One of the strongest obstacles to spiritual realization; is the instinct of personal self-assertion, with its aggressive manifestations.
By Roberto Assagioli, Course in Spiritual Psychosynthesis, Lesson IV. April 2, 1938. From the Assagioli Archive in Florence, (Docs #23038 and 23039). Original Title: Ostacoli emotivi e mentali allo sviluppo spirituale – Aggressività E Criticismo. Translated with Notes by Jan Kuniholm.
Today we shall examine another of the strongest obstacles to spiritual realization; the instinct of personal self-assertion, with its aggressive manifestations. This instinct has varied manifestations, some of them of a more impulsive and emotional nature, others of a more mental nature. We shall examine them together, partly because emotional and mental elements often associate and intertwine within us in a complex way.
Among the manifestations of an aggressive character we can include antagonism in its various forms: anger, wrath, resentment, condemnation, blame, devaluation and criticism.
Wrath or anger is the reaction provoked by any obstacle or threat to our existence and self-assertion in any field. The fact that it is a “natural” and spontaneous reaction certainly does not mean that it is appropriate, or even that it promotes the very purposes of egotistical self-assertion. On the contrary, it not infrequently succeeds in doing obvious damage. Indeed, anger is a “bad advisor” and — if not mastered — leads to violence and excesses that — like the Australian boomerang — bounce back on the one who hurled them. This is so obvious that there is no need to insist on it. The trouble, however, is that in the practice of life we often forget the most familiar and elementary things!
Another harmful effect of anger is that it results in the production of real poisons in our bodies. The same effects produced by acute anger are also produced by resentment, which can be regarded as a chronic irritation.
But I believe it is appropriate to dwell especially on one aspect of the combative tendency which, because of its subtle and insidious nature, its enormous prevalence, and its evil effects, deserves special attention. This is criticism: the tendency, I would almost say the general mania, to blame and devalue one’s brethren at every opportunity.
Let us first try to understand why such a tendency is so widespread and strong, why so many people — though endowed in other respects with moral qualities — devote themselves with ardor, I would almost say with enthusiasm, to criticizing others; who take a real pleasure in doing so that is apparent through their whole being, from the inflections of their voice to the animation of their gestures and the sparkle of their eyes.
A brief psychological analysis will easily give us the reason for this phenomenon. In fact, we can observe how many fundamental human tendencies find great fulfillment in criticism. First, criticizing satisfies our instinct for self-assertion. Finding and pointing out the deficiencies and weaknesses of others gives us a pleasant sense of superiority, and pleasantly tickles our vanity and conceit. Secondly, it offers a direct outlet for our combative energies, which while it gives us all the satisfaction of an easy victory without exposing us to any danger (since the enemy is absent) seems harmless — indeed, often a duty — and thus escapes all internal restraint and censure, deceiving our moral conscience.
It should be added, then, that for many people who have to suffer the domination of others without reacting, and who have to endure situations and conditions in life that are unwelcome to them but against which they cannot rebel, criticism is the only way in which they can give free rein to their pent-up hostility and resentment; the only safety valve to lower their internal tension. This fact also explains why criticism is developed more in the female sex than in the male (the observation is not mine). Indeed, men have other and worse ways of expressing their combative tendencies, and they tend to make extensive use of them.
Finally, criticism satisfies — curiously enough — the very tendencies [people have] toward communion with others, however partially and imperfectly. This apparent paradox should not surprise us too much; indeed, life shows us that what most easily unites and reconciles people and human groupings is having a real or supposed common enemy. So we should not be surprised that people easily obtain the pleasure of fellowship and agreement by saying bad things together about their fellow human beings! But of course in such cases these are not true communions! They are illusory and superficial associations, because they are based on separateness and not on unity; and so, usually, that negative bond dissolves very quickly.
Thus, in the field of criticism, it happens not infrequently that Titius and Caius say bad things about Sempronius, and shortly afterwards Titius with Sempronius criticize Caius, which does not exclude that if Caius and Sempronius are together they say bad things about Titius. Indeed, the psychological attitude of the systematic critic, with all its ridiculous conceit, is well characterized by a witty phrase from an English anecdote: “Two old Scotsmen complacently reviewed the follies of their acquaintances. When they had accomplished this not too short a work, one of them observed by way of conclusion, ‘In short, my friend, it can really be said that all men are mad, except you and I . . . however, even you have a little bit of it . . .’”
