Healthy Aggression: What is it, and how can we embody more of it?

Healthy aggression happens when we have “Fight” activation from our sympathetic nervous system, and simultaneously have the grounded presence of a safe ventral vagal state, which helps to keep our response under our control.

Sympathetic activation is a powerful messenger, bringing our attention to things we perceive to be threats to our own or others’ basic needs, like inclusion, fairness, respect, care, freedom, and safety.

Healthy aggression involves acknowledging our sympathetic energy as a sign that something doesn’t feel right to us, and ultimately taking action to address the issue in a way that is respectful, and even compassionate, to all parties.

The word “aggression” comes from the Latin “aggressio” meaning “to step towards”, and the sympathetic activation provides us with the energy (mobilisation) to do just that – to say or do something that directly confronts the issue, helping us to bring about change.

And the containment offered by our ventral vagal nerve complex means that we don’t “act out” our displeasure impulsively or violently. Our prefrontal cortex stays engaged so that we can think clearly, and respond in a calm and conscious manner.

The engagement of our ventral vagal complex will have our social engagement system (the cranial nerves to the face and torso) switched on so that our facial expression and tone of voice will come across as assertive, rather than threatening.

As parents, examples of healthy aggression include setting warm but firm limits with our child, advocating for our child in a school or health environment, and activism in relation to social or environmental issues that we are passionate about.

If we find it hard to “be with” and bring a safe presence to our aggression, then we might end up confronting the “threat” in a way that is hurtful to others – “losing it” verbally or physically – which may also reduce the likelihood of us getting what we want.

Or on the flip side, we might find the sympathetic activation to be so uncomfortable or overwhelming, that we’ll shut down – avoiding, ignoring, putting up with, or even playing along with the source of the “threat” – rather than speaking up about what is important to us.

Do you have experiences with healthy aggression? Or do you find it hard to express your needs and values in a way that is balanced and respectful, and tend to go quickly into blaming, avoidance, people pleasing, or helplessness?

If you’d like to increase your ability to stay present with and harness your “Fight” energy, so that you can stand up and speak up for yourself and others when something doesn’t “feel right”, in a grounded and healthy way, here are a few ideas:

✨ Identify and witness our sympathetic “Fight” state, perhaps the feeling of irritation, frustration, anger or rage, the tense or vibrating sensations in our body, the impulse to lash out, and the thoughts that usually centre around someone having done something “wrong” or it being their “fault”.

✨ Acknowledge our experience with compassion and non-judgement, “I notice that I’m feeling … in my body I sense … what I’d really like to do and say is … I notice that I’m thinking that …”.

✨ Resource ourselves to bring safety back to our system (e.g. focus on our breath, feel the support of the surface beneath us, slowly look around our environment to remind ourselves that we’re safe, do some mindful movement by following our impulses in a safe way).

✨ Recognise our “Fight” state as a message that something important to us is feeling threatened (there is something we have a clear “yes” or “no” to). What is it that we sense is being threatened?

✨ Use our thinking brain to come up with a plan to address the issue, which harnesses the sympathetic “Fight” energy (i.e. mobilisation, doing or saying something about it), with the containment offered by our ventral vagal engagement (i.e. in a manner that is grounded, confident, and respectful).

✨ Express ourselves with honesty, authenticity and self-responsibility, honouring our needs and boundaries, but without blame or judgement of the other party (e.g. express our feelings and needs, and make a request or set a limit).

I’m wondering how all of that sounds to you? Do any of these ideas resonate with you particularly?

Is there one step you could take today that could help you to embody more healthy aggression in your life?

*Note: This understanding of healthy aggression is informed by Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal Theory.

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