e-mails. Sadly, the hyperaggressive orientation of far too many businesses has negative repercussions in terms of spill-over into workers’ off-the-job lives and their interactions with family and other loved ones.
Now let us take a look at potential negative consequences of excessive aggression affecting both the targets of aggression and aggressors themselves. Hostile aggression can be extremely detrimental to aggressors’ targets. In the workplace, employees reporting to a hostile, aggressive boss may obey the boss’s orders out of fear, while losing respect for their superior and also succumbing to decreased motivation and loss of self esteem. In families in which hostilely aggressive expression among one or both adult partners is the norm, other family members feel beaten down and forced to live in a constant state of hypervigilance. Not surprisingly, this pattern often prevails in families headed by one or more practicing alcoholics and/or addicts (Hafen, Karren, Frandsen, & Smith, 1996).
Excessive aggressive behavior also poses potentially devastating consequences affecting aggressors. Highly aggressive people often suffer from loneliness and isolation, as both their behavior and demeanor tend to drive others away. Research findings also indicate that such individuals have a heightened propensity toward abusing alcohol, tobacco, drugs, and other toxic substances (Hafen et al., 1996). In addition, highly aggressive people suffer from abnormally high rates of mental-emotional illness, along with dramatically heightened risk of a wide variety of somatic illnesses, including a substantially increased risk for both heart disease and hypertension (Hafen et al., 1996; Friedman & Rosenman, 1974). A presentation on anger and its effects on the heart—one of many given at The American Psychosomatic Society’s 72nd Annual Scientific Meeting in March 2014—reported that anger and hostility both influence rehospitalizations for people with heart failure (Keith et al., 2014).
Cultivating Compassionate Assertion
At the beginning of this column we stated that compassionate assertion entails clearly stating our own desires while fully honoring and expressing our compassion for others affected by our actions. Benefits associated with practicing compassionate assertion include the following:
Compassionate assertion promotes smoother, mutually rewarding interactions with others, thereby generating increased goodwill.
We feel better about ourselves. When we assert ourselves in a compassionate manner we tend to experience increased well-being, contentment, and serenity.
Compassionate assertion is closely associated with a positive outlook on life. Resultant health benefits are associated with an overall calming and balancing influence on our various physiological systems, which in turn promotes increased energy and alertness, together with reduced risk of succumbing to virtually all forms of illness.
In my opinion, the first step in cultivating compassionate assertion is developing a compassionate outlook toward both ourselves and others. In my own life I attempt to take whatever steps I can to cultivate a personal relationship with a beneficent higher power. I find that both prayer and meditation are particularly helpful in that regard. In working our program and making amends to others we have harmed, we also need to focus on making amends to ourselves for the adverse consequences of our negative past behaviors.
Many people in recovery, myself included, tend to hold back from effectively communicating our own needs as a consequence of our past history of harmful aggression directed toward others. In line with the principle of self-forgiveness, it behooves us to consciously give ourselves permission to express ourselves in an appropriately assertive manner.
By the same token, in cultivating the art of compassionate assertion we need to be on the lookout for situations where we tend to approach others in an adversarial manner. For example, when I am speaking on the phone with a customer service representative concerning a rather upsetting experience, if I am not careful, I will often end up venting my anger on that innocent bystander. I now attempt to take several deep breaths before initiating the call, reminding myself that the person I am calling is not the source of the problem. I have also learned that it helps to visualize that I am talking face-to-face with that person, rather than by telephone.
Develop the skill of patient living. In our fast-paced, aggressively oriented society, many if not most of us fail to truly listen to others when they are talking. Instead we only give them a slice of our attention, as our primary focus centers on rehearsing our response to their comments. Deep listening entails calming ourselves down and focusing our full attention on what others are saying. Pay attention to what they are really trying to tell you, as reflected not only by their words but also by their tone of voice and body language. Also pay attention to how what they are really saying resonates with you at the heart level. As we practice the art of deep listening, we grow in our ability to truly be there in attunement with others we interact with on a day-to-day basis.
As much as possible, surround yourself with others who are uplifting while embodying those values and aspirations that are truly important to you. Continue to grow in your recovery by going to meetings, working with your sponsor and possibly sponsoring others, while infusing the quality of compassion into your interactions with your brothers and sisters in recovery.
I hope this column has helped you gain a fuller appreciation of the art of compassionate assertion and inspired you to take steps to integrate that quality into your life and your recovery. Until next time—to your health!
Friedman, M., & Rosenman, R. H. (1974). Type A behavior and your heart. New York, NY: Knoft.
Hafen, B. Q., Karren, K. J., Frandsen, K. J., & Smith, N. L. (1996). Mind/body health: The effects of attitudes, emotions, and relationships. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
Keith, F. A., Whittaker, K., Harris, K., Wawrzyniak, A. J., Rush, C. L., Andrea, W. F., . . . Krantz, D. S. (2014). Anger, hostility, and rehospitalizations in patients with heart failure in the Betrheart study. Abstract presented at the American Psychosomatic Society 72nd Annual Scientific Meeting on March 12–15, 2014.
John Newport, PhD, is an addiction specialist, writer, and speaker living in Tucson, Arizona. He is the author of The Wellness-Recovery Connection: Charting Your Pathway to Optimal Health While Recovering from Alcoholism and Drug Addiction (2004). He is available for workshops, conference presentations, and staff trainings on all aspects of wellness and recovery, as well as for personal wellness and recovery coaching by phone. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.