“My passions were all gathered together like fingers that made a fist. Drive is considered aggression today; I knew it then as purpose.”―Bette Davis
The dictionary defines aggression as “physical or verbal behavior intended to cause harm… or the practice of making attacks or encroachments; hostile, injurious, or destructive behavior or outlook especially when caused by frustration.” Based on either definition we are all guilty to some degree of aggression or of having been aggressive.
Theories suggest aggression can be a result of frustration, can be instinctive, or learned. Reflecting on these three it is easy to see how each can be the underlying driving force in aggressive acts. I have lived and experienced aggression throughout my life in various forms. Depending on the circumstance each of the theories are valid in and of themselves or in any combination. There have been times when frustration has driven me to strike back. Instinctively as a matter of survival I have acted out aggressively in order to prevail. Being competitive in business and sports has taught me that there are times when you must be aggressive in order to win.
Frustration can trigger aggression. If you believe something or someone is blocking you from achieving your goal you become frustrated many times aggressively lashing out. I have seen this many times on the football field. The player who keeps getting beat, whose frustration gets the best of him resulting in a personal foul when he strikes out with a cheap shot or late hit, is called for holding or through frustration the player ends up injured. We have all witnessed the unhappy frustrated child in the department store who wants the toy or whatever and his parent has said no. The child makes his point by crying very loud, striking back at the parent sometimes physically, or pulling things off the shelves.
Many times frustration in the workplace ends in aggression – “Going Postal” comes to mind. A worker who becomes so frustrated as a result of not getting the promotion he felt he deserved, or is laid off or feels he is getting no satisfaction from management may display aggression. Certainly, the Postal worker who returned to his Post Office and shot co-workers was an act of aggression.
I believe instinctive aggression has saved my life. Everything we read including the definitions of aggression suggests it is hostile, injurious, or destructive. I am not suggesting aggression is good but there are times when it is a necessary evil. There have been several events in my life that have required controlled calculated aggression – each were defining moments that required instinctive survival mode resulting in aggressive acts. Instinctively as human beings we desire to survive and will do anything to preserve our life and those around us we love and care for. When facing an enemy, whose only goal is to harm or kill you, you have no option but to resort to aggression – in some instances it is the difference between life and death. In war you either kill or you are killed.
Socialized or learned aggression is another type of aggression I am familiar with. Having been a football coach, I cannot tell you how many times I told individual players and the entire team to go out there and be aggressive. Football is a contact sport; some say it is a violent contact sport. Regardless, it is a game of learned aggression. Players are taught from a very early age to go out on the field and knock the other team’s players on their butts; make the tackle and make sure he remembers your number; or, hit him so hard that the next time he doesn't want to carry the ball your way.
The important thing is a coach teaches his players what acceptable aggression is and what is crossing the line. There is a level of aggression that is acceptable in all sports. Whether on the football field, soccer field, basketball court or volleyball court there are aggressive acts that a player exhibits which are learned from his coach. On the football field the teams fight for field position through aggression – it’s a full contact sport. Soccer players fight for possession of the ball. On the basketball court players bang their bodies in efforts to gain position on the court and under the basket. Spiking the ball in volleyball can also be considered an aggressive act that is learned.
Putting it all together
Can frustration, instinctive, and learned aggression work together? Yes, consider the frustrated volleyball player who instinctively reverts to a learned behavior like spiking the ball in such a manner that the ball is spiked at an unaware opposing player that is hit with the ball unexpectedly. Another example is the football player who is so frustrated he instinctively wants to survive the game and does the only thing he remembers the coach telling him – be aggressive – so he makes a late hit. With so many people out of work, homeless, not able to keep up with paying their bills, and the overall level of frustration being experienced by many it becomes easy to understand why people aggressively act out in frustration, instinctively wanting to survive doing the only thing they learned to do when they were a child.