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On this page:
Assumptions, Standards and Recognizing Them | Emotions, chemical baths and altered perceptions | Criticism vs. Complaint | Boundaries

The difference between being assertive or aggressive is pretty much the same as whether you will be attacked or not. Unfortunately, a whole lot of people who are attacked think they are being assertive when in fact, they are being aggressive

Before you can understand the difference between being assertive and aggressive, you must recognize the territorial nature of humanity. In doing this you will bring the assumptions and standards you have about it from your unconscious to your conscious. Once you are consciously aware of these standards, then you have a far better chance of being assertive rather than aggressive. Bringing those standards to you attention is what this page will help you do.

Assumptions, Standards and Recognizing Them
Let's start with a bit of imagery. Image having a home with a yard. That is your property.

With this in mind, ask yourself: Why do we tolerate when someone walks on the lawn along our property line and yet are outraged when someone stomps through the flowerbed near the house?

Theoretically, both are crushing plants on our property ... but there is a difference and we unconsciously know it.

The reason we know it is that we recognize that even though it is all yours, it isn't one homogenized whole. We use this flowerbed tromping to show you how something as simple as 'your space' can have many different shadings, unconscious assumptions and standards. What is 'yours' is filled with -- what we will call -- 'degrees of investment.' There's nothing black and white about what is 'yours.' It is a complex collection of shadings.

Let's look at those shadings. You have your property line -- where it abuts against either public property (the street) or someone else's private property. Furthermore, you have the area outside of your house (such as your lawn), but you also have your patio and plant beds right next to your house. Then there is inside your home. But even then there are degrees. There are the parts of your home that the average visitor sees and then there are private parts that only family and those invited into these area will ever see.

There are many individual issues involved here, but there is also a lot of overlap. One of these is idea of degrees of investment. The space next to the house will usually be in better condition than the property line. That's because most people will invest more time and energy in the upkeep of areas closest to their home.

The further into the property you go the greater degree of investment -- and by extension, possessiveness. We've worked harder and invested more on making it 'ours.' Not only do we expect this investment to be respected, but we also expect some degree of violation along our outer property line. For example, many people will plant grass or hearty plants along property lines. These plants can be bruised by accidental transgression and still survive. Closer to the home -- where accidental transgression is far less likely -- more delicate plants tend to be more common. We rely on the assumption that anyone entering our property would respect conventions and not crush these more delicate plants. This is in part why there is a less outrage over a property line transgression than a flowerbed tromping.

Now add to this we even have assumptions about how people come onto our property. For example, we will tolerate someone coming onto our property along 'approved' lines (e.g. walking up the driveway) but consider other areas an egregious violation (e.g. coming over the back fence). And that's still outside your home!

But just because someone is on our property doesn't mean we will invite them into our house. And just because they are granted access to the 'common rooms' doesn't mean they are allowed to enter private areas. When we invite someone into our home we expect them to conduct themselves with respect to the fact that we have let them into an area that we have a large personal investment and possessiveness about.

We used this image to show you the huge slew of assumptions, rules and standards about just our property and how we want it treated. If the rules of conduct are that complex over something as simple as property, imagine how complex it's going to get over something as subjective as emotions, anger and boundaries.

The difference between being assertive and aggressive is that being assertive is getting someone off your property before they break into your home. It's not only keeping them out of your home, but it's getting them off your property and back onto the sidewalk before they do any damage.

It is using the appropriate force to either remove someone from your space and set up a boundary between the two of your property. (Good fences means good neighbors kind of thing). In short, assertiveness allows for you both to stay on your side of the fence and co-exist.

Whereas, being aggressive is the mental and emotional equivalent of chasing him off your property, down the street and onto his own porch. While you might feel this is necessary in order to protect your "emotional property," you're no longer defending. You've crossed the line from assertive into aggressive. A big problem with this kind of behavior is that the person you're chasing is only going to run so far. If it looks like you're going to chase him into his home, odds are, when he gets to his "emotional porch" he's going to have no choice, but to whip around and try to drive your nose out of the back of your skull.

When put into these terms, you might find it odd that most people are shocked and amazed when a situation goes violent. But, the simple truth is a lot of people -- who thought that they were "protecting" themselves -- cross the line from being assertive into being aggressive. And they don't even know it! In doing this, they leave the other person no reasonable choice but to become physically violent. They thought they were showing the other person why they aren't safe to " mess with," but what they actually did is cross the line from assertive to aggressive. In doing so they provoke a counter-attack.

Emotions, Chemical Baths and Altered perceptions
Often when we bring this up we are met with a chorus of "I wasn't being aggressive, he was!"

What is wrong with us that we can't see that they are the victims here? They weren't doing anything wrong! They were just trying to protect themselves and he attacked them!

Well first of all, let's point out that it isn't all about you.

There is that old parental saw about "It takes two people to fight." When you have a situation involving two people you have a complex dynamic. More specifically what you have is the emotions, feelings and perceptions of two people. It is the action, interaction and reaction of these people that can lead to violence.

But here's the rub. It's been our experience that when people are busy being concerned about their own emotional well being, fears and "rights" they're basically too busy to think about anyone else.

While that may sound judgmental, we can back that statement up with science, physiology and psychology.

