Dealing With Aggressive People

“Everyone is your teacher”, says Systema Master Mikhail Ryabko, “and those who want to beat you up are the best teachers of all”.

Aggressive and resistant adversaries present an honest challenge, it’s true. But deal with them poorly, and you’ll learn nothing at all from working with them. Except, perhaps, how to struggle, fight, and feel sorry for yourself.

Many maintain that the struggle itself is valuable. That “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. That’s also true. To a point. But what doesn’t kill you might also leave you injured, vengeful, depressed, or - in extreme cases - haunted by PTSD.

Facing challenges is valuable. Struggling to understand your own fears, weaknesses and limitations, more valuable still. But the constant struggle to “fight” people or situations that “stress you out” will get you nowhere. At best, this struggle-based approach is running to stand still. At worst, it’s back-sliding and creating aggressive/defensive behaviors that will catch up with you in the end.

Maybe it’s the defensive comment to your boss, which leaves you ostracized or unemployed.
Maybe it’s the fight you pick over a stolen parking space, which leaves you jailed or crippled for life. Or maybe it’s the heart disease that arises later - after years of “battling” stress in daily life.

The good news is, you don’t have to struggle. At least not with things outside of yourself. Instead, you can learn to deal with challenging people and situations decisively, without the destructive element of aggression.

But learn and practice, you must. Old habits die hard. And aggression is one of the oldest habits of all…

These universal principles for dealing with aggression are common to most of the subtler, “internal” martial arts - such as Aikido, Ba Gua and T'ai Chi Ch’uan. In Systema, they are practically ubiquitous. Here, I’ve added breathing recommendations in keeping with the methods of neurological control we employ in Systema.Study them. Practice them. Make them a conscious habit, and watch your daily struggles diminish - often with startling rapidity. Or at the very least, find yourself a little less exhausted each day.

Do not be intimidated
If your opponent is larger, stronger, more powerful than you - don’t worry about it.
The truth is, size and power do matter. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either misguided, or selling something. Larger, stronger opponents present challenges all their own. But unless you can grow bigger or more powerful right this instant, there’s really nothing you can do about this. So stop fretting about it, and get on with the task at hand. Remain wary, but do not let fear - or the anger that follows it - cloud the interaction further.

Be present
From the outset of the conflict - pause, exhale, and ask yourself where your attention is right now. If you’re fixated on what your opponent just did, or trying to anticipate what they might do next, then knock it off. Inhale, exhale, let it all go, and return your attention to the present moment. This is where the interaction is happening. This is the only moment that matters.

Remain relaxed
Excessive physical tension will multiply your sense of fear and anger, kill your awareness and creativity, and make your responses clumsy and slow. So get rid of it now. As you inhale, feel which areas of your body are over-pressurized, too tight, or too dense. On the exhale, breathe into those areas, and redistribute the tension throughout your frame, until you feel nothing but the pressure of your feet against the floor (or if sitting, your bum against the seat). Pay particular attention to the neck, shoulders and hips - areas that tighten up instinctively during perceived conflicts, due to reflexive flinching (or “turtling”) actions.

Remain balanced
Unbalanced breathing and posture give rise to unbalanced emotions. The body affects the mind every bit as much as the mind affects the body. So straighten up, stand comfortably, and even out your breathing. If you don’t know how to do this, then try breathing in for 2 seconds, then holding for 2, breathing out for 2, and holding on the exhale for 2. (This type of “square breathing” to regulate your pulse rate blood pressure is a hallmark of Systema breath work - the best way to master it is in regular group or private classes). Once your body and breathing are evened out, your emotions will soon follow suit.

Do not regard the other person / situation as the enemy
In martial arts training (as opposed to combat or competition), your partner is never truly your enemy. Unless the two of you have some sordid backstory of intrigue, betrayal and revenge - in which case I suggest one or both of you trains elsewhere - then they are simply helping you to learn, with the generous loan of their body. So remain human, remember they are human, too, and think in terms of mutual benefit. How can you relax your partner, deflate his/her aggression, bring an end to the conflict decisively and efficiently?

