Tatiana Yevtushok

Business psychologist. Gestalt psychotherapist. Coach. Trainer

Dual nature of aggression

Aggression (ad + gradi “to move towards something”) is one of the basic driving emotions, behind which there is always a need.

Aggression at its root is … striving towards someone, making contact whether for the sake of friendly affirmation of oneself and another, or for the sake of enmity… The opposite of aggression is not peacefulness or respect or friendship, but isolation, a state of complete absence of contact.

(Rollo May)

In Gestalt therapy, by aggression emotional energy that moves a person to become aware of a real need is usually called. This awareness creates a platform to allow a person to find the best form of satisfaction of one’s needs, so aggression is an opportunity to creatively adapt to contact with the world around them for personal growth and development. So, we can see a need as a goal, and consciously think through the actions that need to be taken to meet this need in such a way that we do not harm ourselves and the object that the aggressive emotion was initially directed at, and if we also think well, then we can even provide benefit for both sides of the conflict. In this case, the destructive aggression transformes, and its energy is directed towards the contact with the object of satisfaction of the need. Take, for example, the concept of hunger and the physiological need for food. Everyone has probably heard the expression “A hungry man is an angry one”. A hungry person can aggressively “snap” at others (especially at those who have food), but also can, for example, find something to eat without causing emotional harm to others. So, to bite, let’s say, an apple — is an aggressive act with the use of dental aggression (Perls, 1942), it is directed directly at an object that satisfies the physiological need for food. In this case, this is the simplest example. All of us have more or less learned to cope with basic needs, but how often in everyday life do we encounter aggression that hides more complex types of needs?

Understanding the psychological mechanisms behind these manifestations can make life much easier.

The feeling of aggression is more or less clear, it is important to understand that you need to learn to find the right forms and ways of contacting, what Gestalt therapy successfully teaches, and what we will analyze at the seminars of the training program “Theory and practice of Gestalt therapy”.

But what to do with the aggression of others in our direction?

In psychology there are two types of aggression:

  • hostile (directed at the object in order to harm it)


  • instrumental (aimed at possessing something, on the way to which the obstacle is an object that needs to be eliminated in order to get what you want).

When faced with the aggression of others, it is important to understand what kind of aggression we are facing: hostile, aimed at intentionally causing us harm, or instrumental, when causing us harm by an aggressive person is the means means for him to achieve a certain goal. Instrumental aggression is very common in different types of relationships, and it feels like someone is trying to take something away from us. In this case, there is an invasion of our boundaries. The first basic reaction that occurs is to defend, but this is not enough, because the aggressor in his intentions is not just going to attack, but he has a more extended goal. If we only protect ourselves, then we protect what is already there, but we don’t go for expansion. In the reactive aggressive emotion, it is also necessary to recognize our own need not only for basic security, and to see a clue in a challenge not only for protection, but also for what other ways, besides protection, we can find in order to preserve and develop what is threatened by another’s aggressive behavior. In this case, it is important to create a more far-sighted goal based on the context and needs, and allocate forces both to protect, if it is important to defend, and to create another space for expanding and developing the necessary qualities and resources.

The topic of instrumental aggression is also important in child-parent relationships. From an early age, aggression serves as a way to meet needs, and often children show it when they lack a more appropriate way to express emotions that are backed by a specific need. The range of needs expands with age, but children do not always immediately have the means to recognize and communicate them, especially when it comes to emotional needs in a relationship. In addition, the cognitive ability to see a situation from another person’s perspective develops a little later, often through playing different roles and replaying situations in the game, as well as in relationships through explaining feelings. Younger children, for example, are more prone to physical aggression — they bite and fight, while older children can use verbal aggression. Studies in psychology show that during maturation of cognitive functions, and along with it the development of ways of expression and opportunities to find favorable means of meeting needs, the number of aggressive symptoms in children is reduced if the family creates a safe atmosphere for children’s awareness of their needs, and assists with learning to transform aggressive emotions in the search of adequate ways of action.

The second wave of aggressive behavior can begin in adolescence, when a teenager begins to form his identity, which often occurs through a crisis of integration of different social roles that arise on the way to adulthood. During this period, teenagers tend to become familiar with new emerging needs in different social contexts, which in itself is not easy, as it can be accompanied by conflicting contradictions and a rethinking of beliefs and values. During this period, the support of parents plays a very important role, since there are always risks of aggression flowing into destructive behavior, and as a result – the inability of an adult to cope with aggressive emotions.

An important support when faced with the aggression of another person is an internal attitude or internal expectation. The internal attitude is determined by the first reaction-response when faced with aggression from the outside. Studying it can lead to three conclusions:

  • he did it on purpose to hurt me;
  • he did it not intentionally, but accidentally without the purpose to harm;
  • he did this because he is capable of only this way and form of expression of emotions, behind which there is a need that he is not aware of and cannot satisfy.

Internal expectation plays an important role in forming a good relationship, as it provides support for choosing a response. The internal expectation of people who are traumatized by past experiences is often reduced to the first option and the idea that any aggressive manifestation of the other is deliberate and is only aimed at harming them. This position creates a conflict. There is a re-traumatization, and the experience is repeated again and again. A healthy response can include the entire spectrum and the internal expectation is transformed into an adequate response corresponding to the present situation of a collision with the aggression of another. In order to be able to keep in perspective the situation of aggression of another, in Gestalt therapy we learn to deal with our own aggression and needs. Along with this, a healthy skill of emotional response to the needs of others is developed.


Only own positive experience can become a support to adequately recognize aggressive tendencies in the behavior of others and find competent ways to interact with them.


Recommendations for further reading:
Perls, F. (1942). Ego, Hunger, and Aggression.

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