Regression in aggression has women pushing uphill

August 25, 1998|By Susan Reimer

PEOPLE WHO ARE fond of me think of me as assertive, while people who are not, do not. They think I am a . . . well . . . a word that rhymes with witch.

I am neither the "a" word or the "b" word, according to Dr. Toni Bernay, a psychologist and executive director of the Leadership Equation Institute, an executive development firm in California.

I am a euphemism.

"Assertiveness is in the dictionary, but there is no assertiveness in the psyche," says Dr. Bernay, who is working on a new book about women in the workplace. "There is aggression."

I've always thought assertive was the feminine version of aggressive. You know, the good aggression, like the good cholesterol, as opposed to the "Lord of the Flies" aggression that men demonstrate.

But Dr. Bernay says assertion is not polite aggression. It is a phony, made-up concept for a quality that we don't like to see in women.

"Women have lived forever being told not to be aggressive, that it will make them undesirable as women," says Dr. Bernay.

"Because that 'a' word was not acceptable, another 'a' word was substituted. But it is a euphemism. We in the Western world are very good at euphemisms. We have a lot of them for things we are uncomfortable discussing."

Aggression, says Bernay from her offices in Beverly Hills, Calif., should not be narrowly defined as a fistfight or a screaming tirade. Like other emotions, aggression is an arc.

"There is creative aggression and destructive aggression and everything in between," says Bernay. "On the creative end, you have motivation, energy, goals, plans, leadership, inspiration, empowerment, risk-taking, action, perseverance, getting the job

done.

"On the other side, we know there is depression and violence, but there is also immobility, isolation, lack of ideas, interpersonal destructiveness."

For 20 years, Bernay has worked with individuals and organizations to develop leadership skills -- qualities from the creative end of the aggression arc. But whether she works with women executives or their male counterparts, she is swimming against the current of generations of socialization that defines aggression narrowly and considers it unacceptable in women.

"Aggression is considered male or it is considered neutral. When it is applied to women, everyone becomes uncomfortable," says Bernay.

It is hard to believe that we have a woman secretary of state walking point against international terror and we still consider aggression unsuitable in women. But we do, and it is not only men who are conflicted about appearances and stuck in a game of semantics.

Women, too, are trapped in an internal dialogue that can render us unable to move. A woman feels strongly about her ideas and wants to push them forward, but she is afraid and anxious. She fears rejection, fears the disapproval of her listeners. But most of all, she fears she will be ignored.

No matter how well we perform when we take the floor at a meeting, women still turn on themselves: Why did I do that? I shouldn't have said that. That was so dumb. I am so inarticulate.

"It is hard to feel like anything we do is good enough," says Bernay.

So, we cloak our aggressive energy because of how it might look to the world. What is Bernay's answer to this? How do you teach women to grasp a weapon and use it as a tool, the way men have?

"We need a new definition for aggression," she says.

"Creative aggression is aggression used in the service of productivity, not destructiveness. It motivates, it energizes you to have visions and ideas and take initiatives, to lead others, to speak out, to set goals, to make plans, to take risks, to persevere and get the job done.

"It is all the aliveness we want. It is a very positive thing."

Harder than redefining aggression will be re-educating women to be comfortable with it. "We need practice. Guys get a lot of practice. We don't," Bernay says.

Self-help books, seminars, training sessions, audio tapes, talk therapy -- there are lots of ways for women to build what Bernay calls "an internal, confident self" -- a self that a cave-man word like aggressive is inadequate to describe.

"The self-trust, self-awareness, self-motivation, self-approval, self-worth. All of these are ingredients in the confident self. We have to find these things and then learn how to hold onto them under stress," she says.

"Do that, and women will find all those 'b----' labels falling away."

And women will no longer be euphemisms.

Pub Date: 8/25/98

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