Barely does a sitcom or TV talk show go by without the word ‘passive aggressive’ popping up. Despite its overuse, it is a very real behavior. 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. 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,’ only to later express annoyance with a snide remark.
3. Somebody promises, with a smile, to meet you somewhere, and then never shows up, or gets there an hour late. He shows no regret.
Situations such as these characterize 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’. 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 or is otherwise sabotaged to express the anger the person cannot relate verbally.’
The world is full of people who give too much when they don’t have anything to give or when it’s not their job to give. They have internalized the ridiculous idea that they’re obligated to give, with little reference to their own needs. As a result of this self-inflicted imposition, it’s no surprise that they end up resentful and noncompliant.
Passive-aggressive people dislike confrontation, even simple statements like, ‘I can’t help you move this weekend. I have to spend time with my children.’ Or, ‘Please understand, I don’t feel comfortable 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 risk such a reaction. So she states outright that she’s happy to help, but either no-shows or does a halfway job.
The irony is that passive-aggressives think they’re being ‘nice,’ but they end up coming across as inconsiderate and flaky. Passive anger is much worse than direct anger. Direct anger at least implies some recognition that anger should have a reason. Even if someone just says, “I’m angry,” they’re accepting responsibility for the anger by expressing it.
Passive anger is a sneaky attempt to avoid responsibility and conflict. A person who hides their resentment (justified or not) behind a smile is trying to ‘have their cake and eat it too.’ The method of expressing that resentment invalidates its legitimacy.
I don’t see many passive-aggressives in therapy, because most don’t see themselves as having a problem. They’ve become skillful at passing the buck onto the frustrated friend, spouse or loved one.
Years ago, I had an accountant who refused to return calls. When I’d receive a 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 repeated protests to the contrary. Her passive-aggressive behavior stemmed from annoyance over this ‘generosity.’ I was expected to tolerate her rude behavior in exchange for a discount that she resented and that I didn’t want. I 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 generated a quick call back. I passed the buck to her by establishing real consequences for her actions.
You can’t change passive-aggressive people, but you can make it 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 feelings doesn’t have to result in negative consequences.
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