Assertiveness Vs Aggression: Characteristics Of When Assertiveness Become Aggression

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Assertiveness Vs Aggression: Characteristics Of When Assertiveness Become Aggression

Confidence and self-esteem are two (2) integral components of our growth, and it’s important we develop these early on in order for us to be able to pursue our respective passions and interests and grow as individuals. Alongside confidence and self-esteem is assertion, or the capacity of an individual to defend and affirm his feelings, opinions, and thoughts to other people. You can slowly develop this trait and leverage on this, as this can help them be firmer with your convictions and principles in life. Unfortunately, there are instances where the line between assertiveness and aggression can get hazy, and what should be a trait that could help you develop can actually be a tool that can harm you. How can you tell if your assertion is becoming aggression, and how do you deal with this?

group of colleagues in meeting man and woman arguing

There’s a difference between being ‘honest’ and being ‘brutally honest’.

Perhaps it might help to get a basic background of what assertion and aggression are first, in order to get a better understanding of the concepts to be discussed below.

  • Assertion or assertiveness means being honest with your opinions and feelings. This is taking into account both positive and negative emotions you have on subjects and being firm with your convictions and your decisions. This can be tricky to handle, given assertiveness requires you to know when you’re being direct and honest in situations, and what exactly can change these aspects of your personality.
  • Aggression, as defined in a psychological sense, is behaviour geared towards causing pain, harm, or fear. This isn’t necessarily just physical, but can also be verbal as well. In its most basic sense, aggression should be a perfectly normal behaviour especially when it comes to survival. Under the right circumstances at the right time, aggression can save lives as it makes sure people are alert to threats and can deal with them appropriately.

Assertiveness and aggression aren’t the same, however. Aggression is normally characterised by someone feeling disrespected or threatened, and as such can result in behaviour that is often attributed to annoyance or resentment, or even possessing hidden agendas. Assertiveness means knowing when to remain passive in certain situations, but knowing when just to assert yourself and reinforce your capacity to avoid and resist being abused or manipulated.

Assertiveness And Aggression: Behaviours To Take Note Of

An integral part of being able to properly assess your way of asserting yourself is to observe how you do it yourself, and see if there are signs that you’ve started to become aggressive when people don’t follow your way. There are also other more specific behavioural instances to take note of, which can at least give you much better insight on what sort of behaviours both assertive and aggressive people exhibit:

two female workers arguing

There’s a difference between assertive and aggressive behaviour. 

Assertive people are known to exhibit behaviour that prioritises pursuing their objectives while standing up for their beliefs, values, and rights. This often also shows them respecting the beliefs, values, and rights of others as well. While this trait is often mistaken for arrogance or aggressiveness, there’s actually certain behavioural “ticks” that tell assertive people apart from others. These include:

  • Taking responsibility, where assertive people recognise they feel a certain way because of particular triggers. This is often a reflection of their capacity to differentiate their feelings and their thoughts.
  • Using descriptive language, where assertive people try as much as possible to be accurate when explaining their opinions in order to avoid judgment and assumptions. This doesn’t necessarily mean expecting they’re right, but rather being honest and upfront with what they’re observing.
  • Seeking alternative viewpoints, whereas even though they are honest with their points, they constantly seek the opinions of others on various issues. They ask for feedback, especially on issues with contested views, so they can reach compromise with others. They also provide constructive feedback that doesn’t attack others or be viewed as aggressive.
  • Talk with the appropriate volume and tone, as they’re likely aware that being too loud can be viewed as aggressive and too quiet can be seen as meek. Assertive people are aware when to raise their voice, and when not to speak louder.
  • Expressive, in both their body language and eye contact. Assertive people are often described as such because of how they bring themselves to various situations. This is often reflected in the way they use their body and eyes to communicate their messages to others.

Aggressive people are often described as individuals that are attacking, hostile, and forceful. Based on the short description above, however, this might be due to underlying threats towards various aspects of their lives. Unfortunately, this extends to the way they interact with others or the way they bring themselves to situations in general. Some behavioural “ticks” may include:


  • Feelings of agitation, moodiness, and anxiety, which often comes off as a “flat” aura or depressed mood. Sometimes this comes off as lethargy, delirium, disorientation, and confusion, which can affect the way they interact with others overall.
  • Observable trouble when it comes to concentrating or being organised, but at the same time being acutely aware of the environment. Sometimes this results in impaired decision making and judgment and can result in them exhibiting alterations in mental status.
  • Difference in language comprehension, reading, or writing, which stems from poor communication skills. This often results in social withdrawal, as their problem communicating with others can sometimes be viewed as being threatening behaviour.
  • Tend to exhibit reliance on substances such as alcohol and drugs to feel calmer, which can, unfortunately, extend to them bringing negative behaviour at work or in places where consumption of alcohol or indulging in vices are inappropriate.