A particular manifestation of criticism is mockery and ridicule. All the innovators and pioneers have been mocked and considered “crazy.” It should be noted that there is a substantial difference, often unrecognized, between mockery and humor. The former is distinctly antagonistic, incomprehensible and often cruel. In contrast, the latter is imbued with indulgence, goodness and understanding. It consists of “seeing from above,” in their true light and right proportions, human weaknesses. And the true humorist smiles first of all at himself.
How can one get rid of the tendency to criticize?
There are several effective means:
1. Transformation and sublimation
The tendency to criticize can be transformed into sharp and wise discrimination. Such discrimination is not only legitimate, but dutiful and necessary. “Not criticizing” does not in fact mean, as some believe, not noticing the deficiencies of others, or voluntarily closing one’s eyes to them, much less passively yielding to others’ suggestions. Such absence of discrimination — which is characteristic of certain good, but too naive, optimistic and sentimental natures — is the cause of serious mistakes and painful disappointments.
What actually distinguishes criticism from healthy discrimination is the internal attitude when faced with the discovery of other peoples’ shortcomings: while the critic, more or less consciously, takes pleasure in them; the discriminator, on the other hand, suffers from them. He does not tend to accentuate and proclaim them, but feels moved to pity and to help those who are lacking. Far from strutting his superiority, he would like the other to be equal or superior to himself, and works and prays for his repentance or reformation. If at times, for the sake of truth, the spiritual discriminator must openly state his dissent, must admonish and warn, must defend a cause, an institution, or a person unjustly attacked, he does so with courage and firmness, but always in a calm and impersonal manner, without descending to the opponents’ levels or using their methods of fighting.
2. Development of opposing qualities
These qualities can be divided into three groups. The first includes goodness, gentleness, generosity and love. Note well that we do not mean to speak of the passive, weak and sentimental pseudo-goodness, but of the true spiritual goodness, which is powerful, dynamic and radiating. It is the goodness of a St. Francis of Assisi, who admonished the wolf of Gubbio and many “human wolves”; it is the goodness of his namesake St. Francis de Sales, the imperturbable meekness and gentleness that works thousands of conversions.
Moreover, the power of gentleness is also reaffirmed by a witty Tuscan proverb: “You catch more flies in a drop of honey than with a hundred barrels of gall!” All this is so obvious that it is superfluous to insist on it. Again, it is “only” a matter of . . . putting it into practice.
The other group of qualities is appreciation, praise, gratitude and constant emphasis on the good aspects of things, people and circumstances. Such accentuation is what is usually called “optimism”; but it is not a Panglossian, blind and superficial optimism. One can see clearly all aspects, even the dark and negative aspects of life, but then consciously turn one’s attention, interest and appreciation to the positive ones.
According to a motto of Alphonse Karr:  “The pessimist sees the thorns beneath the rose, the optimist sees the rose above the thorns.” Or, using another image, “a glass that half full is considered by the first half empty, and by the second half full.”
This attitude was poetically expressed by Vittoria Aganoor Pamphili in the following dialogue between St. Francis and one of his friars:
“Holy Francis, how sad that I hear the
Whistling of serpents under the shrubs.”
“I hear nothing but the placid rustling
Of the pine forest and the hymn of the birds.”
“Holy Francis, come to the forest,
Away from the pond, a putrid smell.”
“I smell thyme and broom,
I drink air of joy and health.”
“Holy Francis, here it sinks, and now
Evening comes, and we are far from our cells.”
“Lift up your eyes from the mud, man, and you shall see
The stars bloom in the celestial gardens.”
This hearty appreciation of the good and bright aspect of everything and every being facilitates and gladdens life. It gives us the light and strength to free ourselves from that attitude of discontentment, ill-humor, resentment and rebellion against circumstances, against life and against God Himself that constitute the bitterest, most tormenting, blindest and — let’s face it — meanest aspect, of all our sorrow or adversity.
One dares to criticize God, to accuse Him of insensitivity, harshness and cruelty to us and to others, without realizing how enormous and ridiculous is the presumption implied in those reactions, without remembering how many times we ourselves, after time, have had to recognize the spiritually beneficial function of pain.
We need to be able to see God’s action, even when it seems harsh or adverse to us. Victor Hugo wrote a fine apologue in this regard: 
. . . The horse must be Manichean.
Arimane does him evil, Ormus does him good;
All day long, under the whip he is like a target,
He feels behind him the awful invisible master,
The unknown demon who overwhelms him with blows;
In the evening, he sees an eager being, good and gentle,
Who gives him food and gives him drink,
Puts fresh straw in his black litter,
And tries to erase the evil by soothing,
And hard work by merciful rest;
Someone persecutes him, alas! but someone loves him.
