How To Recognize Your Aggressive Behavior

Medically reviewed by Karen Foster, LPC
Updated April 24, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

In general, aggressive behavior includes words and actions that can be harmful to others. There can be multiple types of aggressive behavior, such as impulsive, instrumental, physical, and verbal behavior(s). If you find it challenging to manage and change your aggressive behavior, it may be helpful to address the root cause through online therapy with a licensed professional. Read on to learn more about what this can look like, as well as possible causes and supportive strategies that can help you to elevate your physical, mental and social health. 

Having trouble managing your aggressive behavior?

What is aggressive behavior?

Typically, aggressive behavior refers to words or behaviors displayed to harm another person. In the context of nature, aggressive behavior can be an animal behavior that may scare off predators or ensure survival, however, in a modern world, it can serve different purposes. What is considered aggressive behavior may look different from person to person due to one’s own intentions or perceptions, conversely. 

For example, if someone accidentally hurts you, that wouldn't usually be defined as aggressive behavior because it was an accident. The person didn't have the intention of causing you harm through hostile means. Additionally, most car accidents are just that—accidents—and aren't necessarily violent intentionally, although serious harm can be caused directly by reckless driving. 

This leads many to believe that the two major factors present in true aggressive behavior might be direct harm and intent. 

Some risk factors include poor impulse control, a family history of aggressive behavior, exposure to childhood violence (aggressive children often grow into aggressive adults), and trauma. 

Types of aggression

There can be several types of aggressive behavior that can occur at any given time. We’ve defined each below.


Impulsive aggression can also be called emotional aggression. It usually happens quickly, in the heat of the moment. People may engage in impulsive behavior when their emotions are very negative and intense. They might not explicitly think about harming someone, but they may not think about acting kindly, either. 

If a person’s actions lead you to become angry and you react by verbally hurting that person, that could be considered emotional or affective aggression, a form of reactive behavior.

This type of aggressive behavior is typically reactive in nature, and may or may not be accompanied by physical aggression. It can occur as its own experience, or alongside other conditions (such as bipolar disorder, traumatic brain injury, or attention-deficit/attention deficit hyperactivity).

Those living with attention deficit hyperactivity (also known as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) do not always have these experiences. However, this type of impulsive aggression can be a common symptom that can occur due to underlying proclivities or mental health states that can be associated with the condition(s). 



Instrumental or cognitive aggression may have another motive underlying it. For example: Someone may threaten or intimidate you to get something they want. It could be money, power, attention or something else. In this case, someone would have the right to report the person to authorities or take further steps to ensure their safety.

Understanding the motive behind this type of proactive aggression can be important in determining your next right step. Unlike impulsive aggression, which can be associated with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or other health conditions, people may engage in instrumental aggression after consideration and planning. They may also do it if they don't see an easier way to get what they want. 

While aggressive behavior nearly always harms another person, harm may not always be the goal. It can be tamer, existing merely as a byproduct of someone going after another goal. 

A criminal who purchases guns with the intent to use them in a bank robbery could be setting the stage for an act of instrumental aggression. Their goal may be money, and although they may not wish to physically harm anyone, they may do so if necessary to achieve their goal. However, you don't have to be a bank robber to engage in instrumental aggression. There are many other situations in which this can occur (such as in a high-pressure workplace or in a situation in which you feel desperate).


Physical aggression can be the easiest form to recognize. Generally, this type of hostile aggression involves harming someone's body through physically violent behavior, whether by slapping, hitting, kicking, stabbing or by any other means that can cause injury. This can even include self-directed harm, which includes violent behaviors toward oneself, such as slapping, cutting, or burning.  

Researchers have found gender differences in aggression, with boys being more likely to engage in physical aggression and girls more likely to engage in indirect aggression. 


Verbal aggression can involve using words to intimidate or hurt others. When someone behaves in a verbally hostile way, they may hurt you without causing physical harm. Examples can include yelling, swearing and name-calling. This can also include gossiping, using racial or homophobic epithets, shouting and making unfounded accusations. Such behavior can cause severe emotional distress in others. 

Combative vs. aggressive 

There may be several reasons for combative behavior, especially as it relates to aggressive behavior. First, personality traits or other biological factors might play a role in this aspect of aggressive behavior. Researchers have learned that people with personality traits that incorporate behaviors associated with irritability and anger can be more likely when provoked. 

Some people may employ aggression because they don't know any other way to express how they feel. However, it can be helpful to remember that you do have the power to stop acting aggressively if you wish to do so. Whether you do that with the help of a therapist or on your own, the first step can be deciding to make that change.

