In previous blogs I have written about how anxiety nearly always arises from stressful life events (SLEs). These SLEs often have their origins in childhood, when we have little control over our lives.
In such circumstances, children learn that the way they can best survive is through a combination of compliance, secrecy, deceit and manipulation. As they move into adolescence and become stronger and more capable, these strategies often flip into aggression. This occurs, for example, when there is a severe altercation and the teenager is physically large enough to fight back against an abusive parent. Under pressure, the adolescent suddenly ‘digs deep’ and comes up with another strategy.
In this sense, compliance and aggression are two sides of the same coin. It is one framework, but that framework is based on fear and powerlessness – despite the outward show of aggression.
In my work with anxious clients, I find that the aggression-compliance framework is not only widespread, but it contributes towards anxiety. Since powerlessness underlies the compliance-aggression paradigm, where anxiety follows a SLE, people often feel powerless and truly believe that their anxiety thoughts take them over, as if they have no control at all.
As I have explained in earlier blogs, nothing could be further from the truth. We always have 100% control over what we pay attention to, simply because we have a human brain.
In my work I teach people how to become assertive (which is a completely separate paradigm) and it takes some time to learn and practise. Clients usually struggle with the assertion framework because they confuse it with aggression. So often I see people who think they have ‘discovered’ assertion whereas they are just actually rude, inflexible, oppositional, angry but terrified underneath. They have clearly not switched paradigms.
Assertion is about never seeing others as the ‘opposition’. Rather, it is about seeing others as on the same side as you. In other words, you both have a problem that will not be resolved until it is fully discussed and until all parties are genuinely happy with the result. This requires that you become persuasive, thoughtful, respectful and imaginative. Assertion means being able to persuade others of the merits of your case, but at the same time doing so in a way that is friendly, constructive, open and flexible to new (and possibly better) solutions than your own.