Assertion, Anger or Aggression? I Could See Peace Instead of This

Assertion, Anger or Aggression? by Karen Bentley

It was the spring of 1986 when I first realized I was a murderer. This startling realization came to me as a result of a freshman-level college sociology course, which I firmly thought I should be exempted from having to take. I was in my mid-thirties when I finally got around to finishing my undergraduate degree. And I felt I had already learned many fundamental concepts from my professional life, from extensive reading, and from other coursework along the way. So picture me sitting in class with a bunch of 19-year-olds, with a tiny chip on my shoulder, but putting up with it to get through in the quickest and most efficient way possible.

So it was quite a surprise that the beginning of my personal awakening began in this ordinary class on yet another ordinary day. It happened when the sociology professor spent an entire period going over and over the difference between assertion and aggression. He said that assertion was getting what you want without hurting or harming someone and that aggression was getting what you want by harming or attacking in some way. Attack could be anything: name-calling, making someone feel guilty, putting someone down, saying something unkind, forcing someone to do something they didn't want to do, physical abuse, anything. For some reason, the professor's message was particularly meaningful to me. By the end of the class period, I knew in my heart that I was a very aggressive person, although I had never thought of myself in this way before. I knew with full certainty that many of my thoughts, words, and actions were intended to emotionally hurt and sting.

At the end of the day, I drove myself home from school. I vividly remember cruising down the Massachusetts Turnpike and crying my heart out with the horror of seeing myself as someone who deliberately hurts others -- a killer.

After my next sociology class, I stayed late to tell my instructor how upset and disturbed I was about seeing myself in such an ugly, revealing light. But he said there was no reason to be upset because the realization was highly beneficial. "Don't be sad," he told me. "Be glad. You can't change what you are not aware of."

Recognizing Your Own Anger or Absence of Love

It's not possible to make the choice to be a loving being until you first recognize your own loveless mistakes. The ability to see your own anger is critically important. The rub is that we don't want to see ourselves in this unflattering light, so we deny and resist it with all our might. Otherwise, anger is relatively easy to recognize. The absence of anger is love, and the presence of anger -- no matter how sweetly it's disguised or how justified it may feel -- is not love. All anger is an attack directed externally against another.

Anger takes many forms: irritation, lack of patience, refusal to communicate, holding a grudge, talking behind someone's back, insolence, making fun of someone, manipulation of another, criticism, blame, complaints, harsh words, yelling, hitting, rage, and whatever else you can think of. Even so-called mild irritation is a little temper tantrum -- a tiny rage in disguise. How dare you bother me! How dare you ask me to wait! How dare you tell me no!

Sometimes anger is subtle. It appears rational. It's packaged in kind words. It's even presented in a helping context. "This hurts me as much as it hurts you, but I'm doing it in your own best interest." Anger, however, is anger. And it doesn't really matter how we experience or express our anger. What matters is whether or not we choose to leave the anger in our mind once we become aware that it's there.

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Most of us indulge our angry thoughts. We dwell on them. Angst over them. And then finally, we express them -- in a wide range of ways. This is why it's so very useful to think of any form of anger as murder.

The term "murderer" is a shocking reminder that no matter how seemingly insignificant or mild the attack may be, the unconscious intent to kill is ever-present. Who hasn't thought "I'm going to kill you" when vexed by people who don't do what they're supposed to do? We kill drivers on the road who annoy us. We kill children and spouses when they disappoint. We kill our parents for their imperfections in raising us. We kill our friends for stepping on our toes. We kill our pets for being a nuisance. These mindless and seemingly harmless idiomatic expressions are confusing because they lead us to accept the notion that figurative killing is okay.

Legal, Social, and Religious Systems Either Tolerate or Punish Anger

Assertion, Anger or Aggression? by Karen BentleyOur legal, social, and religious systems reinforce our confusion about anger and killing because anger is not perceived or dealt with in an uncompromising way. Instead, anger is categorized into a hierarchy that attempts to measure the harm that is done to self or another whenever anger is expressed. Displays of anger are then either tolerated or punished based on the perceived degree of severity that's witnessed. So, for example:

  1. It's okay to indulge hateful thoughts in your own mind so long as you do not act on them. You can indulge in hateful thoughts whenever you want. And you can keep your hateful thoughts for as long as you like, even an entire lifetime. Hateful thoughts are viewed as normal, and no one really cares if you harbor them. No legal action will be taken against you. Your friends and family will not abandon you.

  2. Hateful words, on the other hand, may or may not be tolerated. Sometimes people get arrested or thrown out of public places for disruptive verbal conduct. Sometimes families shun members who are consistently prone to verbal expressions of anger. And other times, you hear about people in the news who get sued for libel or slander. But for the most part, in our day-to-day lives, hateful words are considered normal and okay even though they're not really liked.

