Can You Empathize With The Aggressor?

This is how real healing occurs.

Once upon a time, on a subway

Sitting on a subway train, earplugs in, I am in my own head and mentally preparing for a meeting with one of my clients. We are going to discuss a new project today — quite a writing challenge for me, and quite an important piece for their business. I feel excited, a bit nervous, and very much immersed in my thoughts.

The attacker slates the victim, and the victim replies with aggression to defend himself.

Finally, the foreign man stands by my side as he prepares to leave the train at the next station. I realize that he is much younger than I thought, somewhere in his early twenties; possibly a student on his way to a morning lecture. I look into his eyes and ask whether he’s alright. It is easy to ask him that and to express empathy — after all, he is the cat who has just been chased. He smiles at me and replies with an Eastern accent:

“You stupid slut, you are even worse! Probably spreading your legs in front of the Mussies, huh? Selling yourself cheap… bitch! Go and fuck them if you like, but get the fuck out of Poland first, you whore!”

Whoa. That’s harsh. That’s the first time someone ever spoke to me like that.

Being attacked naturally sparked an agressive response in me.

If I perceive myself to be in danger, there are really only two options to choose from: fight or flight. If it’s the latter, the interaction comes to an end and not much happens afterwards. But when it is the former, I experience aggression myself. This aggression is the emotional fuel allowing me to fight back.

If we want to change the world, we have to understand the aggressor

As you can imagine, the scene described above moved me to the core. I think it would move anyone who cares the slightest bit about making this world a better place. Anyone who can’t tolerate the wide-spread inequality, privilege dictatorship and random acts of aggression popping up when we least expect them.

Where is the aggression coming from?

In other words: what is the psychological cause of the attacker’s behaviour?

“This aggressiveness is simply a facade to hide their fear, but that fear is deeper than their aggressiveness. This aggressiveness they cannot maintain forever; it needs energy to maintain it or it will wither away. But their fear is not going to wither away. It will be best for them, rather than be aggressive, to be more understanding — understanding of their fear (…) and why they are feeling so afraid.”

And I would add: if they can’t understand the fear themselves, they could use help to do that. Like, you know, a therapist — rather than a prison guard.

Empathy doesn’t equal justifying aggressive behaviour

Just to be clear — I am not saying all this to legitimize aggressive behaviour. It is often hurtful beyond imagination. The question of the necessity to forgive your abuser is still just that to me: a question.

We cannot expect different results if we keep acting out the same scenario.

What we need to realise is hard to swallow: the devil might need our sympathy even more than the victim. Because there is something behind their bad deeds that makes them do what they do. An issue that they don’t know how to cope with — and the only possibility available to them is to take revenge for it on the world around.

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What if you stopped treating your ego as the enemy and befriended it instead? To find out, read my new book, Ego-Friendly:

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