And the horse says to himself: “There are two of them.” — It is the same one.
There are many who attest to the fact that appreciation, praise and gratitude have a power that could be called “magical” over the same circumstances: they open paths, dissolve obstacles and attract good. However, the admirable internal transformation they produce is certain. It is described with great effectiveness in a noble and profound spiritual book, The Simplified Interior Life published by Father G. Tissot (Turin, Rome, ed. Marietti).
How to say “I thank Thee.”
But how must we accept suffering? — I reply at once: with thankfulness; I say, with thankfulness, not with joy: joy often does not depend upon me, but God gives it me as a reward; still, the reward always depends upon me. In the first place, for a soul which is not accustomed to it, it may seem hard to come to be thankful in the embrace of suffering. Really, I believe it is easier to say a resolute “Thank Thee” than to groan in patience. To say it requires an outburst of generosity. I say an outburst; because it is only well done, when done as it were by a leap of the heart. When suffering comes, I resolve to make an act which is very short and generous: “My God, I thank Thee!” That is all. There is no need to dwell upon the act, to repeat it feverishly, as if to establish by violence some permanent and steadfast state of joyful thankfulness all of a sudden. No, I need only be satisfied with the act itself, with the “Thank Thee,” quickly and earnestly uttered. When you give a present, you receive a simple and cordial “Thank you,” and this “Thank you” is enough to testify gratitude for your kindness, for it assures you that love appreciates your generosity. And thus it is that I must act towards God, when He vouchsafes to give me His great present, which is suffering. “My God, I thank Thee!” How eloquent is this “Thank Thee!” . . . It tells God that I understand His action and His love. A word between friends says so much! . . .
The torrent of joy.
And what results are effected in my soul! It seems as if this “Thank Thee,” in springing up, has made the deeps to open. But this takes place so deep down within me, that never before had I any notion of the vastness of my being. Here the senses have no part whatever. Hence, in these deeps, which had been hitherto unknown to me (it is the “Thank Thee” that reveals them to me), through some mysterious opening (apparently it is the “Thank Thee” that opens it up), I perceive a fountain spring forth which was until now unknown, a fountain which, sometimes at a single spurt, sometimes slowly, fills the inmost depths within me. The soul is flooded with pleasant water, with joy so sweet, so calm, so penetrating, that no other joy coming from without can compare with it. 
It creates in us that harmony, that serenity, that deep peace that nothing can disturb and in which the soul grows like the sacred flower (the lotus) on still waters. 
There is a sentence in these beautiful pages that deserves to be especially noted: “this ‘Thank Thee!’ . . . It tells God that I understand His action and His love.”Here is the secret, the magic key: understanding — understanding transforms everything!
TOUT COMPRENDRE POUR TOUT AIMER — UNDERSTAND ALL TO LOVE ALL
 Assagioli is humorously using fictitious Roman names here, perhaps recalling the historic civil wars among the Roman consuls before the time of Augustus Caesar. —Tr.
 Assagioli refers to Pangloss, the pedantic, unfailingly and blindly optimistic character in Voltaire’s Candide. —Tr.
 Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr (1808-1890), French critic, journalist and novelist. —Tr.
 Vittoria Aganoor (1855-1910), Italian poet. —Tr.
 Assagioli quoted these lines from Victor Hugo in French. —Tr.
 Manicheanism is an ancient Persian religion that believed in a fundamental duality between good and evil. —Tr.
 from Victor Hugo, Religions et Religion, (1880), IV, “Des Voix,” p. 242. —Tr.
 The original of this book edited by Father Joseph (Guiseppe in Italian) Tissot (1840-1894), was published in French in 1907. An English edition was published in 1912 as The Interior Life, Simplified and Reduced to Its Fundamental Principle. The Italian edition cited by Assagioli, La vita interiore semplificata was published in 1921. —Tr.
 This is taken from Chapter VIII, Section 37 page 205 of the 1912 English edition of The Interior Life, translated by W.H. Mitchell. Assagioli’s note cites Part II, pp.70-71 of the Italian edition.—Tr.
 Assagioli’s note here cites Light on the Path. This is a paraphrase from Section 16. of Light on the Path by Mabel Collins (1885). Passage not located in online edition of this book, so translated from Assagioli’s Italian text.—Tr.
 Tissot, The Interior Life, op.cit. Chapter VIII, Section 37. —Tr.