Just as bird that about
and beats against the cage,
Finding at last no passage out
It sits and sings and so overcomes its rage.
One of the causes of
stress is the inability to cope with conflict in
interpersonal relations. Almost all of us, at some time
or the other has experienced the feeling of "being
stumped for words", (tongue tied)" not being
able to say the right thing at the right time", or
" blowing our top" when our emotions overcome
us. At these times, we are out of control of ourselves.
When this feeling of being out of control persist for a
long time, it manifests itself in bodily complaints such
as headaches, general fatigue, stomach disturbances,
rashes and asthma.
Fight and Flight Response
How do people
generally react, when faced with a conflict?
Surprisingly, not very different from animals! Have you
ever seen a cat when cornered? Its whole body becomes
stiff, eyes dilate, tail stands on edge, hairs stand up,
and it starts emitting strange sounds. This is called fight
response, and may also be termed as `instinctive',
`survival', or `protective'. Although slightly modified
in present day civilised person, this response is still
very much visible in for example the irate, defensive
mother-in-low who wants to vindicate herself before her
son, or to take a more common example the bus conductor,
who in a loud aggressive voice states that he does not
On the other hand, individuals (and so also animals) may
opt for the flight response, wherein the organism
simply `takes to its heels'. Again its manifestation in
modern person is seen in the individual who
procrastinates, avoids taking stands, and is constantly
eluding or running away from trying or problematic
situations, for example, avoiding a friend whom you had
promised something, by taking the easy way out: just not
The fight and flight responses are built into our systems
and are automatically triggered off, in certain
situations. They are usually associated with the emotions
of fear, anger/frustration, and they were of immense
value to our ancestors (e.g. to run as fast as possible,
on seeing some danger in the form of a predatory animal)
because you didn't have to think. It just happened. The
very emotion of fear/rage, by reflexaction, aroused the
survival instincts, preparing them for fight or flight as
the case may be.
However the main difference human being and animals is
that while the latter have only two sets of responses-
Fight and Flight, humans have a third option, that is,
verbal problem solving ability. But, the Fight and Flight
responses when carried to an extreme, prevent us from
exercising our third option of verbal problem solving.
How does this happen? Manuel
J. Smith explains 1 :
. . . Most of our conflicts and problems come from other
people and in dealing with other people, our primitive
response are insignificant, in comparison with our
uniquely human coping ability of verbal assertive problem
solving. Anger-fight and fear-flight actually interferes
with this verbal coping ability. When you become angry or
afraid, your primitive lower brain centres shut down much
to the operation of your new human brain. The blood
supply is automatically rerouted away from your brain and
gut to your skeletal muscles to prepare them for physical
action. Your human problem solving brain is inhibited
from processing information. When you get angry
or afraid, you just don't think clearly or
efficiently. (emphasis added). To an angry or frightened
man, 2+2 no longer add up to 4.
Assertive, Assertive, and Aggressive Behaviour
|There are three possible broad
approaches to the conduct of interpersonal
relations. The first is to consider one' self
only and ride roughshod over others ... The
second ... is always to put others before one's
self .... The third approach is the golden mean.
The individual places himself first, but takes
others into account.
1. Manual J. Smith. When
I say No, I feel Guilty. Bantam Books, New
Robert Alberti and Michael
Emmons1 distinguish between three types of coping
behaviours: Non Assertive, Assertive and Aggressive
appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it
will eat him last.
Non Assertive behaviour is
somewhat similar to the flight response, in that fear
stimulating situations, automatically generate inhibited
behaviour in the individual concerned. The non assertive
person will not stand up for his own rights, even where
it is justified. They are usually at a loss for worlds,
hesitate to express their opinions, thoughts, or needs
clearly and allow others to decide for them. They become
anxious, and are always giving in to requests - even
obviously unreasonable ones - are without confidence when
criticised ( though they make half hearted attempts to
defend themselves, and on the whole they are not very
happy or satisfied people, because they are always going
out of their way to please others, at the cost of self.
