It was time for another enlightening talk by Alfried Längle held at Vancouver’s St. Paul’s hospital and this time around he was going to share with us his insights on aggression. The questions that were on my mind were what causes aggression and how can it be best dealt with. And Längle, whom I have affectionately nicknamed the Dalai Lama of psychotherapy, would naturally provide the answers to both of my questions.
He started off with the quotable phrase that we are happier than we think and that, contrary to many people’s opinions, the environment alone cannot give you happiness. You can be staying at a beautiful tropical island or living in a mansion but if your mind is not at ease, you will not enjoy it at all.
The most important key to happiness is an inner yes. That means that we are in tune or in agreement with what is happening around us. If you like the job you have and you give yourself to it whole-heartedly, then you are content and at peace. If you love the person you are with, you say yes to him or her, then you are happy and enjoy your relationship.
The problem is when there is no inner yes to either yourself or towards your outer situation, i.e. the world around you. In fact, suffering, an avoidable and generally unpleasant aspect of life, cannot and should not on its own destroy your inner fulfillment. People who accept themselves and are in tune with who they are and what they are doing will find ways to deal with upsetting events.
We know that we cannot escape them and must deal with suffering as we are subjects of time, both physically and psychologically. Life is a constant flow, which means that we cannot stop or block it but must go with it and the best we can do is to harmonize with the ebbs and flows of time.
We are living entities that travel through spacetime and must eat and work and deal with reality; at the same time, we can also see life as a challenge and an opportunity to discover ourselves, to find out what moves and touches us and what we like and dislike. It is a constant journey of self-discovery.
For my whole existence, I have to be me and cannot be anybody else. I cannot be divorced from myself but need to be aware of myself, of the person I am here and now. If you are outside of yourself or if you feel that you cannot develop or discover yourself, then you basically “lose” yourself.
This means that you will feel alienated, feel outside of yourself. If you are not the productive author of something special in your life, you may feel continuous suffering and get depressed. But if you have something valuable in your life, that could be your work, a child or any project that excites you, then you will experience a valuable context around you and most likely feel connected with others and the things that surround you.
For example, some people may see forms of activism as a meaning-filling activity. The fact that they are contributing to some positive change, for instance, helping to preserve the environment, will give them a necessary boost; they are doing what they care about most and they approve of their own actions.
To my knowledge, and for better or worse, money on its own cannot give us that type of self-satisfaction unless it is tied to a way of sharing it with others or helping those who are less fortunate. This may a reason why there are many (but still not enough!) philanthropists among the wealthy, such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, to name a few.
All of this preamble leads to one of the main sources and causes of aggression, which is rejection. This means that for whatever reason I do not give consent to that which surrounds me; I may feel and perceive to be trapped in a hostile environment or in an unfulfilling job or relationship and that causes overwhelming stress. I may either reject parts of myself or feel rejected by others or by society in general; either way, it is a frustrating experience.
This leads to psycho-dynamic reactions. In moments of stress, we may revert towards older, more primitive, manners of coping with difficult situations. In terms of evolution, our animal instincts dealing with survival of the species may kick in and take over the more refined and developed parts of our selves, the moral and ethical dimensions.
This old way of animalistic information processing has the function of preserving life and is less interested in ethics. It is a psychic dimension, a world of impulses, that at its forefront wants to reduce pain. Sometimes we believe that we need to avoid or confront the pain in order to preserve our species or our well-being.
Avoidance is a form of not being exposed to dangers, and we may find temporary relief in escaping a troublesome situation. In some cases, we may rationalize it and we may not even fully gauge or understand the consequences of this kind of behavior, but in either case, it cannot be a permanent or viable solution to a problem.
To give an example, let’s say we have not studied sufficiently or simply have difficulty understanding a subject and we choose not to go to the exam. This type of avoidance will, of course, come and haunt us in the form of a bad grade and possibly lead towards failing the whole course.
Another way of coping with stressors may be fighting against it and becoming hyperactive. In this case, we do more than we need to because we feel insecure about the situation. We may study nonstop, we may review our notes constantly and even “overlearn” for an exam. At least in this situation we are doing something, but the problem is that we are doing too much and that in itself can cause us stress; albeit the end effect, a possible good grade, might reward us, at least to some degree.
Now the problem is when the first types of coping do not resolve the issue. This can lead to aggression, which is the highest form of activation and it can bring the situation to a boiling point. Aggression is an automatic protective reaction that uses high levels of energy and gives us momentum, especially when we sense that the lower levels did not work.
