In my professional life, I have completed a lot of training around domestic violence and also worked in organisational development where my team trained people in assertiveness and resilience. Knowing how to ‘do it’ and putting the skills into action around are emotions is a tricky challenge.
I’ll hold my hands up, when I was younger, I did not used to be as emotionally intelligent as I am now. I used to react to whatever feeling was going on inside me. If someone was annoying me I’d snap at them, if a situation annoyed me I would vent to anyone that would listen, if someone challenged my values, I would be absolutely raging!
Through my learning and self-development. I have worked on this and mantra is ‘respond, don’t react’. This applies to reacting to my own feelings as well as being on the receiving end of someone else’s. Trying to remember this mantra works well. Trust me!
Fight, flight or freeze
Our responses to experiencing stress, aggression or danger are fight, flight or freeze. I have examples of all three. Have you ever been in relationships with people that push your buttons and your values clash so much that when they argue with you, you can’t help but fight back? Does this get you anywhere? Maybe, in some circumstances where there is absolutely no other option and it’s a choice between life or death. Probably not in any other situation. This goes for arguing back too.
A man at Christmas chased me and my daughter in our car in a fit of road rage as I turned into a road and made him jump! It was one of those roads that appears to be wide, but when you turn into it, it’s really narrow- so it makes you jump when people turn in. As I turned into my street, I saw him behind me flashing his lights and beeping. As my daughter is four years old, I knew I had to protect her. After a on the spot risk assessment, I thought, there is no chance I’m going to pull into my drive. I carried on driving and called my husband. I drove for about a mile and a half hoping he would go, but he didn’t. Guess what? I ended up at a traffic light! It turned red. He got out and started yelling for me to wind window down. I knew I had to bring him down from his rage. With the window firmly closed and the car locked, I simply said, ‘I have my daughter in the car. My husband is on the phone. Please go away.’ Something in that sentence brought him down and he walked away.
We sometimes freeze when someone does or says something hurtful or embarrassing about us. I personally think that when this happens to me, it is about not being able to process what’s been said in the moment. We may not want to react inappropriately. ‘Freezing’ is how we would describe a deer in headlights. Animals freeze to try and prevent danger, such as an attacker from seeing them move. It is part of our instinct to do the same.
What is aggression?
Aggression is an inappropriate response to feelings of stress or someone or something perceived as a threat. It is where an individual believes they are standing up for themselves, but in a hostile way. This behaviour stems from not being able to see another person’s point of view, and often, not caring whether they have a view or not. An aggressive person’s views are right, ours are wrong. Life is black and white, there are no grey areas and quite frankly, they are not interested in hearing the our point of view.
Aggressive behaviour is acted out in many forms, from anger, threats, bullying, shouting, punishing, coercion, control, verbal or physical violence, and conversion strategies to try and wear someone down. People who regularly display aggressive behaviours can be authoritarian and genuinely believe it’s their way or the highway. They may have wider emotional or mental health issues going on, or be using substance problematically.
Friendships with aggressors are usually based around their perceived influence, fear and protection as opposed to friendships being formed because of commonalities and the enjoyment of someone else’s company. This is how cults and gangs are formed-by fear not fun.
Dealing with aggression
In the moment of an aggressive act, we will naturally have a fight, flight or freeze response. It’s instinctive. We are likely to complete a mini-risk assessment of the situation we are in.
Personal safety is paramount above any strategy whatsoever. If there is any threat of violence, get out of there. Walk away, run. Whatever you need to do.
Another mantra of mine is that ‘you can’t rationalise with someone who isn’t rational’. My advice is do not even try to engage in a conversation with someone who is not rational at that point. If they are drunk, angry or intoxicated in any way, do not bother to try any techniques. Leave them to it and speak to them when sober or calmer.
- Stay calm- have you ever had a good result from arguing back or retaliating? Probably not. So it’s best to avoid it!
- Empathy- are they having a bad day? Is the behaviour unusual? What’s actually going on for that person on that day?
- Take ownership- are you responsible for anything? Have you behaved aggressively yourself? Name it. I’m sorry I was talking during your presentation, but… (see point 5) We all make mistakes!
- Say something!- Only you can decide whether you say something in the moment or following an event. If someone just is not listening, forget it. Withdraw from the scene, but don’t forget about it. We often just let things go but in the long run, this passive behaviour will not get you anywhere. In the moment reponses are great, but not always appropriate or realistic.
- Respond, don’t react- Tell the other person how you feel. My favourite tool for this is I-messages. Frame it like this:
- I feel… (state how you feel)
- When you.. (state the behaviour)
- I would like… (what you would like to happen instead)
For example, “I feel upset when you shout at me. I would like it if you could wait until you feel calm to have a discussion about things in the future.”
It is a fact that NOBODY can argue with your feelings. They are yours and they belong to you. This way will have more of an impact that yelling back at them.
- Establish triggers- if it is a loved one or someone you see regularly, working out what triggers them to aggressive behaviour is useful, so that you can plan ahead for future outbursts and how you will manage it. Look out for the red flags that are typical when their undesirable behaviours are triggered.
- Consider your values- what do you believe in? What will you or wont you accept? How would you feel if someone behaved this way towards your grandma, your best friend or your son?
- Consider the future of your relationship- violence is not acceptable in any forms. Aggression can be worked with, providing the individual is accountable and takes responsibility for their behaviour. If they do not, you do not have to accept it. Think about your options as you could reduce contact, cut ties, move out, only see in certain situations and so on.
I can help
My service, The Vesta Approach, supports families affected by a loved one’s substance use. You can access confidential support from me wherever you are in the world. I will help you to get your loved one into treatment and lead a better life. I offer face to face sessions in the Manchester (UK) area or via Skype.
I also have an online therapeutic programme. Take a look at my services here
I have a closed Facebook Group called Vesta Confidential. If you are affected by a loved one’s substance use, come and join me.
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