Can You Empathize With The Aggressor?

This is how real healing occurs.

Most of us are used to empathize with victims.

It manifests when we watch a cat running towards a tree in panic, making it just before the dog catches it. For a moment, we let ourselves feel the relief — the kitty managed to rescue herself. An instant later, we go to chase the aggressive dog away:

Leave her in peace, you stupid mutt! Poor kitty, there, there… It’s over now. You can come down, the dog is gone.”

We are mostly concerned with the cat because she is the victim. We instinctively want to take care of her because she just was under attack. And since the dog was rude enough to rage at her — let’s do everything we can to make him feel bad. Maybe even kick him goodbye before he goes!

This is, in essence, how we deal with aggressors in our society. If someone harms another, we send them to jail or condemn them to another type of punishment. Because it is the victim who deserves empathy. The attacker should be forced to feel bad and suffer because of what they’ve done.

Why would we concern ourselves with somebody who exhibited so much aggression or “bad will” in any other way than to condemn them?

Maybe because the condemnation doesn’t work. It fiddles with the effects of aggressive behaviour — rather than its causes. It treats the post-aggression symptoms, rather than focusing on prevention. And for as long as we will not be able to see the aggressor as a human (i.e. empathize with them) — we will never address the problem at its root.

Let me tell you a story to illustrate this.

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.

Suddenly, I notice two men discussing something aggressively, just a few metres away from me across the subway carriage. One of them is seated, his skin one tone darker than the man who’s standing. The latter is bald and plump, and he raises his voice progressively as the train trundles forward. The attention of the whole carriage is on the two men, and for a second everyone freezes in anticipation of what is going to happen.

Note: The scene is set in Warsaw, Poland, where the problem of xenophobic attacks and radical nationalist mindset has been growing over the past few years.

The moment I finally decide to take out my earplugs is the same moment the darker-skinned man rises and the two begin to fight. I hear “get the fuck out of this country” and “go preach the Muslim bullshit elsewhere”. A second later, two groups of passengers are tearing the fighters apart and dragging them to opposite ends of the carriage. The f-bombs and threats are now flying back and forth above the seats.

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:

“Fine. Kind of used to this by now.”

I smile back at him, feeling good about myself since I was able to give him at least this — a little hint of support after such a hideous scene. But before this feeling sinks down into me, I realize the scene is not over.

The bald aggressor is now right in front of me and he’s boiling with anger. For a brief moment, I am the cat.

“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.

I see the face of the aggressor right in front of me and I feel my heart racing. My chest is full of heat. At first, I interpret it as fear — but when I look into his eyes, I realize he will not dare to touch me. There is no reason to be afraid.

Yet, the internal heat keeps growing — and it transforms into something else now. It is my own aggression arising in response to his.

It is a willingness to cause him harm — just like he harmed me and the foreigner.

This only takes a few seconds; then the train stops at a station and the police arrive. The bald angry man is taken away and I am left to process everything that just happened.

As I am about to ponder on the rage and hatred I felt towards him, on my role in the whole situation, on whether I acted out the best I could… a major realization comes. A realization that makes me share this whole story with you:

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 I project it outside on my attacker, we will spiral into a vicious circle. We will keep exciting each other’s aggression until someone eventually gets arrested and condemned as the bad “dog.” The cat, on the contrary, will receive support and empathy as the victim of the whole situation.

As long as we roll that way, the problem of aggression itself never gets addressed. Only if we try to understand why the dog does what he does, can we start treating the causes, rather than symptoms.

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.

But if we really want to make a difference, we cannot escape one critical question:

Where is the aggression coming from?

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

Unless we try and look for an answer to this, we will remain stuck in a reality where such forms of aggression are seen as anomalies, albeit inevitable ones. We will continue to look at this kind of behaviour in a judgmental way and condemn the person who displays it — without ever acknowledging that this offensive attitude has a cause. And this cause is not the person being “evil” by nature.

The attack on the subway was merely a consequence of something else: the preceding life experience of the offender, which conditioned him to act that way. What happened in this previous experience?

In one of his books, Osho says that aggression is often a symptom stemming from fear. I can certainly see how this proved true in my own experience on the subway.

“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.

But my point is that aggression could be rationalized by examining a person’s life story. And if we could rationalize it, we would also be able to empathize with the aggressor without trivialising their harmful behaviour.

Of course, we can dismiss this whole notion as “sympathy for the devil” and rest comfortably in the current paradigm. After all, the cat who has been chased deserves our sympathy in the first place. The dog, being the “bad guy,” is only worthy of condemnation. This is how the world has been spinning since the beginning of human history.

But there are real consequences of remaining stuck in this way of thinking: nothing changes. The aggressors keep finding their victims, attacking, getting judged and sentenced — and then coming out to play their game again.

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.

What is this something that makes them attack random people on the subway?

My intuition and experience continuously point me towards the same thing. A deeply ingrained, natural experience, that has been driving our evolution for thousands of years. A feeling that is close to impossible to control without understanding the nature of it.

The same agent behind aggression that Osho pointed out. Fear.

Writer & community weaver. I’m here to help improve your mental health through self-awareness and authentic relating. Join me on

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