In fact, even if someone is attacking you in earnest, you should still think this way. There is simply no downside to this approach. Maybe you deflate them with abrupt strikes instead of soft verbal or physical “steering”. But the principle is the same. Consider them a faceless “enemy” to be hated and feared, and your hate and fear will blind you to their real intentions and needs. Consider them human, and you have a far better chance of seeing their true intentions, strengths, weaknesses…and can then act accordingly.

Do not become defensive
This goes hand-in-hand with the above. Reacting defensively may help shield you from the initial attack. But it will do nothing to bring an end to the conflict. If your defensive reactions are driven by fear, that fear will simply grow as you continue to struggle. Once the fear reaches a certain threshold, one of two things will happen: a) you will freeze, lose confidence, and fold beneath the weight of the continued attack, or b) your fear will manifest as rage, and you will lash out aggressively in an effort to stop further attacks, and/or punish your opponent for starting the conflict. While instinctive - and in many ways perfectly natural - neither of these reactions will serve you well in the long run.

Make a habit of “folding up” in response to aggressive behaviour, and you’ll become weak, insecure, and an obvious target for bullies. Make a habit of lashing out, and you’ll find yourself constantly at war - starting fights or escalating conflicts wherever you go.

I’m betting you know at least one person who behaves this way. You know the ones. Drama seems to surround them at all times. They find themselves besieged by aggressive people on a daily basis, through no apparent fault of their own. Some guy had a problem with them in the car park. Some colleague had a problem with them at work. Their best friend of yesterday has a problem with them today.

Sooner or later, you start to see the pattern forming, even if they don’t. At any given time, someone always seems to have a problem with them. You begin to ask yourself: whose problem is it, really? The answer is simple. The problem is theirs alone. And the problem is unnecessarily defensive behavior, driven by fear, and maintained by their lack of self-awareness.

So do not be defensive. It is the path to suffering and conflict. What other path, then, should you take?

Go with the flow
This is a phrase so over-used in martial arts that it has become something of a cliché. Judo, Jujitsu, Aikido, T'ai Chi, Systema…all employ this principle, to varying degrees. In training, partners practice yielding to pushes, following pulls, blending with forces and pressures.
But all too often, when attacked with aggression - in free sparring drills, or in competitive bouts - these principles are quickly lost, and the combatants revert to blocking, sprawling, struggling, trying to hold their position, trying to dominate.

And so it is in real life, with real conflicts. People often talk a big game about meditation, mindfulness, checking their ego, and being “chilled out” in their dealings with people. And as long as everyone treats them nicely, their apparent nirvana is maintained.

But when threatened or faced with aggression, they freeze or lash out like everybody else. In some cases, with more vigor, and less control - furious, perhaps, that their delicate peace-state was disturbed.

To “go with the flow” is not simply to yield to mounting pressures. Nor is it to be swept along by the course of events. Rather, it is being aware enough to see the true nature of the conflict, free enough to follow its shifting path and pressures, and yet stable enough to hold your ground if you need to.

Going with the flow can eventually become an unconscious defensive reflex. We see this in the highest levels of martial arts practice, across many of the styles already mentioned. Witness Jigoro Kano (Judo), Morihei Ueshiba (Aikido), Marcelo Garcia (BJJ), and Vladimir Vasiliev (Systema). But first, it must be a proactive choice. There is no shortcut to this. You have to decide to live this principle every day, in all your doings. Only then will it begin to feel like a natural response. And even then, you will find yourself struggling and failing often, as I do. 

Sometimes, it can be hard to see your own progress in this. But in truth, this work is its own reward. Little by little, you realize that life seems like less of a struggle. That this year seemed easier, happier than the last. That the people who surround you don’t seem to have the same problems any more. That those who try to fight you are actually teaching you - about themselves, about yourself, and about the universe.

And for this, you should be grateful.