The individual who cannot refuse requests, or say `No'
without feeling guilty, hesitates to displease others, to
express opinions which differ from others, is easily
persuaded by glib salesmen into buying things which they
do not need or want; the employee who is afraid to assert
herself before her bullying husband, are all examples of
non assertive behaviour.
Alberti and Emmons distinguish between general non
assertiveness and situational non assertiveness. The generally
non assertive person is one with very low self esteem. He
has a deep feeling of inadequacy, lack of acknowledgement
of self worth, and usually suffers from actual physical
discomforts brought on by extreme anxiety. The situationally
non assertive person is on the whole able to cope with
people and situations, but certain situations generate much anxiety in them : the student who can get along well
with classmates and people in general, but shivers when
they have to face authority figures, like the principal.
1. Robert Alberti and
Michael Emmons. Your Perfect Right.
Impact Publishers, California, 1970.
|I am the inferior of any man whose
rights trample underfoot.
There is another class of
people, who respond to conflict by becoming aggressive -
a fight response. They usually try to subdue other people
by shouting in a loud manner, frowning and grimacing,
etc. to frighten the other person - they put themselves
up by putting others down.
We often meet such people. The village `goonda', or the
`neighbourhood bully' are typical examples of aggressive
behaviour. Another common Indian scene, involving
aggressive behaviour, is the case of the woman who
refuses to allow anyone near the community tap, till her
pots and pans are filled. Aggressive behaviour is easily
recognisable. The whole stance of the individual
undergoes a transformation. Their body becomes erect and
stiff, and slightly bent towards the other individual
(they may even take two steps forward and forward and
catch hold of the other person's collar), eyes become
big, voice is raised . . . and so on.
On the surface, these people usually appear to have level
of self- confidence, to be in command of every situation
and to be strong and able to cope with life on their
terms. But in reality, the aggressive personality covers
up an insecure ego. In order to cover up this insecurity,
they compensate by becoming overly aggressive, and
apparently in command of every situation.
Aggressiveness also can be either general or situational.
The generally aggressive individual has learned early in
life that in order to get what you want, it is okay if
you ride roughshod over other people's feelings, rights,
etc., whereas the situationally aggressive individual
responds with aggression only under certain situations.
Aggressiveness can also be expressed indirectly or
passively. On the surface these individuals appear to be
very mild and sweet, but in order to get what they want,
they will use indirect means - manipulation, trickery,
wiles, etc. And if they get angry, they are likely to use
sneaky ways to get revenge. They can be so indirect that
the person whom they anger was about.
Because of the reaction accorded to the aggressive woman
and the misery experienced by the passive woman, many
women develop the ability to get they want by indirect
means, for instance, the woman who will bang the pots and
pans in the kitchen to express her anger (when her
manipulations do not work out) instead of directly saying
what is bothering her.
This brings us to the question, `Is anger the same as
aggression?' No! Anger is not the same as aggression.
Anger is a natural emotion, also healthy. But aggression
is the destructive or inappropriate expression of anger
and is unhealthy. You can reason with an angry person,
but not with an aggressive person.
the golden mean between non assertiveness and aggression.
The assertive individual has a high self-esteem, values
self and others, while the non assertive individual
values others but not self, and the aggressive individual
values only self but not others.
The assertive individuals, when faced with a conflict is
the one who will make use of our third human option of
verbal coping ability. Instead of passively giving in to
people's demands, on the one extreme, or completely
ignoring them on the other extreme, the assertive
individual will assess the situation, and take into
consideration both points of view.
Assertiveness is a characteristic that is both person and
situation specific. For example, if someone makes an
unreasonable request - unreasonable for the individual
concerned - the assertive person will very simply refuse
the request, while acknowledging the other person's
feelings. 'I know you will be unhappy, but I don't feel
like . . . (whatever)'. The assertive individual takes
responsibility for his responses: 'I think', 'I
feel', 'I like'. 'I will not'. On the other
hand, if the assertive individual is at fault, in that
situation, he/she will acknowledge his/her fault or
mistake, instead of being defensive and denying it.
