“When a man has a gift in speaking the truth, aggression is no longer his security blanket for approval. He, on the contrary, spends most of his energy trying to tone it down because his very nature is already offensive enough.” ~ Criss Jami
The senior pastor of our church regularly writes and publishes a missive for church members, sending it out by email. I, rather sporadically, write and publish to this weblog. While neither of us is likely to be awarded Pulitzer prizes for these efforts, the writing and sharing is good for our souls. It might even, from time to time, inspire others to reflect on matters of interest and concern. My pastor’s last effort did that for me. He wrote about the spiritual aspects of hurt people hurting other people, which struck close to home for me.
We probably all know people who respond to hurt in their lives by hurting back, and not necessarily hurting back those who, either directly or indirectly, hurt them. Actually, most of us do this ourselves – unintentionally, perhaps. But still, we do it. We hurt innocents, those closest to us, family members and friends. But why? That was the takeaway question for me from my pastor’s last missive. I decided to try to find out — to do some research.
Those of us who are old enough to remember the Mills Brothers’ classic song, “You Always Hurt the One You Love,” might enjoy hearing it once again.
My research confirmed for me that emotionally damaged people do tend to inflict their hurt and pain on others. Like animals that have been mistreated, we become aggressive, mean and difficult to deal with. But unlike other animals, people aren’t so likely to be openly aggressive to everyone. For defensive reasons, we tend to hide our pain from the world at large and reflect or transfer our hurt feelings onto those with whom we are closest, those with whom we feel safe. Safe people are like punching bags that can’t or won’t just walk away from us.
Decade’s worth of research on this has been distilled into a paper, “Everyday Aggression Takes Many Forms,” by Dr. Deborah South Richardson. It was published in the journal, Current Directions in Psychological Science.
Getting even, it seems, is an innate emotional need in human beings. Doing so may justify our self-worth and fortify our self-esteem. Perhaps it’s self-gratification, I don’t know. Dr. Richardson’s paper doesn’t say. It is known, however, that a large percentage of those who have been sexually abused become themselves the abusers of others. It could be that they are, in a way, getting even. Those who suffered under an alcoholic parent often become the cause of suffering in their own future families. It’s difficult for me to believe, however, that they, in anyway, do this intentionally. In truth though, the people we know and love the most are the same people we’re most awful to in word and deed. “The people who are likely to cause us harm of any sort are likely going to be people we know,” wrote Dr. Richardson in her review. “It’s not the strangers we need to fear.”
Dr. Richardson and other researchers like her have focused on defining aggression based on someone’s intent, and not on whether an aggressive action actually ends up hurting someone. “Whether or not you actually caused harm isn’t the critical issue,” she wrote. “It’s that you intended to. If I aim my gun and shoot at you but miss, my intention was still aggressive.”
What else is known about aggression, based on what has been studied on the topic? A few of the other main findings from Richardson’s review are listed below:
The basic types of aggression are direct and non-direct aggression. Direct aggression involves yelling, hitting, confrontations and hurtful actions and words. Men are more likely than women to use this kind of aggression, including sexual aggression. Non-direct aggression is hurting without a confrontation. There are two types of non-direct aggression: indirect, which is hurting someone through something or someone else, and passive, which is hurting someone by not doing something.
Examples of indirect aggression include gossip, spreading rumors or destroying someone’s favorite possession. Men and women both use indirect aggression equally, and they both use it more than direct aggression. People are also more likely to use indirect aggression if they’re connected to their friends in dense networks — in other words, when friends all know each other, they can (perhaps unwittingly) carry out hurtful deeds on behalf of others more easily. Passive aggression can include things like ignoring phone calls, giving someone the silent treatment or showing up late to an event.
We tend to remember others’ aggressive behaviors and dismiss or forget about our own. We rationalize that our own aggressiveness is necessary — justified because we have to compete to get ahead or to have things our way. When we reciprocate, aggression for aggression, it’s because we need, or feel that we need, to be compensated for the hurt once inflicted upon us.
What had been a devoted, loving relationship between my mother and me became something else soon after she married the father of my two younger brothers. Perhaps because he, my mother’s new husband, considered me to be a threat in some way, he was emotionally abusive to me. His attitude and mean, drunken behavior drove me away. He hurt me, but there was collateral hurt as well, my leaving hurt my mother and it hurt my darling little sisters too, two tender young hearts for whom I had been Bubba, a caregiver and a playmate. I was just sixteen at the time. They were preschoolers. I visited my mother and siblings only on occasion thereafter, living estranged from them with my grandparents until my first marriage. My mother blamed me for this situation which, in some ways, mirrored her own troubled youth. She considered me to be rebellious and she became aggressive toward me, but non-directively. I could cite examples of how, but that would be unnecessary here – maybe even hurtful to my siblings for whom, rightfully so, our mother was a saint.
According to Dr. Richardson, aggression is often confused with assertiveness. Assertiveness, according to her, is about expressing our needs or concerns while aggression involves the intent to actually hurt someone. I cannot entirely agree with her on this — assertiveness often morphs into aggression. Intentional or unintentional, when someone causes another pain and becomes aware that he or she was responsible, that’s aggression. This is especially true when there is no acknowledgement or expression of regret and a request for forgiveness. It makes no difference either whether the pain inflicted was physical or emotional. Even if the giver of pain is mentally or emotionally irresponsible, the act is still an aggressive one.
Please feel free to post a comment, whether you agree with what I’ve written or not. I would very much enjoy dialoguing about this.