Aggression and violence

Violent behavior can be a serious form. It can involve intent to do direct harm to someone, and the intent is usually to cause extreme physical harm or even death. Types of violent acts can include assault, rape, domestic violence, robbery and murder.

An aggressive person may not always choose to act violently. Their actions can depend on the person and the specifics of the situation, among other factors. While aggression and violence may be used interchangeably, it can be important to recognize that they are often two different things.


Aggressive behavior can result in the following:

  • Injuring someone you care about
  • Going to jail or having legal problems because you harmed someone or their possessions
  • Destroying your relationships
  • Damaging your status or social standing
  • Negatively impacting work relationships or even losing your job

If you believe that you need support in identifying and confronting aggressive behavior, you may consider online therapy or other supportive strategies. 

What are the other options?

If you've decided that you don't want to behave like this, it may help to learn about other types of behavior that you may engage in instead. While passive-aggressive and passive behavior may not be effective or healthy, assertive behavior can be an effective alternative.

Passive-aggressive behavior

Passive-aggressive behavior can be very similar to aggressive behavior in that there is often an intent to harm. However, in this case, the behaviors are typically done indirectly rather than directly. Passive-aggressive people may not know (or may not want to) express their true feelings about a situation, so they often try to get their point across indirectly. It can almost always be better to be direct, but passive-aggressive people may not know how to be direct or may think they can accomplish their goals by being indirect.

Some examples of passive-aggressive behavior can include:

  • Making excuses to avoid someone
  • Relational aggression, such as spreading false rumors about someone
  • Pitting people against each other
  • Flirting with someone other than your significant other to make them jealous
  • Using the silent treatment
  • Withdrawing from someone without explanation
  • Acting upset but refusing to say why you're upset
  • Avoiding direct communication about an issue
  • Saying you don't care about something when you do

As you may see, passive-aggression can be emotionally and socially hurtful to your intended target. These behaviors might not hurt others directly, but they can be just as distressing for them. Both direct and indirect aggression can be hurtful, and many people may find indirect even more upsetting than direct. 

Passive-aggressiveness can take a mental toll on other people, especially those who experience anxiety or have been gaslighted in the past. Being the target of this behavior can mean playing the “guessing game” of figuring out what's going on in the other person's mind, which can be challenging and confusing and may cause emotional harm. 

Passive behavior

If you don't want to hurt people, it can be beneficial to curb any tendencies you may experience toward passivity or aggression in this regard. Online therapy can help you to communicate your needs in a healthier way, which can limit passive aggressive behaviors overall. 

Assertive behavior

Psychologists may suggest that the best response to life's challenges can be assertive behavior. When you're assertive, you may stand up for yourself firmly without intending harm to anyone. You may exercise your rights, but you can avoid stepping on the rights of others. When you're assertive, you are often more likely to have healthy relationships and better mental health.

Assertive people typically encourage others to be assertive as well. They frequently ask for the viewpoints and opinions of other people and usually aren't threatened by them. When everyone is open and honest about who they are and what they feel, everyone can win.

Actions you can take

If you’ve realized that you engage in this type of behavior, please know that you can work to change how you respond to the people and situations in your life. Research suggests several actions you can take. 

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Having trouble managing your aggressive behavior?

First, you might focus on the way you communicate your feelings, and then work to develop assertive behaviors. Try these tips:

  • Maintain a polite, conversational tone.
  • Practice making good eye contact without glaring.
  • Use relaxation techniques when you need to calm down.
  • Learn to enjoy joining groups without trying to control them.
  • Consider what could be right about another person’s point of view during disagreements rather than automatically opposing someone.
  • Look for the value in others and yourself.
  • Reach for your goals without causing others to experience harm.
  • Work through underlying issues that may be leading to your behavior, perhaps with the help of a mental health professional.

Online therapy 

Sometimes, it can be difficult to work through aggression on your own, especially if you’ve been engaging in this behavior for a long time. You may wish to enlist the help of a licensed professional through therapy to work through the source of the aggression and any other mental health conditions. If you’d prefer to connect with a therapist from home, online therapy can be an excellent alternative to the traditional face-to-face option.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy, or CBT, is a commonly used strategy in psychology to work through anger, which can often be the root of aggression in the brain. According to this research study, online CBT can be effective in treating a variety of mental health concerns which may help to reduce aggressive behavior. 


The term “aggressive behavior” can refer to actions and words that are harmful to other people or may cause conflict. Physical, verbal, impulsive and instrumental aggression can all be considered types of aggressive behaviour. Assertive behavior may be a healthier and more effective alternative to such behaviors as aggression, passive-aggression and passivity. If you are having a hard time managing aggression, you may wish to consider online therapy. BetterHelp can connect you with an online therapist in your area of need.

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