Stanlee Phelps and Nancy Austin, in their book, The
Assertive Woman, humorously bring out this distinction
between the different types of coping behaviour, in the
form of true to life stereotypes:
Doormat (passive, non assertive)
Agatha Aggressive (aggressive)
Iris Indirect (indirect aggression)
April Assertive (assertive)
Now, in order to see
whether you are able to recognise the three types of
behaviour in a variety of situations, see Appendix 1,
Assertion Response Discrimination Index(ARDI).
In modern society,
especially in the upper classes, people are not openly
non assertive, or aggressive. We wear masks and use
indirect means to get our way. We are taught, for
example, not to be aggressive, it creates bad
impressions. So on the surface, we are very sweet, but
underneath we are calculating furiously in our minds, the
ways in which to "bring the person round",
"get even with so and so", "get rid of
those guests" (why did they come today?),
a request" (which we have no intention of
complying with ), etc.
It is like a verbal game and the winner is the one who
deftly manages to escape, keeping his image intact!
Smith1 has brought this out in the form of a
conversation, in his book :
(A friend has asked you to pick up his aunt flying in
from Pascagoula at 6.00 p.m.)
: God, Harry!
I am so tired at that time of day. (Trying to induce
guilt in Harry by implying, induce guilt in Harry
by implying, `How could anybody ask a tired friend to
fight the traffic at that time of evening', even though
Harry's telling himself, `Hell, I fight the same traffic
every evening at five'.)
ladies can get really scared, arriving in a strange
airport with no one to meet them. (Trying to induce guilt
in you by implying, `What kind of a fellow would make a
little old lady to through that just because he is a
little tired',. while you are thinking, `Where did all
this fragile-old-lady business come from? After 50 years
of living with the Pascagoula mosquitoes, she must have
the endurance of a horse!').
: Well, I'd
really have to go out of my way . . . (Trying to induce
guilt by implying, `I will really suffer if you make me
do this,' while Harry says to himself, `It is a pain in
the neck, but you've done it before, and it won't kill
If I had to
pick her up, I wouldn't even get there until 7.30
(suggesting that you are ignorant of the facts by
implying, `My trip would be much longer and harder than
yours', except you think, `Where and what would he be
coming from? He's probably closer to the airport than I
Smith concludes :
"The farce of this
manipulative-counter-manipulative inter-change is, that
who goes to the airport, you or Harry, does not depend
upon what you want, but upon whoever can make the other
one feel guiltier."
1. Smith, op. cit.
usually leaves you frustrated, irritated and anxious, and
these feelings are eventually expressed by you in verbal
fighting or running away. As a result of this unresolved
internal conflict between our natural wants and our
childhood beliefs, we are left with some really dismal
- We can do what
someone else wants, be frustrated very often, get
depressed, withdraw from people and lose our self
- We can do what we
want angrily, alienate other people and lose our
self respect ;
- We can avoid conflict
by running away from it and the people who cause
it, and lose our self respect.
Anger and the Difference Between Anger and Aggression
Anger is a
feeling, an emotion just like fear, joy, sorrow, grief,
etc. Everyone feels anger, sometime or the other, but the
ways in which we show our anger are different. For
example, let us say you're walking on the road, and you accidentally
brush someone as you pass by. Now, the other
person can react in either one of the following ways:
- Direct put down and
verbal aggression: "Damn it, can't you watch
where you're going! You fool ..!"
- Indirect put down:
"Can't you see without your glasses
on?" or "Oh, have you forgotten to wear
your glasses today ?"
- Non verbal put-down :
a dirty look.
- Saying nothing.