That is to say when you kick into an emotional mode, even though you believe you're reacting to 'what is happening,' you are, in fact, reacting to what you think is happening! And although it doesn't seem like much, that is a HUGE difference.

While emotional many people are in the middle of what Daniel Goleman calls "an emotional hijacking" (in his book Emotional Intelligence). Even if you aren't in that extreme, you don't realize how physiology is effecting your "reality." When you are emotional, a combination of bio-chemicals and physically ingrained pathways in your brain kick into action. Your brain is awash with chemicals and memories. Basically... you are temporarily stoned or drunk. And that's effecting your perceptions, judgment and behaviors in the current situation. You may think you're being logical and rational, but that may not be the case (1).

In this chemically altered state it is difficult to accurately self-analyze and assess your own behavior. Your perception might well be that you were being reasonable for the circumstances, but to others it looks way different. Realize, we're not just talking witnesses here, we're talking about the other person ...who is just as likely to be trapped in his/her own emotional loop as you are!

Understanding how your body functions under these conditions is a huge factor in conflict resolution and self-defense. In fact, we have an entire section dedicated to how your brain functions in crisis mode.

What we have discussed thus far works on a continuum. Understanding this about the physiological effects of emotions can greatly assist you in conflict resolution, de-escalation and improve your interpersonal relationships and career opportunities. That's because it takes you out of auto-pilot.

The key to it all is communication.

Effective communication is a subject far beyond the scope of these pages. But it is a critical component of being assertive instead of aggressive.

Let us give you a small example. When something someone said hurts you, learn to ask "Excuse me, but when you said that, what did you mean...?"

Instead of assuming that the person intentionally meant to inflict emotional distress on you, check to see what is going on. It is amazing how often you will find that a comment that you found hurtful wasn't meant as such. By asking what the person meant instead of accusing them of what you thought they meant ("Are you saying that I'm ...") you are not only giving the person a chance to explain, but you are keeping yourself from wrongfully attacking.

It is worth the time and effort to find out what is really going on; this instead of reacting emotionally and striking back at the person who you feel hurt you. The reason the latter strategy doesn't work very well is to that person's perception, you're the one who suddenly got vicious and mean. He didn't say anything hurtful, YOU DID! See how easily this can lead to two people both believing that they are defending themselves against unwarranted attacks?

Learning to communicate effectively has a major effect in reducing the amount of violence you will find yourself in the middle of. With this in mind, we'd like to give you a couple more tips about how to communicate assertively without becoming aggressive.

Criticism vs. Complaint
Defining the difference between a complaint and criticism is one key to understanding the distinctions between aggressiveness and assertiveness. You have the right to lodge a legitimate complaint, but you do not have the right to criticize. Complaints are attempt to fix a problem; criticisms are an attack. Complaints can be generally labeled as assertive; criticism tends to be aggressive.

A complaint refers to an immediate issue that needs to be negotiated and resolved. A criticism is an attack that is unsolvable at this moment and tends to be generalized. The causes usually extend back in time.

>An example of this difference is a complaint would be, "What you just said hurt my feelings." This addresses an immediate problem and is a statement of fact. It opens the door to discussion, negotiation and compromise.

Whereas a criticism will often follow a complaint, such as, "You always say rude things to me. You are so insensitive, you jerk!" What was a legitimate complaint has now turned into an attack. What's more, by bringing back generalized past wrongs that cannot be fixed, the person being criticized is not only being attacked, but robbed of power to fix the current problem. The problem has now been extended to perceived past wrongs. And after being attacked in this manner, the odds are that the person won't be interested in fixing this wrong.

Learning how to keep from crossing the line from a complaint to a criticism is an issue that is discussed in-depth in the books mentioned on this page.

We have our own definition of boundaries and boundary enforcement specialized for self-defense. We refer to one aspect as personal and shared space. Once you understand this concept, you will understand how people can actually provoke an attack by not understanding boundaries.

1) Ever dealt with a drunk? Even though alcohol physically suppresses the higher brain functions (logic and reason) a drunk is absolutely convinced he's being logical and making sense. Keep this in mind, because you don't have to be intoxicated to believe you are being rational when in fact you're being emotional. There's been a recent trend in psychological study where subjects are put into MRI machines and their brains scanned while the psychologists run tests. One such test at Emory put individuals -- who identified themselves as either liberals and conservatives -- into the MRI machine and then asked them political questions. Interestingly enough, the parts of their brains that "light up" (showing activity) were the emotional parts, not the logical parts (frontal lobes). And yet despite this, the subjects were convinced they were being "rational" about their political views. Return to Text

Beyond the Picket Fence
MacYoung, et al
(Social skills for survival)

Henry Cloud

Tame Your Emotions
Zoe McKey

People Watching
Desmond Morris
(Non-verbal communication)

Mental Toughness

Ian Tuhovsky

Scaling Force
Rory Miller
(Threat assessment, force decision making)

Emotional Abuse
Zak Mucha
(Emotional self-defense)

Marc MacYoung
(Crime recognition/avoidance)

Freedom from Fear
Peyton Quinn
(Psychology, overcoming abuse )

The Sociopath Next Door
Martha Stout
(sociopaths, antisocial disorder)

The Art of Everyday Assertiveness
Patrick King

Narcissim Epidemic

(Domestic violence)

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