My Struggle with Assertiveness

Unlike most people I know, I am unusually aggressive.  It seems that the status quo is to be this slightly awkward, uncomfortable pip-squeak, and when I talk to friends it's always about how they want to, or need to, stand up for themselves a little bit more.  Or how they try too hard to please others or "keep the peace."  You see it all the time in relationships, in work--everyone is too polite, too reserved, or conversely on my side of the fence,(and these people are rarer) they're a huge asshole who pushes people around.  Where's the happy medium, guys?  (I'm including myself in this rhetorical question?)

I won't go into why I think that people should be more assertive, because that's not my struggle.  I know there are a million therapists talking to people about that every day.  I also won't get into passive-aggressiveness, because that is my most hated trait in any person--either be a pushover, or be a jerk, but don't do both at the same time, it's INFURIATING!!!  No, my problem is that I am all too-ready to put on my gear and rush into battle.  I find myself, after every explosion, later sitting in a chair and thinking "Holy crap, I need to tone it down..." but how?

Taught to be Angry

I was taught to be aggressive in the stereotypical ways.  Fighting, yelling, screaming, violence.  That was my reality for a long time.  When I got put in foster care I realized quickly that a lot of other foster kids had the same habits, and they got thrown into group homes, kicked out of school, ended up in juvenile holding--not a path I intended to go down.  My coping mechanism was to shut down and become pretty submissive.  I won't say it was the wrong thing to do because I got out of foster care without a record, and that's impressive, honestly.

But once I snapped out of that prison system I was 1000000000000% aggressive.  The way I had been raised, plus years of torment in the system and all the issues that brings on, I turned into a super violent crazy person.  It wasn't pretty, you guys.  I was awful.  Things broke around me.  People got hurt.  I learned in my early adult years that I had the power to be exactly like my parents, and I didn't want that.  I slowly started toning it down.  I learned about fear and anger, how anger is a secondary response that stems from fear of something, and that fear is our oldest and arguably most powerful human emotion.  I'd love to go into more detail about these someday, but let's keep to my anger timeline.

The Things To Let Go 

The most important thing I let go, and thus the first, was my physical violence tendencies.  I had to train myself to not throw things: to find satisfaction some other way instead of breaking my various possessions, or punching the wall.  It was hard, and really did take years.  Now at almost 30 I can say it's been about six years since I broke something in anger.  And that's a great feeling.

The second thing to go was the personal attacks.  That has been a much more recent development.  For whatever reason, some people are born with the gift of mathematical understanding, others are born with the knowledge of beauty and space and color.  My natural gift involves the perfect mix of anger, proper insults, degrading words, and knowing the nuance of how to make someone feel absolutely awful about themselves.  Not my favorite talent to admit to having, but it's there.  What made me discard this was the simple reaction of loved ones; no matter how good it feels to win the argument and make someone feel as bad as I felt, the hurt that was lasting, also hurt me.  I still fail at this on occasion and can go off on these Homer-like rants and I remember every single one vividly.  And I afterward, apologize profusely and beg forgiveness (something I didn't do before.)  I don't know if this tendency will ever fully leave me, it seems like it's something innate that I have to consciously fight.

"You Say What Others Think"

I hear this SO often. You have no idea!!! My aggressiveness comes out EVERYWHERE.  Someone was harassing a cashier in a gas station.  I said (loudly and angrily) "Dude, what the fuck is your PROBLEM?  It's not her fault, she's just the fucking attendant!"  Kid was playing his phone music while inside a department store which was also playing music.  I walked right up to him and said, "You know, it's really fucking annoying to hear music coming out of two speakers at once.  That's what they make headphones for."  A woman didn't want to let me into a one-way driveway to turn around, (yes, okay, it was the wrong way but I was trapped, had taken a wrong turn, and this was in downtown SLC) and when she ran to block my moving car, I parked and got out and yelled at her for a good five minutes about how she was going to get herself ran the fuck over and as an EMT I would have a duty to help her stupid ass.  I had to remind her she wasn't the police and my illegal turn was not for her to litigate. I saw a teenager kicking rocks at a poor, exhausted duck in a parking lot and I set on him like a banshee, screaming that he was a moron for thinking picking on an animal made him cool.

The reaction to all of these incidents has been pretty much the same.  The gas station asshole shut up and the cashier smiled.  Kid turned his stupid music off.  The woman moved out of the damn road and I made my damn turn.  The kid stopped kicking rocks at the duck and I think he even apologized to me.  Every single time I tell someone about one of these incidents I hear, "You just say what everyone thinks" or "Good on you!"  This makes me wonder, though, if I'm really doing what everyone else wants to do........why don't they just do it? Why am I the deranged oddball?

The truth is that though I do get satisfaction for standing up for myself or others against general idiocy, I always feel so bad afterward, and I can see a way to re-word these rants and tirades that doesn't include sixteen "fucks" and me looking and sounding like a felon about to shank someone.  I want so badly to be assertive--that is, reasonable, and not submissive.  I want others to do the same.  The cashier should have cut the man off professionally.  One of ten other annoyed-looking shoppers could have told that kid to turn down his crappy music.  I feel like I am literally the only person with a voice sometimes, and even though that sounds dramatic, it's truly how I feel and it's a very lonely feeling.

How Do You Stand Up For Yourself?

