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Psychological Self-Tools - Online Self-Help Book

Setting Boundaries Appropriately: Aggressive Behavior

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

In contrast to anger-motivated aggressive behavior, some people act aggressively because they are motivated to control other people. Aggression happens to be a method that works efficiently for this purpose. Such people may believe that they have a right to control others (e.g., "I am owed this"), or a duty to control others ("Spare the rod and spoil the child/spouse"). They may be relatively normal in terms of their personality characteristics, or they may be personality disordered. People with "Cluster B" personality disorders (e.g., antisocial, narcissistic, borderline and histrionic styles) tend to have a developmentally delayed conception of other people they are in relationships with. They see others less as fully independent other people and more as extensions of themselves who are either there to fulfill their needs or get in their way. Such people can sometimes be manipulative of others and unconcerned about making demands on them that others would consider to be inappropriate, abusive or neglectful. For example, when a narcissistic outlook is combined with a deviant sexual preference you have a recipe for a sexual predator.

Clinicians working with sexual predators and other antisocial, narcissistic types who most frequently display a callous disregard for the rights of other people will sometimes put their patients (who are generally mandated to their custody after criminal prosecution) through an intervention designed to help them build empathy for the people they victimize. While we realize that it is unlikely that someone who requires empathy building exercises will see the need to participate in them, we'll describe them nevertheless on the off chance that this information will benefit someone.

Empathy Building exercises are offered as a component of a larger program designed to help offenders to resist urges to act in damaging ways. Such a program will typically teach:

  • self-monitoring
  • cognitive restructuring
  • relapse prevention

and will additionally contain an empathy building component, designed to help promote the growth of empathy for victims. The rational is that if perpetrators can be helped to mature to the point where they fully realize the incredibly negative consequences of their actions they will be less likely to engage in damaging behavior.

Varying techniques are used to help promote empathy for victims:

  • Patients are educated about how their behavior affects their victims. If they are sexual predators, they learn the definitions of sexual abuse, of consent, and of coercion and the typical effects that such abuse has on victims. They are educated about defense mechanisms and the various ways that people rationalize bad behavior. After presenting this information in lecture format, patients are helped to become aware of themselves acting these rationalizations out, often in group therapy where other patients can help call bullshit on patient's rationalizations. Knowledge of this sort helps patients to understand what it is they do and why it is such a bad thing.

    For example, patients are educated about the common tendency to avoid taking responsibility for their actions and instead to externalize that responsibility, seeing the bad things that happen to them as caused by someone else. They are then helped to catch themselves in the act of externalization while telling stories about the things they have done. As patients become more aware of their tendency to externalize, they tend to take back more responsibility for their actions.

  • Many perpetrators were originally themselves victimized. Patients are asked to talk about and re-experience their own victimization so as to sensitize them to what it feels like to be a victim. As they relate their own experience of abuse, they are instructed to consider that this is how their own victims feel.
  • Patients are exposed to abuse victims' testimony about how abuse has scared and harmed them through readings, recordings and in some limited circumstances, live interaction.

If you have an empathy problem, your best bet for addressing it will be to work with a therapist or other qualified third party helper. The reason for this is that you need access to that helper's independent judgment to help you understand when you really have gained in empathy as a result of your efforts, and when you still don't get it and are continuing to bullshit yourself. If you really want to work on empathy building exercises in a solo self-help mode, you do have a few options, including:

  • educating yourself about definitions of abuse and how abuse affects victims
  • reading the testimony of abuse victims
  • exploring (in a journal format perhaps) the effect your own victimization (if one occurred) had upon you. If you do this, write spontaneously, and only later, after some time has passed, go back and read over what you have written, looking for cognitive distortions, rationalizations, embellishments and other misrepresentations. Correct those distortions and mistakes that you find.

You will know that you have gained in empathy when you start taking your rehabilitation seriously, feel less ambivalent about relapsing, and take more responsibility for your own actions.


Reader Comments

My experience - J. - May 10th 2010

I think the information on assertiveness training is helpful. However, working it out for myself, and practicing it, has been helped immeasurably by getting the support of a therapist. Maybe everyone doesn't need this kind of support, but I've been trying to undo a lifetime of being unnassertive at the age of 56. It is surprisingly difficult. The feelings that come up when I try to be more assertive includes fear, anxiety, intense anger . . . and the shame I feel about not always being "appropriately" assertive. It is the hardest thing I have ever tried to learn. Being a relatively smart person seems to make no difference as far as being emotionally skilled . . . .sadly. On a positive note, we are lucky to live in a country where at least some degree of assertivness is possible, though if you look at the context of work and even many personal relationships, it is still not nearly as healthy a context as it potentially could be. But then, I am an idealist and long for the day when I can feel safe and fully myself in any context, without having to hide or stuff down my feelings or be attacked or threatened for asserting myself.

Borderline/ non Borderline - Urs - Oct 21st 2009

I have just come across this article because my partner has traits of Borderline. Part of the Dilema is that I feel that I myself have never had very strong boundaries nore have I ever been taught to be assertive. A typical borderline relationship. I am aware that BPD is an illness and normal rules don't really apply. (Whatever normal is...) However I find great comfort in reading about cognitive counselling and the effect this can have. In how one can learn about empathy. Being on the receiving end of a person who has nearly next to no empathy is the most difficult life situation I have ever been in.

Thank you for wroting this Article.

- - Jan 5th 2008
It is true that no explicit method was mentioned.  This is possibly because there are innumerable methods for asserting oneself which are dependent upon the situation and the people involved.  You certainly wouldn't assert yourself the same way with a boss as you would a peer or a child.  The nuances have to be learned through further study and practice.

it's an offence! - Lawrence Edmond. - Jul 3rd 2007

In my Country, it is rather dangerous for one to be assertive. People will simply see an assertive person to be rude, arrogant, disrespectful and disloyal. It could even make the power that be to deny you certain necessities or right. It is rather unfortunate that this is caused by stack illteracy. What a shame! Challenge Obii aka Baba Iyabo and see what your lot will be - killed by an unknown assailant. Make I keep quiet boo. Bye bye yiiiiiiiiiii oooooooooooooooooooooooooooo.

Editor's Note: These writings assume a certain level of societal stability and safety that cannot be taken for granted in all countries. When it is literally dangerous to assert one's self, for instance in a political context, assertiveness may not be the wisest course.  Instead, escape (e.g., emmigration) or simply laying low might be alternatives.  The needs for safety and self-preservation (of one's self or one's family) must be balanced with the need for self-respect. 

assertiveness - rita guigon - Mar 9th 2007
I read the material on assertiveness.  It was explained quite well but what it did NOT do was provide any techniques or examples to help someone learn to act assertively.  It used vague phrases like:  it's okay "to stand up for yourself".  Well, what exactly does that consist of?  A person who does not know how to act assertively will not be helped by the information you provide.