Interestingly, and I must say to my own surprise, Längle believes that aggression is not a drive. A drive is like an itch that, when satisfied, produces a good feeling. Both food and sex fall into this category as we generally derive pleasure from engaging in those activities, but aggression does not produce good feelings on its own.
In fact, aggression is not really part of our natural make-up; it is more a reaction, a response to a stimulus. And more often than not, that same stimulus stems from feelings of social rejection, of being rejected by others. This stimulus is similar to physical pain, and in fact, it triggers the same parts of the brain. Social rejection is akin to suffering physical pain!
Not belonging to a group or being excluded or perceived as an outcast makes us sick, especially when this cannot be communicated to others. This situation may trigger disgust in us and our body feels violated as if we had taken in some poison. As a result, our blood pressure rises and we feel not only depressed but it can be transformed into feeling hurt and wanting to lash out at others because of it.
The aggressive act is not because of pleasure but rather serves as a misguided means to protect oneself. Part of the rejected person feels threatened and they may resolve to an aggressive act in order to salvage that threatened part. We see these acts of violence, for example, in crimes of passion. The slighted person feels that he or she cannot exist in peace while the other is still there and they believe that killing that person, the perceived threat, could alleviate the pain.
The same can be applied to school shooters as the majority of them either have experienced significant loss or defeat, or they have been hurt, or they have suicidal thoughts. Suicide is aggression that is turned inward against the self, and paradoxically, we may think that killing oneself may solve the issue and save the threatened self. In either case, the threat is perceived as not letting us be.
Hence, the question is and remains to be or not to be, and in many situations, it may boil down to either you or me! If your being does not allow my being to exist, I must destroy you. This sense of intense powerlessness may create the desire to run down the threat, to eliminate it once and for all.
If it does not turn to hate, then it will turn to anxiety. Hate is a cold-blooded lifeless thing, a pale face that is destructive and is very dangerous. However, anger or fury is alive; it is full of blood and movement, and it is not necessarily bad if it can be tamed and handled or re-channeled towards more productive measures.
In rage, one has a red head and one wants to shake the other. Rage is loud and trembling and it searches for relationship. It has reached a point where it cannot resolve itself through words or communication anymore. It can lead to marking one’s space while desperately trying to be who one is.
This can occur because one feels trapped or forced and is trying hard to do something about the stifling situation or circumstances. One has the aim of wanting to be seen and heard. All this stems from the perception of deeply felt injustice; at the same time, one is defiant and will not accept being treated in such a way. It is when we want to show others that they are wrong or we want to find ways of redressing or punishing the injustice.
At this stage, we are vengeful and want others to learn a lesson, and in some cases, we may wish to hurt them. But if it is turned inward, it may lead to self-accusations. You feel that you are not taken seriously or overlooked. This can make you either depressed or can motivate you to confront it.
As you want to be yourself and be respected and valued by others, you feel hurt. It is wounding us and when we cannot resolve it, we become aggressive. This may be manifested in “playful” aggression in the form of cynicism, sarcasm, or even vandalism.
One feels meaninglessness and emptiness and may want to destroy the context. For example, by doing acts of vandalism, by scratching people’s cars, by damaging or destroying things or property, one feels partly validated and believes that one has at least restored a little bit of justice in an utterly unjust world.
This sentiment can then be carried even further when people thrive on creating more confusion and chaos in the world and may even engage in bullying and torturing victims. All of this is an expression of the painful feeling of meaninglessness; it is a kind of crying out for help.
The cynic, for instance, says something but actually means the opposite and does so not only to get a point across but to draw attention to themselves. With sarcasm, the speaker uses cutting humor and biting derision because there are things they find not only hard to accept in and about the world but they also try to protect themselves from such perceived threats.
As a rule, any type of violence, from the seemingly benign to the overtly aggressive kind is inherently selfish; one’s self interest is more important than others and one may be even inconsiderate of the damage that one is causing with one’s behavior. Yet the driving force of it all is protection, that is, protection for survival, and it is seen as a desperate coping mechanism to deal with anxieties and uncertainties.
As Längle pointed out, the problem is not the aggression itself, but rather giving into that feeling in a blind and unseeing manner. Yet using it in a seeing and understanding way, feelings of aggression can give us insights into our lives and being. Aggression can then give us the capacity to evaluate our inner self and come to a better life.
Yet we need to humanize aggression and not let it take control of us. It has a hidden message that can help us understand and see ourselves in a clearer light. But in order for this to happen, we must detoxify it from its harmful potential and see it as a lesson to be learned and realize its helping power.
The worst is to let it fester and become hatred. Hatred has no saving grace or silver lining; it is inflexible, destructive, and damaging both towards ourselves as well as others.