Personality Changes: How Does Assertiveness, Aggression Work

Likewise, observing your behaviour can also help provide insight towards your personality. This can be of assistance whenever identifying if you’ve crossed the line from assertion to aggression. Knowing these is helpful too, as not all people are expressive of themselves to their parents and relatives, partners and peers, and are often found exploring different ways of showing their emotions. You can take into account these personality types and changes, and see if these are present in yourself:

businesswoman writing in diary

Invest some time in learning how you can be assertive without coming across as aggressive.

Assertive people tend to be capable of expressing themselves and their views in front of others, even on the face of adversity. They tend to be able to defend their beliefs despite disagreements, and more often than not can be seen as a bit arrogant because of this. Assertive people tend to be capable of taking the lead on situations, and even become good negotiators because of their steadfastness. They can express their expectations clearly, and defend their ideas. Other personality traits include:

  • They often have no problems articulating what they need. Assertive people are confident in the way they explain their direction, outlook, and opinion on issues they have a particular interest in. They also tend to bring a lot of substance with them whenever they talk, which often comes in the form of sources or well-placed arguments.
  • They try not to take things personally, especially when it comes to expressing and taking in criticism. When an assertive person criticizes someone, it’s often not because they want to eliminate the person. They often do this because they may genuinely believe the other person is prepared to accept criticisms.
  • They tend to be straight to the point, which means they do tasks efficiently and are no-nonsense about the things they feel. This type of transparency can be helpful to complete tasks, as you know they’ll be honest about their feelings and their opinions on things.


Aggressive people tend to come off as hostile or threatening because of the way they talk, speak, and act. They’re often very territorial and hard to approach, especially when offering separate ideas. When in disagreement, aggressive people tend to raise their voices or sometimes even resort to threats. They generally run tight ships and are often steadfast with their goals. They can be difficult to deal with, especially since their tendency in the event of adversity is to assert their dominance. Other personality traits include:

  • They’re quick to anger, which is often reflected in both body language and words. These mean aggressive people normally use threatening behaviour to dominate, subjugate, or bully other people into doing their bidding or leaving them alone.
  • Aggressive people tend to want to feel superior or dominating, which is why they often make friends with passive individuals who either seek protection in their presence or fear leaving them. This is why aggressive people tend to use aggressive behaviour to generate passive behaviours from others.
  • They often become aggressive because of certain fears that they project to other people. This is often the reason why bullies tend to preempt people into attacking them. And if they do fear other people, they tend to displace their anger into other people.

Changes To Approach: How Do They Treat Other People?

Businesswoman looking incredulous

Not getting caught in others’ outrage is key to maintaining emotional control.

One of the more obvious ways you can express your assertiveness or aggression is through your interactions with people. If you think your current behaviour or personality is how you behave at home, perhaps you can also observe how you interact with peers, friends, managers, and teachers at work, at school and during play. Here are some behavioural changes to take particular attention to:

Assertive people tend to treat and approach other people from a position of understanding and at the same time firmness. They’re often stern with their convictions, and can often defend themselves and others with the same opinions properly. Likewise, they’re also open to listening to others. Here are other actions an assertive person makes:

  • They have a good understanding of themselves and their beliefs, which is a basis of their self-confidence. This is perhaps the reason how they can stick up for themselves when they need to defend themselves and their rights, as they know that they deserve respect and dignity. The kind of self-confidence and self-awareness they have may also be the reason why they’re capable of saying “No” to things they know they don’t like or deserve.
  • They voice their wants and needs properly, which is why they tend to take the initiative to pursue their goals. This is why they’re often honest and frank in telling their colleagues and bosses what they need from them in order to achieve their aspirations.
  • They know they can’t control the behaviour of others, and as such, they tend to not “reciprocate” aggression and negative feelings. This is also why a lot of assertive people tend to be able to control the way they behave and can be calm in the face of adversity. This might be also the reason why they’re open to both compliments and criticisms.
  • They say things with other people taken into consideration. This means they use statements that emphasize things they themselves feel, and clarify if something was said by someone else. They try their best to approach situations with empathy and escalate things further when necessary through emphasising their points properly.
  • They are careful with the way they say things, and they try to be direct with their concerns. They can repeat their affirmations and can restate their messages in a new way if others don’t get to understand them. If you also feel as though a lot of their statements are scripted, it’s probably because they are. A lot of assertive people try to be extra careful with what they say, and as such try to construct their responses and arguments beforehand.  

