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Controlling Aggression

Updated on June 8, 2015


In human behavior, aggression is action motivated by angry emotions or hostile intentions inflicting pain, intimidation, anxiety, or emotional suffering on another person. Acts of aggression are not acts that unintentionally cause pain or harm to others. Some examples of aggression:

Jerry 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 on that hot, muggy mid August day in central Texas. Just as traffic was starting to move a little faster past a stretch of construction work, a battered black car cut in front of him, forcing him to hit the brakes and swerve to the right. So Jerry acted instinctively and aggressively. He tromped the accelerator and sped up, pulling alongside the offending driver honking, gesturing obscenely, and swearing. In short, acting out his aggressions.

The driver was prepared to escalate the level of aggression. He took a pistol from the seat beside him, pointed it out the window of his car, and fired three times. Jerry wasn't hit, but the sight of those muzzle flashes, the loud popping sounds, and shattering of his own windshield wilted all of his aggressions in a big hurry. As the aggressor sped on, Jerry quickly pulled his car over to the shoulder and, for the next half hour, tried to get his pulse and respiration rate under control while he reconsidered his own aggressive behavior.

Mary continually nagged her husband John about his appearance, “Why do you always slouch that way?” She asked. “Why do you have to dress like a bum? Go put on something decent! How come you never get your hair cut until the fifth or sixth time I tell you to get one? Sometimes I wonder why I married such a fat slob!” John never responds to the nagging. Sometimes, just to turn off the noise, he will change a shirt or go to the barber, but usually he will either ignore her nagging (perhaps with a sneer or a sarcastic remark behind her back or under his breath) or he will actually increase his sloppy behavior. Sometimes, when choosing between a clean shirt in his closet or a dirty, wrinkled shirt in the hamper, John will dress from the hamper just to aggravate her.

When she tells him he needs to lose weight, he often goes straight to the pantry and grabs a bag of cookies or potato chips and munches them in front of her. His behavior isn't overtly hostile, violent, or raging, but in a subtle, passive way, designed to offend and infuriate his wife. This is still a form of aggression.

When it comes to disciplining her daughters, ages four and seven, Kathy claims to be from the “spare the rod and spoil the child” school. But if she could see a videotape of her “discipline” style throughout a typical day, she would see she does very little true disciplining of her children. She lets them run loose, without any structure or limits, until they do something that makes her mad. When the milk spills, lamp shatters or mini-blinds are pulled off the wall, then she decides it's time to apply the “rod.” She screams, berates, hits, and shakes her children. She actually believes she is practicing biblical discipline. The truth is, she is demonstrating aggression toward her children, and is teaching them aggressive behavior patterns.

Aggressive punishment of children can be a powerful short-term way to suppress their behavior, but psychological research shows it tends to produce aggressive children, who in turn act out their aggressions against smaller children and seek to resolve their hostilities by screaming and hitting. Moreover, her discipline style is clearly non-biblical, for the Scriptures teach parents should not provoke their children to wrath but should bring their children up in the training and admonition of the Lord (see Ephesians 6:4).

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 see as deserving of our hostility. Active aggression is easy to spot, because it is acted out in the open and frequently quite loud: explosiveness, shouting, screaming, accusing, raging, intimidation, blaming, sarcasm, griping, threatening, and in extreme cases violence. Active aggression is the attempt to preserve one's sense of self-worth, one's needs, one's convictions, or possessions at the expense of someone else. Even very mild-mannered people, when they feel sufficiently threatened and frustrated, can become openly, and actively aggressive.

People who are actively aggressive tend to have loud, obvious struggles with people in their families, workplaces, churches, and neighborhoods. They frequently expend a lot of hostile emotional energy on petty, non-essential issues. They feel they can't afford to lose even the little fights, so molehills are often defended with a ferocity often rooted in a deep sense of insecurity, causing them to shout louder and pound the table harder in order to be heard. Whatever the issue being contested, the real message conveyed by the shouting is, “I have legitimate needs and can't stand to be ignored.”

Characteristics of Aggressive Behavior:

  • Seeking to punish, intimidate, or destroy anyone who offends or opposes you.

  • Not caring about other people's feelings or viewpoints.

  • Being stubborn, unyielding, and demanding.

  • Being critical and judgmental.

  • Being self-centered and self-seeking.

  • Taking no notice of your own faults and weaknesses.

  • Being bitter and holding grudges.

Active aggression is one option for expressing needs and emotions, but it's a very unhealthy and destructive option. Another option many choose, passive aggression, is no more healthy and constructive than active aggression.

People who are passive-aggressive often don't think they are being aggressive. They deny their anger to themselves and to others because they believe the expression of anger is sinful or disgraceful or because they don't want to face the active aggression of others. They may rightly recognize active aggression creates an atmosphere of mutual hurt and disrespect, but instead of dealing with their anger openly and honestly, they take their hostilities underground. Avoiding open warfare, they choose instead a cold war of hidden agendas and sabotage. Some examples of passive-aggressive behavior:

  • The silent treatment-sulking, pouting, acting hurt.

  • Procrastination, laziness, chronic tardiness.

  • Lying about feelings: “What do you mean? I'm not mad! I'm fine, it couldn't be better!” (Often, this behavior includes, contradictory messages, such as hostile body language and a verbal message that nothing is wrong).

  • Ignoring people, staring straight ahead when spoken to.

  • Backstabbing, rumor spreading, complaining, sabotaging people, but refusing to confront them face-to-face.

  • Engaging in behavior one knows is irritating and aggravating, but being careful not to cross the line that would invite open conflict.

Passive aggression is an attempt to control, wound, annoy, or undermine another person without risking open conflict of confrontation. Whereas healthy relationships don't keep score regarding right and wrong. The passive-aggressive individual continually keeps score, and plans to win in the battle for superiority.

Passive aggression can be as destructive as active aggression, and is often even more so. Because it's harder to confront and pin down passive aggressors than active ones and more challenging for the conflict to be positively resolved. It can be extremely difficult to penetrate the denial and evasions of a passive aggressive and bring them to the negotiation table for peace talks.

Aggression and Anger

People often confuse anger and aggressive behavior. Anger is normal, and there is a healthy way to express anger, but some go about it the wrong way.

Some confuse being aggressive with being assertive. It's possible and desirable to be assertive without being aggressive. That is what the Bible means when it says,

Be angry, and do not sin: do not let the sun go down on your wrath. Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking people be put away from you, with all malice” (Ephesians 4:26, 31).

Behavior that is associated with wrath, bitterness, evil speaking, and malice is aggressive behavior, and is sin. Assertive behavior, however, is healing and restoring.

Characteristics of Assertive Behavior

  • Seeking to help others, even in an angry or confrontational situation.

  • Seeking to understand the feelings and intentions of others.

  • Being flexible and seeking solutions and alternatives.

  • Being willing to examine your own faults.

  • Being forgiving and allowing for the fact people make mistakes.

  • Caring about the needs of others.

  • Continually seeking self-improvement, not just victories in fights and arguments.

Aggressive behavior is a reflection of our human sin nature. All of us, including Christians, have a battle raging within, a battle between our will to sin and our will to obey God, between hostile aggression and love. By understanding the true nature of aggression, we can be better prepared to deal with our anger in a way healthy for ourselves and others. We can learn how to be angry and not sin.

Like our earthly progenitors, Adam and Eve, we have the power to choose between right and wrong, between the assertive and healthy expression of anger and an aggressive explosion of destructive hostility against others.


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