“Owning” your true feelings in the face of confrontation

Do any of these situations sound familiar?

1. A friend assures you that he’s happy to help you with something, and asks that you please let him call you back in about an hour—at which time you never hear from him on that subject again.

2. A family member insists—in a tone suspiciously different from the words expressed—that everything is ‘just fine,’ ‘not a problem”only to express annoyance sometime later, over the very same situation, with a sarcastic comment or snide remark.

3. Somebody promises, with a smile, to meet you somewhere, never shows up, and not only doesn’t express regret’but actually seems to derive pleasure from it.

These, and similar situations, characterize what psychologists call ‘passive-aggressive’ behavior. The syndrome is defined by the National Institutes of Health as ”a chronic condition in which a person seems to passively comply with the desires and needs of others, but actually passively resists them, becoming increasingly hostile and angry.’

The definition gets even more familiar: ‘People with this disorder resent responsibility and show it through their behaviors rather than by open expression of their feelings. Procrastination, inefficiency, and forgetfulness are behaviors commonly used to avoid doing what they need to do or have been told by others must be done. A person with this disorder may appear to comply with another’s wishes—may even demonstrate enthusiasm for them—but the requested action is either performed too late to be helpful, performed in a way that is useless, or otherwise sabotaged to express anger the person cannot relate verbally.’ With that in mind, I would add that passive-aggressive people not only resent responsibility, but also never clearly define for themselves exactly what is, or is not, their responsibility.

The world is full of people who give too much. They give even when they don’t have anything to give, or when it’s not their job to give. They have internalized the notion that they’re supposed to give, with little or no reference to their own personal needs. As a result of this self-inflicted imposition on their time and resources, it’s no surprise that they end up resentful, inefficient, or noncompliant.

Passive-aggressive people intensely dislike confrontation—even small ones like, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t help you move this weekend. I have to spend time with my children.’ Or, ‘Please understand, I feel really uncomfortable loaning my car to anyone.’ The person they’re addressing would most likely accept the rejection with no hard feelings, but to the passive-aggressive person, it’s intolerable to even risk such a reaction. So instead of facing it head-on, the passive individual states outright that he’s happy to help. But when the time comes, he either no-shows or does a halfway job.

The irony is that passive-aggressive people start out as ‘too nice,’ because they can never say no. But they end up coming across as inconsiderate and dishonest, as they fall into the psychological trap they create for themselves by this irrational fear of directness and confrontation.

Passive anger is much worse than direct anger. Direct anger, even when based on a faulty premise, at least implies some recognition that anger should have a reason. Even if someone just says, “I’m angry,” the inference is that there’s some reason for that anger. They accept responsibility for the anger by clearly expressing it.

Passive anger, on the other hand, is a sneaky attempt to avoid responsibility and the risk of conflict. A person who hides their resentment behind a smile—not owning up to the anger even when confronted—is trying to ‘have their cake and eat it too.’ It doesn’t matter if that anger is justified. The method of expressing it invalidates any claim to its legitimacy. Quite frankly, the victim of somebody’s passive anger is right to simply ignore it.

I don’t counsel too many passive-aggressives. Many of them don’t see themselves as having a problem. Others deny it and become quite skillful at passing the buck back to the frustrated friend, spouse or loved one.

How do you deal with a passive-aggressive? Years ago, I had an accountant who refused to return calls. When I’d receive a tax document requiring urgent attention, I’d leave her messages to call me back—but she never would. Later she’d insist, ‘Oh, it wasn’t a problem. I would have called you back if it was important.’

How was that passive-aggressive? Well, as a friend of a friend, she apparently felt obligated to charge me reduced rates, in spite of my sincere protests to the contrary. Her passive-aggressive behavior stemmed from annoyance over this ‘generosity.’ I was expected to allow her rude behavior in exchange for a discount that she resented and that I didn’t want in the first place. I quickly learned to short-circuit her behavior by leaving messages such as: ‘Unless you advise me otherwise, I’ll just assume you want me to throw this document out.’ In the instances when action needed to be taken, this tended to generate a quick call back. The key to dealing with passive-aggressive behavior lies in passing the buck BACK, by establishing very real consequences for their actions.

You can’t change passive-aggressive people, but you can make it a lot harder for them by being forthright and direct. By addressing their hidden obstacles to truthful communication, you can help them learn that taking responsibility for their real feelings doesn’t have to result in negative consequences.