  3. The way that hateful acts are viewed is a little more complicated. Physical attack that involves death or permanent injury is perceived as worse than physical attack that involves a minor or temporary injury. So a hateful act that leaves a person paralyzed is treated more seriously than a hateful act that leaves a scratch on the arm. Robbing someone of a large sum of money is perceived as worse and is treated more seriously than stealing a pencil from work or cheating by not paying a traffic toll. Raping is viewed as much more offensive than using the threat of rejection to force someone to do something they would otherwise not do.

  4. The physical murder of others is viewed as the worst possible thing you can do. However, even this is not a hard and fast rule. Our legal system justifies the killing of people who are proven guilty of a serious crime. Our political system justifies the killing of soldiers and citizens during war. We even think that God justifies our killing of others so long as we are killing with the just and right intention to end the evil in our world. Of course, nobody says that killing is a great resolution to our problems. It's a solution that seems to work. Killing seems to get rid of badness, and who values badness? Killing seems to end suffering, and who values suffering? Killing seems to solve problems, and who wants problems to endure?

"Good Citizens" Are Allowed Milder Forms of Attack

If we're good citizens and follow most of the rules, we can engage in so-called milder forms of attack without drawing any negative attention to ourselves and without getting into legal trouble. Therefore we think we can attack a little and get away with it. And, in fact, we do it every day. Even more, many self-help and human psychology experts put a positive spin on anger. Anger is typically viewed as an ordinary expression of healthy living. Everybody feels angry, so therefore it's normal and it's right.

We are taught to use our anger constructively, or at least as an inspiration. Anger can right wrongs. It can enhance self-esteem. It can be the inspiration and the catalyst that makes things happen. It puts people who've been bad or wrong in their place. These perceived benefits and advantages of anger are tremendously alluring. Can you begin to get a small sense of how and why we are so confused about the nature of anger and attack?

Higher Self Sees All Hate As The Same: Hate Is Not Okay

The objective of this discussion is not to suggest we should feel bad about ourselves for feeling angry. Or that we should trash everything that we've learned from human psychology. Rather, it's to draw your attention to our basic problem: the rules of our legal system, the morals of our social and religious systems, and the lessons we learn about expressing our emotions are not always in sync with the code of our Higher Self. Our Higher Christ Self would have us know that all hate is the same, and that no matter what form it takes, it's all equally destructive.

There are no degrees of hate that are okay. There are no kinds of hate that are okay. There are no situations where hatefulness is the answer to a problem. In contrast, our worldly system would have us believe there are degrees of hate. That some hateful acts are worse than others. And that there are certain situations where a little hate might be useful and good.

Many people on a spiritual path are caught somewhere in the middle, with one foot in each world. We intuitively recognize the uncompromising and radical truth about love and the absence of love. Yet we still embrace the ways of the world, or at least we partially embrace them. In short, we want to have it both ways. We want to awaken to our own greatness, and we also want to be petty and keep our hate -- though maybe just a little of it. It's highly likely that you will attempt the experiment of having it both ways many, many times. Ultimately, however, there's only one conclusion: this strategy does not work. This is because the presence of hate in your mind blocks awareness of your Higher Self. The presence of hate in any form also makes you feel bad about yourself and others. Therefore, every time you make the choice to be angry, you simultaneously make the choice to be unhappy. Until we make the choice to be a loving being, and only a loving being, we will continue to make decisions to be angry rather than happy.


Sit quietly and repeat the following phrase over and over in your mind for a minute or two. Say the phrase throughout the day whenever you notice you're annoyed, disturbed, or offended for any reason. Nothing is too little.

I could see peace instead of this.

Reprinted with permission of the publisher,
Big Heart Books. ©2002.

This article was excerpted from the book:

The Book of Love
by Karen Bentley.

The Book of Love by Karen Bentley. The power of love heals all, restores all, renews all. It will undo anger. It will undo guilt. It will restore kindness and trust to your relationships. It will enable you to feel good about yourself and others. It will inspire you to connect deeply with your own divinity and holiness. And it will create the possibility for happiness beyond your wildest expectations. This is not an empty promise. It is the truth.

Info/Order this book.

About the Author

Karen BentleyKaren Bentley is Big Heart. A highly gifted author and in-demand speaker, she is the nationally acclaimed creator of the Awaken Your Passion book and seminar series. Her goal is to revolutionize the way people think about love, to show how spiritual love is the source of all happiness and peace. Formerly, Karen served as the director for The Center for Forgiveness and the editor of The Spirit's Voice, a magazine for spiritual seekers. Visit her website at


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