Harnessing the power of positive aggression

Our resident psychologist on how stepping forward is better than stepping back.

Aggression is one of the most misrepresented and under-appreciated human emotions and genres of action. So let’s set the record straight: the word aggression is from the Latin meaning stepping towards, i.e. making a dynamic and ass-ertive step, perhaps even a courageous one. 

Aggression carries no inherent connotations of violence nor nastiness of any sort; and the opposite of aggression isn’t peacefulness, it’s regression, which literally means stepping backwards.  

In the light of those clarifications, consider for a moment how those in power, who would have us toe the line or kowtow conveniently to their demands, routinely hijack and distort the true meaning and purpose of the word aggression. They rebrand the emotion or action as something negative, tarnishing it as a synonym for destructive attack. They do this in order to disempower the individuals and groups who might challenge their authority. 

That is why in weaker schools, aggression is all but outlawed anywhere but the rugby field; and in the working world, it is largely the preserve of military combat regiments.   

Just so we’re clear, then, let’s talk about healthy aggression, using healthy as a synonym for creative, helpful, well balanced, passionate, natural and attractive. After all, the best evidence from studying whole lifetimes suggests that if we don’t learn to honour our aggressive emotions with equally aggressive action, we will most likely fall ill in mind and body. 

Healthy aggression is about being can-do in the face of challenges from the competition, setbacks or enemies in whatever form. In the absence of aggression, it’s all too easy to internalise one’s pent-up emotional upsets with passive-aggressive responses such as sulking, psychosomatic illness and self-harming in a host of ways. 

Daily life presents many occasions in which we would all do well to take the initiative, and in which there is no substitute for the driving power of healthy aggression, whereby we attack the problem rather than let ourselves be bullied by events. Those who creatively channel their aggressive energies are likely to thrive in life; it’s as simple as that.

For instance, healthy aggression is as important for answering exam questions, perhaps attacking the very premise of the questions, as it is for fending off other people’s self-serving demands (Apple’s Steve Jobs said he was as proud of the things he’d said a firm no to as he was of his creations). We also need it for rejecting group pressures to conform to behaviours such as boozing, TV or Facebook. 

It can be practised by daring to critique and debate what’s going on around us, or by competing on the sports field or in the workplace. (Remember that compete is from the Latin meaning to learn together.) It’s worth bearing in mind, too, that often the best form of defence is attack, all the better if the attack is surprising.

When you have five minutes, take a look at Michelangelo’s David – the original has been in the heart of Florence since 1504. He’s the embodiment of healthy aggression: ready to advance towards the bullying problem (Goliath in this case) for the sake of the home team. The shepherd’s naked stance is wonderfully relaxed in the face of high pressure; he seems to know that everything in life goes far better the more relaxed you are when you do it. His eyes are focused, his expression resolute. This character means business. His aggression will certainly have craft: the over-large but elegant hands clearly signal his skill. His actions will also be intelligent and strategic: he’s using science – the physics of the slingshot. His aggression exudes wisdom: stepping forward for the greater good. 

Visit Nick’s website at DrNickBaylis.com

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