Aggressive people show their aggression in different ways, which can make them a bit hard to spot if they’re being passive-aggressive with you. Likewise, aggressive people tend to be very expressive of their dislikes of certain situations. You can notice if you’ve become aggressive, or if you’re in the company of an aggressive person if they exhibit these kinds of attitude or actions towards others:

  • They tend to dodge situations they have to deal with but don’t like. These can range from ignoring people they don’t like immediately and doing things such as refusing to answer questions or outright refusing to acknowledge they’re there. Sometimes they also purposely don’t pay attention to others or ignore comments from other people.
  • They tend to do more insults, regardless if it’s subtle or not. They tend to be outright insulting, or sometimes pretend to give a compliment that’s actually an insult in disguise. Sometimes they make an effort to “show” how good they are or show how “not good” a person is on certain things. If someone graduated from the same course as you from a well-known school, they might say things that explicitly make references to your school or how good their school is.
  • They show behaviour that’s sullen, and sometimes moody, sour, gloomy, sulky, or grumpy. They sometimes reply to an innocent question or comment in a negative way. Aggressive people may not even smile during jokes, or make subtle complaints about everything. They can make other people around them feel sad and uncomfortable without being able to identify just what makes these feelings occur.
  • They can be quite stubborn, not because of holding a position but as punishment. While others can defend their position with good points, sometimes they make it outright obvious that they’re defending their position to annoy others around them.

How Do You Deal With Assertive And Aggressive People?

With the above in mind, it’s understandable that sometimes dealing with both aggressive and assertive people can be tricky and challenging. This doesn’t mean it’s impossible, however. Sometimes you just need to take a step back and analyze the previous parts of this article in order to form a much more stable approach when dealing with these individuals. Here are some tips:

three workmates sitting at computers

Dealing with assertive people is difficult for some, but there are strategies that help.

When dealing with assertive people, it’s important to remember that they’re coming from a position where they believe their take on a particular issue or concern is right without exhibiting any aggressive behaviour. They might seem “arrogant” or “rude,” but they’re simply willing to show their confidence in themselves and the way they tackle themselves, an issue, or a topic. If you feel lost about dealing with them, here are some tips:

  • Don’t be intimidated by their presence. If they’re willing to be assertive with you, then that means they’re likely expecting you to treat them as equals, or they respect you enough, to be honest with you with their convictions.
  • Engage with them, but don’t be aggressive with the way you express yourself. Sometimes the best way to deal with an assertive person is through positive engagement, as their thoughts and opinions can sometimes shed light on issues and topics they want to discuss.
  • Transform your interaction with these individuals into a learning experience. Instead of feeling a bit intimidated by their presence, look at their presence as a means for you to slowly learn how to speak up yourself. If you want, you can be honest with them with your feelings and see how they react. If it’s truly just an assertive person with good intentions, they’ll likely listen to you and try to find better ways of interacting with you as well.
  • See if you’re irritated or intimated, or if you’re feeling jealous with the way they carry themselves. If it’s the latter, it’s not impossible for you to see aspects you think you can apply to yourself.

When dealing with aggressive people, it’s very common to feel irritated or angry with their presence. After all, especially if you’re not doing anything wrong with them, it just becomes tempting to lash out. Don’t do this. Rather, try to look at them from an outsider’s perspective, and see if you can assess their behaviour from there. Here are some tips:

angry man screaming into phone

Dealing with aggressive people is an unfortunate reality.

  • Don’t hold on to anger. Always remember the popular Buddhist maxim that says holding on to anger is like holding on to something hot with the intention of throwing it towards someone else. Most of the time, you’re going to be the one hurt in the process.
  • Try to find ways of interacting with the aggressive person in an assertive and respectful way. If you’re irritated with the way they deal with you, try to recognize what exactly in their words or actions are irritating for you, so you can slowly find better ways of making better responses. Take deep breaths or think of positive imagery when possible.
  • Talk with them about their aggressiveness when they’re not particularly angry. Try to see if you can be honest with them about your concerns in a way that is constructive and not aggressive on your part.
  • See if you also have a problem regarding your expectations. If you know it’s in the person’s attitude to be a bit aggressive, you can’t expect them to change their behaviour in a snap if no one’s talking with them. Try to reconcile this with yourself as you’re dealing with the person.
  • If you’re feeling angry, don’t ignore the feeling completely. Express your anger with the above ways, so you can avoid negative effects such as passive-aggressive tendencies, sleep disturbance, depression, heart disease, and hypertension.
  • Remain patient, as dealing with an aggressive person is a good way of developing your restraint. Patience is your ability to openly and fully accept what happens, and you can transform this experience into a learning experience if you work your way through it properly.

The Bottomline: Assertion Can Be A Developing Tool, But It Has Limits

With the above in mind, it’s important to have a basic understanding of how assertion works in order to use it in your life and gain its benefits. Likewise, it’s important for your development to know just when assertion can become aggression, and how exactly it can harm both your growth and the individuals around you. Knowing the intricate balance of these two elements can give you quite the advantage, as not only can you help yourself grow in the process but also look into how you can help other people deal with their woes.

This article is from Psychologists Southern Sydney who is a psychology practice based in Sydney. They aim to help clients through all their life issues to live a happier and healthier life.

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