Taming, NOT Shaming, Our Hardwired Impulse for Aggression

Illustration of roaring tigerWe have a brain that has evolved into a higher level functioning brain than our more primitive animal and reptile counterparts. What is still true though is that we all (reptiles, animals in the wild, and humans) have the same hardwired, lower brain instincts and nervous system. This has various ramifications for us. One is that that we have an impulse to aggression that is instrumental to survival during times of life threat. It is not always realistically needed or useful in our human world, yet it is still very much a part of our hardwired primal instincts. There are obviously times when it is in fact extremely useful, but it kicks in at times when our life is not necessarily in imminent danger. But try telling that to the part of your brain that is just like a tiger, your dog, or a reptile’s brain. It is operating on instinct not reason.

The reality of our lower brain’s impulse to aggression necessitates our learning how to have these feelings but not act on them. This is a skill that takes time to learn during those years that our higher brain function is developing. It means that we need our parents, teachers, grandparents, and other caretakers to help us learn this skill in ways that are appropriate for the actual ability of our age. What I mean by this is having an understanding of what is realistically appropriate behavior for a baby’s level of brain development versus what can in fact be learned in a healthy way by a toddler or what can be expected from 12 year olds in terms of restraining their impulses.

There are very different ways to parent and teach. These styles will influence and be reflected in how each child’s behavior becomes shaped. If the teaching is done through tender, open-hearted guidance, this has a very different impact than when the teaching is done in a way that is physically violent. I’m using these examples that are at opposite ends of the spectrum of teaching styles to make my point. I’m not suggesting a particular parenting style here (although I definitely have an opinion about physical violence). Our brain becomes wired to behavior in a context. The environment is not irrelevant. It is critically important to the building of our sense of self and our ability to live in a social world. We can learn to feel mostly comfortable and at ease. We can learn to operate from fear and suspicion. We learn to be social creatures within the context of our environment and its impact on our particular in-born nature (e.g. sensitive, extroverted, etc.). What is basic, hard-wired human nature is part of the equation as well. The impulse to aggression is simply part of the wiring of the nervous system, and we also each have our own individual tendencies.

Parents have a diverse sense of appropriate behavior. We vary based on our cultures, our religious backgrounds, our socio-political beliefs, and so on. A variety of factors enter into our views on parenting. Ideally, no matter what our particular template for child rearing, we hope to find ways to help our children form into caring and responsible members of society. I want to suggest that shaming is not an ideal approach to this goal. Shaming lends itself to feelings of inadequacy and a negative sense of self. It can set up hidden anger and resentment and undermine the need to help children learn how to feel their aggression but not follow it.

The question then is how do we help children tame this instinctive impulse? It is not something to lose because it does have a valuable survival aspect. It is something to learn how to experience in a consciously registered way so that we can operate from thoughtfully determined action.

Sometimes when shaming has been a part of our home or school experience, we don’t realize how it has influenced the style of discipline we bring to parenting, teaching, and other contact with children. As parents, caretakers, and educators we can unknowingly bring a shaming energy similar to what we experienced when we are disciplining those in our care. Helping young ones learn to tame their impulses is a vital function that adults play in the lives of children. We are born with the blueprint for having and not acting on our impulses, but it is the adults in our world that teach us how to actualize the design. It is when we can utilize our own regulated physiological states for modeling and providing structure that we bring the possibility to children of developing their own ability to regulate and control their impulses.

If you find yourself behaving in ways that are more shaming than skillful guidance in taming, find someone who can help you start to rewire. The benefits are multilayered. Sense of self-worth increases. Better feeling connection with others. Kinder, gentler parenting and teaching skill. Children who develop a better understanding of the wild animal within can help us become empowered adults but not aggressive, overpowering animals.

Related articles:
Changing Brain Chemistry, Changing Paradigms
How to Teach Children Emotional Intelligence
Resilience… and Unraveling the Mystery

© Copyright 2012 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Sherry L. Osadchey, MA, LMFT, SEP, Somatic Experiencing Topic Expert Contributor

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • ann

    August 7th, 2012 at 11:40 AM

    I was an angry little girl.but my parents always said anger is not good for a girl and even suppressed it at times.I dont find myself angry even in tough situations now but I feel I miss something.I dont have that aggressive factor that can in fact help at times.I have become so laid back that some of my friends say others can easily push me over.I hate this feeling of not being able to say no at times.I dont want to blame my parents for it but I really want to fix this.Yes,I want to become a little aggressive,but in a good way,in a way that will enrich me.I have no clue what to do.I think this article relates to what I am going through so please help me.

