Today’s post begins a new series on a subject historically afforded little attention in classical psychology paradigms: human aggression. For the most part, traditional psychology overly focused upon, and perhaps was even obsessed with, people’s fears and anxieties. Classical psychology paradigms even sought to define people’s personalities by the ways they “ran” from things they unconsciously feared or the ways they “defended” themselves against perceived “threats” from the outside world and from the experience of anxiety. In short, classical psychology viewed people mainly as runners and largely unwitting runners at that. And the classical paradigms viewed all the psychological problems we can have as stemming from the unhealthy or inadequate ways we avoid or defend ourselves from the things we fear. As a result, classical psychology failed us all in explaining a large segment of human behavior.
I’ve long made the point that most of us do an infinitely greater amount of “fighting” than we do running in our daily lives (see also pp. 96-105 in Character Disturbance). And by fighting I do not mean being physically violent. Physical violence is just one of many forms of human aggression. And it’s by no means the predominant form. While human beings do an awful lot of fighting, most of it is done in various nonviolent ways. And not all of the fighting we do is bad either. Sometimes it’s both appropriate and necessary that we fight. And when we fight with principle for the things we truly need and with the constraint and discipline necessary to respect the rights, needs, and boundaries of others, it can be a really good thing – perhaps even the healthiest thing we can do. That’s largely what assertive behavior is all about. But some kinds of fighting are particularly problematic, as is the case with the subtle, underhanded, unprincipled fighting I call covert-aggression. Those familiar with my books and other writings are already aware that covert-aggression is almost always involved in interpersonal manipulation.
There’s been a lot of misunderstanding about the nature of human aggression. And much of this misunderstanding is unfortunately due to the rampant misuse of important psychological terms, even by mental health professionals. That’s one reason many folks have problems accurately understanding such concepts as psychopathy, sociopathy, antisociality, denial, acting-out, etc. (for more on this see the series on commonly misunderstood and misused terms, such as: Passive Aggression: Top 5 Misused Terms – Part 3). So, I think it worth reviewing some of the many forms of human aggression:
- Direct aggression – when the aggressor directly attacks a target
- Indirect aggression – when the aggressor employs some type of intermediary entity or action to attack a target
- Active aggression – when the aggressor does something actively to injure/exploit/gain advantage over a target
- Passive aggression – when the aggressor fails to do, resists doing, or refuses to do something as a way of frustrating a target
- Reactive aggression – when a person aggresses (usually, defensively) in response to a threat to his/her safety or security
- Predatory aggression – when a person aggresses for the pure purpose of victimization
- Overt aggression – when the aggressor openly and unabashedly lashes out against a target
- Covert aggression – when the aggressor attempts to conceal aggressive behavior and nefarious intent to increase the odds of gaining advantage over a target
Now covert-aggression is a particularly insidious type of fighting. That’s because victims of it can have a lot of understandable difficulty recognizing it in the first place and then defending themselves against it once they sense it. As I say in In Sheep’s Clothing, being the victim of covert-aggression can make you feel crazy. In your gut, you think someone’s trying to get the better of you or abuse you in some way, but you can’t point to anything clear and obvious to back up your hunch. And it’s also like getting whiplash: You don’t really realize what’s happened to you until after damage has already been done. Even once you get an idea of what’s going on, it’s hard to respond well. The covert-aggressor has usually succeeded at throwing you on the defensive, and when you’re in such a state it’s hard to think clearly about how you might better handle yourself.
In the next few weeks, I’ll be giving some new examples of covert-aggression and I look forward to a robust discussion on the topic. We’ll also be exploring some of the other kinds of aggressive behaviors and the toll they take in human relations. Though many of the readers are quite savvy on these subjects, there are many newcomers to the site that have either just become familiar with my work or are just beginning to suspect that they’ve been the victim of any of these types of aggression. The more anecdotes and examples they can access, the more validated they’re likely to feel in their feelings and suspicions. Hopefully, they’ll also find in the examples and discussions the insights and tools they need to better empower themselves.