Some people claim that
they never get angry. Do not believe them. They do get
angry, but they have learned to control it, so as not to
openly show it. Such controlled individuals typically
suffer from migraine headaches, asthma, ulcer, and skin
Anger and its expression is a healthy thing - if used
constructively. Simple direct verbal expression of your
anger is much better than bottling it up or using
indirect means - taunting, making snide remarks, or even
non verbal put-downs like, making faces, refusing to
talk, sulking, etc. - to take revenge on the person who
angered you. Even saying simply and forcefully, "I
am very angry with you" is preferable to calling
names or abusing or physical exertion like banging doors,
and throwing things.
People often appreciate it when you directly confront
them with your anger, rather than do something nasty, or
sly to hurt the person concerned. A classic example of
this is that of newly weds. After the honeymoon is over,
the new discovers many objectionable habits in her
husband. Not wishing to directly confront him, as she is
afraid to "spoil their relationship" (or so she
thinks), she finds another way out to vent her feelings.
When husband goes to work, she rings up her mother and
given vent to her hostile feelings. Worse, when all the
family gathers together, she berates him in front of
everyone - the case of washing your dirty linen in public
. . . Little does she realise that this mode of
expressing anger is much more harmful to their marriage
then talking it over with her husband in private. This
way only serves to embitter her husband and make him lose
his love and respect for her. If on the other hand, she
had chosen to courageously assert herself by directly
telling him of her feelings, it would have boded much
better for their marriage.
Very often people confuse angry feelings with aggressive
behaviour. According to Alberti and Emmons 1
. . . aggression is not the same thing as anger! Anger is
a perfectly natural, healthy human which may be expressed
in a number of ways, including aggressively,
non-assertively, assertively or not at all. Anger is a
feeling, an emotion we all feel at times. Aggression is a
behavioural style of expression.
with your Anger : A
healthy approach to dealing with anger is to :
- Recognise and allow
yourself to believe that anger is a natural
healthy, non evil human feeling. Everyone feels
it, we just don't all express it. You needn't
fear your anger.
- Remember that you are
responsible for your own feelings. You got angry
at what happened, the other person didn't
"make" you angry.
- Remember that anger
and aggression are not the same thing. Anger can
be expressed assertively.
- Learn to relax. If
you have developed the skill of relaxing, learn
to apply this response, when your anger is
- Develop assertive
methods for expressing your anger : be
spontaneous, don't wait and let it build up
resentment ; state it directly; avoid sarcasm and
innuendo; use honest, expressive language; avoid
name-calling; put downs, and physical attacks.
1. Alberti and Emmons.
op. cit., p. 87.
- Keep your life clear.
Deal with issues when they arise, when you feel
the feeling - not after hours/days/weeks of
"stewing" about it.
Go ahead! Get angry! But
develop a positive, assertive style for expressing it .
You and those around you will appreciate it.
According to the Vedanitc tradition, there are three ways
of expressing anger :
- Sathvic : when
a person without any attachment to the feeling of
anger and without caring for the result for
himself, but for the good of the person, to
correct him and to offer the whole process to the
Divinity in the self or outside and not feeling
the responsibility of the doer.
- Rajasic : where
a person wants to correct the evil in the other
as well as for the appreciation and does not
surrender the process to God. When successful, he
claims the success, but when he fails, he blames
- Tamasic : unconscious
intervention into the personal problems without
being invited to correct them and imposing your
own ideas of good and bad and trying to correct
them in good faith that you believe you are doing
the ultimate good ( you are unaware of your own
with another's anger : When confronted with a direct verbal
put-down, the following four steps are valuable -
- admit it when you are
wrong, even in the face of insult.
- acknowledge the
- assert yourself about
the way he or she is reacting.
- give a short
statement to bring the encounter to an end.
For example, " I
apologize for brushing against you. I did not do it
intentionally. You're obviously upset, but I do not like
you calling me names or yelling at me. I can get your
point without that."
The best way to handle an indirect put-down is to first
ask for more information : "What are you
saying?", "What do you mean?"
And in case of a non verbal put-down, it is best to
attempt to get the person to use words instead of
See Appendix 6 if you want to role play expression of