Editor's note: This is the second in a three-part series.
"If you don't like it, that's just too bad!"
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"A mother's job is never done."
"Do it my way or don't do it at all"
"I'm just doing this because I love you (and some day you'll thank me)."
What's the one thing all the above speakers have in common? They claim more power than is legitimately theirs.
Last week we met Karen, a woman who gives away her power over her own life. We might call people like Karen "submissive." This week we're going to consider the opposite end of the personal power pole: "aggressive" people.
Before we go any further, we need to be aware that aggressive people are not necessarily selfish, stubborn or power hungry. Nor are they always rude, hostile or demanding. For example, loving parents who wind up trying to overcontrol or dominate their children can have the best of motives and the gentlest of ways. And we all know the caring spouses who run their partners' lives, all the while insisting "it's for your own good." Yet, in each situation, if they exert more power than is necessary or appropriate, they are being aggressive.
Of course, some aggressive people are much easier to spot: the bosses who come across like Attila the Hun, the drivers who cut us off on the expressway, the committee members who threaten to quit if they don't get their way, the salesperson who just won't take "no" for an answer. All these people are claiming more power than is legitimately theirs.
All these people are also frightened. You may find this hard to believe, but I think the one motive that unites all aggressive people is fear. Fear that if they don't run their children's lives, something awful will happen to them. Fear that if they don't take care of their spouse they won't be needed. Fear that no one will do their job unless they are bullied and intimidated. Fear that they will get in trouble for being late if they don't drive like a maniac. Fear that they don't count if the vote doesn't go their way. Fear that no one will want what they are selling. Fear that they will not get what they want unless they bully their way to getting it. Even when aggressive people come across as rude, angry and demanding, it is fear that motivates them.
Not surprisingly, aggressive and submissive people often wind up together. For aggressive people to take more power than is rightfully theirs, someone -- a child (who often doesn't have much choice), a spouse, an employee, another driver (who also may just be driving smart), a committee chairperson, a customer -- must give away power, be submissive.
Aggressive people pay a steep price for their approach to power. Sooner or later they alienate most of the people they come in touch with. The controlled child eventually rebels. The spouse who is "taken care of" begins to resent being dominated. The driven and harassed employees quit. The rude driver has an accident. The stubborn committee member is no longer asked serve. The salesperson really doesn't make any sales. We get what we think we want, but lose most relationships in our lives in doing so. In fact, the aggressive person's approach to power often guarantees that which they fear will, in fact, come to pass.
Obviously, there is a better way. Neither being submissive nor aggressive ever really gets us what we want out of life. We'll talk about the alternative assertiveness next week.