"Our subject is very obscure, but from its importance, must be discussed at some little length; and it is always advisable to perceive clearly our ignorance."
Charles Darwin. The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.
The assertiveness system is the system that enables us to speak our truth, stand up for what is right and when necessary fight. A system that has evolved in the context of a competitive world - those who could stand up for their needs, were more likely to survive. But as we are more vulnerable alone than together, in most mammals, and humans especially, the assertiveness system is as much about asserting a desire for cooperation as power. The socially fittest mammals survive. So effective assertiveness comes through knowing the damage that can be done to relationships and community, with passivity and aggression.
We all have the capability for assertiveness… it is an innate part of being human, being alive. If you aren’t aware of it, that isn’t because it isn’t there - there is something within you that is strong and potent, your energy and power. If you are unaware of it – it may be more valuable to ask – what is blocking my strength and power? Where is my assertive capability being diverted to? The answers may be easier to spot than you expect or may not be simple.
In the two recent episodes of the Emotional Systems Podcast about assertiveness, I share the concept of a mechanism that helps us to live peacefully – a mechanism that stops us acting on aggressive impulses. A brilliant part of civilised society – it provides the possibility of us living protected from aggression. It can be the difference between living in peace and oppression. Blocking aggressive impulses is one thing but if the assertiveness system is blocked at an earlier point before conscious awareness of our assertive or aggressive feelings - we can be in grave grave danger. At this earlier stage, the blocking mechanism can turn our power and strength inwards against the self, diminishing us or harming us. When it is blocked before awareness, it can cause all sorts of difficulties – with the energy and power, for instance, turning against the self as self sabotage, pain or suicidal thoughts or impulses.
Restraining the aggressive impulse but knowing that we are angry or needing to assert ourselves is part of the key here. We feel the energy and our assertive capability, we know it needs to be honoured by whatever means necessary. I am furious... now how shall I use it?
I was listening to these episodes after releasing them for production when it hit me that I am being very anthropocentric. I face my limits as a psychologist and a human in our current society, and how unaware I can be when I am seeing things primarily from a human perspective. In the episodes I suggest that humans and trainable mammals have access to this mechanism of restraint. It is true that both these have the ability to block aggressive impulses in the context of humans – dogs for instance can stop themselves biting us because we have trained them to. But my realisation was in remembering that so many species have access to this mechanism in the context of their own lives, species and clans, and as with humans and dogs – it is variable. Mammals need to teach their young and work together to survive and thrive. They need the capacity to restrain their aggressive impulses to do this effectively.
To illustrate this, I will share a few passages from one of my favourite books - Beyond Words: What animals think and feel by Carl Safina. These passages are from part 2: Howls of Wolves.
“Twenty-one was the classic alpha male", Rick explains. “He was the toughest guy in the neighborhood. But one of his main behavioural characteristics was restraint. Think of a very emotionally secure man or a great heavyweight champion: whatever he needed to prove is already proven. Think of it this way,” Rick offers. “Imagine two groups of the same kind – two wolf packs, two human tribes, whatever. Which group is more likely to better survive and reproduce: one whose members are more cooperative, more sharing, less violent with one another, or a group in which members are beating each other up and competing with one another?”
So an alpha male, in Rick’s experience here, almost never does anything overtly aggressive to the other males. (Page 156)
"Wolf Seven was the dominant wolf in her pack. But you could watch Seven for days and say, ‘I think she’s in charge.’ Watching over years, I saw she was in charge. She led by example. So when I use the word ‘matriarch,’ I mean a wolf whose personality kind of shapes the whole pack.” Contrasts: Seven led by example. Wolf Forty led with an iron fist. Doug emphasises this, slowly: “Very… different… personalities.” Seven you could study for weeks, her leadership was so subtle. “You could watch Forty for just one hour and see: in charge and – bitch!” An exceptionally aggressive wolf, Forty had actually deposed her own mother from top status. (page 157)
The following pages share the torment and tyranny that Forty puts her pack through, Carl Safina describes it as brutal oppression – always maintaining the upper hand through violence and aggression. One year, she beat her sister – Cinderella - and potentially killed her pups. The following year, Forty attacked her sister again six weeks after she had given birth. This time a group of four wolves turned on Forty.
It was pay back time…. It was the only time researchers have ever known a pack to kill its own alpha. Forty was an extraordinarily abusive individual. Credit to the sisters’ decision to act outside the box of wolf norms, to mutiny.
Remarkable enough. But Cinderella was just getting started….
“Cinderella was the finest kind of alpha female,” Rick McIntyre says. “Cooperative, returning favors by sharing with the other adult females, inviting her sister to bring her pups together with her own while also raising her vanquished sister’s pups-. She set a policy of acceptance and cohesion that allowed the Druids to swell into the largest wolf pack ever recorded. She was", Rick says, “perfect for helping everyone get along really well."
I get tingles reading this book. They have the same emotional systems, the same emotional capability, and the same emotional fallibility. The three species Carl Safina focuses on during the book – Wolves, Elephants and Killer Whales – are our cousins and their lives have so much to teach us. These examples show us that the animals that were most effective were well aware of their anger, but they choose the right moment to use aggressive acts and they use them for the benefit of the whole clan.
Which animals, like us, also have the ability to repress their assertiveness before consciousness is a fascinating question. I have certainly met very passive dogs who seem just as capable of appeasing as some humans are and in my reading about baboons (Sapolsky, 200?) it seems likely that, in contexts of oppressive, they can also learn to be submissive in deeply automatic and unconscious ways.
So you might be intrigued to notice any experiences you have of restraining your aggressive impulses and of these being blocked even before you become aware of them. Short term or long term…
“I’m not angry with my boss – so why am I shouting at the children this evening?”
“I don’t think it impacted me that my father beat me… but is it a coincidence that I always appease people and prioritise their needs over my own?”
I say this so bluntly because you have the right to know your assertiveness system, to know the strength and power located deep within you. You need not be an angry person in any way you have seen before, how you use your strength and power is your unique gift in this world.
So be open to what is within you. Pay careful and close attention, get support along the way, and in time you will discover what you need to. Make space for your assertive power alongside and through the other emotional systems:
- allow your care to be feisty care when needed,
- your connection with others to be with a strong and potent voice,
- your interest and curiosity in the world can sniff out inequity and boundary violations,
- be safe and use your power to protect against threats,
- notice that being assertive and allowing your voice, feels really good,
- when you play, play rambunctiously.
Feel it; know it; use it.