That's the real question.  I don't know how to stand up for myself.  I only know how to attack.  My attacks used to be physical, and afterwards, they were verbal and absolutely unacceptable.  Now it's more of a rare happening that I get upset at others, but when I do, I still go in full force.  I don't bully people--I used to, but I don't anymore and I can sense when my aggression is too much for loved ones during an argument, and I back off.  The problem is that when I do get aggressive, the person(s) on the receiving end have absolutely crossed what I consider to be an acceptable line.   Verbal abuse to a worker? Not okay.  Disrupting others because you're a teenager with no etiquette? Not okay.  Blocking a moving car and screaming? Not okay.  Abusing animals? Definitelllllllllly notttttttttttt okayyyyyyyyyyy.

Clearly, I can identify what calls for some kind of action.  But my kind of action is a deeply ingrained werewolfish response that has earned me several endearing nicknames, such as "Bloodlust".  I don't know what I'm doing wrong or how to fix it, because the truth is, I know what works.  I know how to put someone out of line, back in line, and every success is unfortunately another tick mark that I can add to "that was the right thing!"

Beyond that, it feels good to speak up.  It feels right in a way, even though the (tiny, unused) reasonable portion of my brain is going PLEASE SHUT UP!! PLEASE DO NOT ENGAGE!!! THIS IS NOT WORTH YOUR TIME!!!! I unfortunately have to admit that it is satisfying to at least say something, whether or not I get the desired effect.  I don't want to be that person who says and does nothing.

So it feels good, and it feels right, and I seem to be able to know when I should be assertive.  Then I open my mouth and pure aggression comes out.  How do I fix that last part?  I have no idea, honestly.   I'm curious what others think on this, because I have an insanely skewed idea of aggression and assertion---to me, anything less than squaring up to take a hit is being "assertive" and I know on some level that I am thinking unreasonably.



  1. I have moments of aggression that often remind me of my parents too. My biological Father is a lot like you in terms of his aggression and how he so often told people off. If i'm being honest here (and I think you and I can be honest with one another) I always felt kind of embarrassed about his behavior.

    I really think cause for aggression depends on the situation. Like the lady giving you crap about you turning around? It's actually kind of funny because in that situation... she's actually you. She's bitching at you for something that annoys her and upset about something that she believes you are doing wrong. Isn't that the same thing you just did with the kid and his music? LOL

    The big difference between standing up for yourself and being an asshole (something my biological Father so often was) is when your aggression is unwarranted. Like instead of politely sending back his food at a restaurant if his steak wasn't cooked perfectly, he'd make a huge scene about it as if people weren't allowed to ever make mistakes. Like, dude... we're at Ryan's so what do you expect?

    Sometimes people act dumb and it makes me feel so much anger. I'm the kind of person who likes to boil over in private and throw a tantrum - raising my voice, letting the hate consume me #DarkSide. But I do it because standing up for yourself and addressing other people's stupid doesn't mean I need to be a big jerk either. In fact, I find that being too aggressive just means I upset myself, I upset someone else, and I don't even get what I want.

  2. Haha dude you can always be honest with me. The funny thing is that I agree--I used to be so embarrassed by how my dad and mom acted. There are the rare occasions afterward where I feel a slight bit of embarrassment about my reactions but since I've gotten older (and less aggressive) it's happened less and less frequently. I'm actually trying to think of the most recent time I felt ashamed and I can't LOL that's not a good sign...

    You're so right about the lady and the car LOL. It can either go one of two ways with me..if someone pulls a "me" they might get 1) what they're asking for, me to be a jerk back, or 2) I'll laugh and go away because I don't care. I have no idea what the criteria are for which option I choose...literally no idea. They're all just as petty!

    I guess that's true, about aggression being unwarranted, but that's the thing I struggle with the most. I grew up with a VERY heavy dose of aggression being warranted for EVERY situation. Mad about steak? Aggression. Kid pissed you off? Aggression. Adult cheated you out of money? Burn their bar down (this happened)

    I kind of try to go by the rule where I match my reaction to the "injustice"...like the kid with the phone? Even though I sounded probably super angry, I was about a 3 out of 10. But when the kid was kicking the duck around, it was 11 out of 10 because that's not fair and an animal was being hurt in front of me.

    These are good thoughts. I want to talk about it more!

  3. I really enjoyed reading this post - it was thought-provoking and intelligent. Assertiveness is a life skill, but it's something that I'm going to guess most people are not taught at home or school. I grew up in a culture that emphasizes harmony over assertiveness, and I have a personality that leans strongly toward avoidant vs. assertive/aggressive. Thus, I've had to slowly teach myself to be assertive. I think being a teacher has helped. The necessity of hustling 23 fourth-graders through a day of math, reading, and all the other good stuff taught me how to step up, take control of situations, and state what's expected or needed clearly. I think one of the biggest things I've learned is emotional self-control. I'm not perfect - there's always those times when I slip up and sound irritated or upset - but I have learned that a neutral demeanor and tone of voice go a long way.
    Your post reminded me of something my meditation teacher said. Buddhism talks a lot about detachment, and he said that while you have to care about what you do, the goal is to not care too much. It's a concept I'm still struggling to understand but I think he's saying that while we may be driven to action by a sense of what's right, we cannot get emotionally enmeshed in the outcome. I am not sure whether this makes sense, but that's what your post made me think about.