  • Wilson

    August 7th, 2012 at 4:13 PM

    A lot of this is about accepting that humans are animals at heart, and that yes, we do have these tendencies which might be deemed unhealthy in society. But for all of us they are there and we do have to learn constrctive ways to sometimes keep those instincts at bay and use them in a manner which is not threatening to us or to others. If we teach these kids from an early age how to deal with these things then I think that they are bound to grow up more healthy overall, and isn’t this, above all else, what we are striving for in the end?

  • U.D

    August 7th, 2012 at 7:29 PM

    Bull’s eye Wilson! We evolved from animals and definitely have some of their attributes still in us. There is no part of us that we can ‘throw’ out, we can only learn to maneuver them and this is what we need to teach our children, for them to be equipped to handle their instincts rather than be at war with themselves.

  • Sherry L. Osadchey

    August 8th, 2012 at 3:53 AM

    Ann, there are many paths to learning how to re-wire what is not working for us. In Somatic Experiencing the focus would be on having you connect into the “shut down” that got wired when anger is your reaction to something. Being able to process this place through the nervous system can help you reconnect into the blueprint that is our hard-wired ability to experience and express anger. You’re on the way. You know it happens for you. Find someone who can guide you through this.
    And, yes, Wilson! Healthy overall is sure my goal. I agree.

  • Wilson

    August 8th, 2012 at 4:21 AM

    right back at ya U.D. ;)

  • jojo

    August 8th, 2012 at 11:48 AM

    I definitely have a few concerns with this line of reasoning, mainly because aggression is not looked upon in a sweet kind of light in society. Those who are the most aggressive tend to get ahead, but they also tend to have fewer friends and I would dare say are far less satisfied with their lives than others are. That seems like something very big to handle that could have been avoided if they had learned to better handle that aggression and be more of the kind of person that others want to be with and be friends with.

  • Hans

    August 9th, 2012 at 4:50 AM

    It gets difficult to tell your children that this kind of violence and aggression is not acceptable when so many of the video games and movies that they love do nothing but promote this kind of behavior. . . and we all buy into it, otherwise the games and the movies would have disappeared by now.

  • Sherry L. Osadchey

    August 9th, 2012 at 6:11 PM

    Yes, Hans, one of the down sides perhaps of our advanced technology is the ability to produce more realistic and intense images and stories of violence. It’s challenging to help children navigate this world that is everywhere around them now and that we can’t keep them from forever. Perhaps the best we can do is show them the whole of what makes up this world…. The compassion and kindness and caring that is also here as well as the violent images and actions that surround them.

    Thanks for your thoughts on this, Hans, and everyone else!

  • Ron

    May 12th, 2013 at 7:16 PM

    Hi,I am currently finding it hard to express my views etc appropriately, I have been told that when losing my temper I can be very threatening, I realise my actions are wrong and there are more civilized ways of approaching situations but when I feel anger it overpowers me, I feel that by expressing my views calmly people never really take me seriously and the only way I get heard is by turning into the Hulk, Its the only time where i feel in control, i know its wrong, i think it comes from some sort of insecurity that im being judged and being told im always wrong its my way of rebelling and saying you will listen to me im not wrong, its a lot to do with that frustration. Its weird because in a way when i become aggressive i feel this authority, power & dominance if you will, im not going to lie it feels good not that i would want to hurt people i suppose it feels good for me to be in control for a change. The thing that concerns me is that im scared that aggressive behaviour will go one step too far and i need an alternative

  • Sherry L. Osadchey

    May 13th, 2013 at 4:30 AM

    Hi Ron. Just want to support your own wisdom as expressed in your comment. Find the guide who will help you develop that alternative. It is entirely possible to feel empowered without becoming threatening. Good luck with it, Ron. You won’t regret evolving!

  • Steve H

    September 6th, 2013 at 9:30 PM

    I wanted to my feedback to this story because I believe that my Mother’s abuse while beating me as a child developed into a restraint from myself to provoke any aggression or violence, only to protect myself without retelation as I was always afraid to fight back against my Mother’s beatings and her authoratative controlling status, and this behavior stayed with me through my adult file as I always had felt as scared as a young boy who was about to had been beaten black and blue; The shakes and anxiety that were commingled with these events never left me whenever I was confronted with a flight or fight situation ever since, even now when I am 54 years of age! These deep psychological wounds will never go away and if I had children of my own, I would never bring them up or treat them in such a way, Ever! Be well, live and prosper! Steve

  • Sherry L. Osadchey

    September 8th, 2013 at 4:10 AM

    Thank you for sharing your experience and it’s impact on you, Steve. Your childhood treatment provides a sad window on the reality of violence from a parent creating deep and unforgettable memory, doesn’t it?! Thanks for reading my article. May you be well, live and prosper, too.

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