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Passive Aggressive Behavior

Sometimes the strongest clue to passive aggression is frustration with someone without a clearly identifiable reason. Passive aggressive behavior is a very challenging adversary, because it often feeds upon the altruistic and concerned responses it evokes.

Passive-aggressive behavior refers mainly to a persistent pattern of failing to perform role expectations or achieve “normal” success despite ostensible effort and good will, and despite the aid and coaching of other concerned people. But day by day, passive aggression also describes actions that frustrate others indirectly, or that seem to place others in a bad light.

For clarification, in everyday language, the term ‘passive aggressive’ is sometimes used to describe sneaky aggression, back-biting, guilt-tripping, heel-dragging, passive resistance, and conscious deception. This is all very difficult behavior, seen more in organizations than in couples or families. While the 'antidotes' listed below are likely to still be helpful, this sneaky and revengeful behavior is different from the main concept of passive-aggressive behavior discussed here.

Two core elements of passive aggression are the truly self-defeating aspect of the behavior, and its largely unconscious nature.

However, it is not possible to really discuss this concept without also candidly describing the upsetting effects on other people. Below are listed many behaviors that both make things difficult for other people and are hard to confront. No single instance 'proves' passive aggression, of course, but a pattern of these behaviors is a strong clue, as is gut feeling.

Examples of Frustrating Behavior

More Self-defeating Examples

More Provocative Examples

From the 'inside', passive aggression is experienced more by the result of other people being upset and success being mysterious and elusive. Common experiences and self-concepts are:

Stonewalling is different

Some people in relationships, most commonly men, display a pattern of avoiding open conflict, refusing to talk about relationship issues, doing what they want without or despite agreements, and generally resisting the influence of their partners. This has been described as passive aggressive, but if these men have friends, hobbies, and successful employment then this is more use of male privilege and a power behavior than the passive aggressive pattern described here.

Where Does it Come From?

All humans have impulses to protect their integrity and dignity. Healthy social interaction includes direct confrontations, and 'standing up to others'. But in a complex culture, most people are subject to the power of others, and sometimes confronting this power is dangerous. Being unable to protest and refuse naturally leads to a feeling of resentment. Resentment normally leads to some type of resistance

When this happens very early with children, the feeling of resentment usually is not tolerated by the parents or caregivers. In the formation of passive aggressive behavior, three things happen: 1) the resentment is largely turned back onto the the self, 2) the feeling of resentment disappears from awareness, and 3) the resistance becomes indiscriminate, and appears in all relationships.

A philosophy of 'niceness' can contribute to passive aggression also. It does this first by encouraging people to deny and bury anger that emerges distorted as passive aggression. Secondly, 'niceness' restrains people from confronting difficult and provocative behavior based on the feeling of irritation. Instead people are taught only to object when 'rules' are clearly broken. Passive aggressive behavior is not really addressed by social norms, therefore it is un-confrontable without 'gut feeling.' Despite what is sometimes thought, direct expression of self-interest does not weaken civility, just the opposite. It is when everyone tries to completely negate conscious self-interest that unconscious processes start to run amok.

Understanding the Protective Role

When faced with overt aggression, passive aggressive behavior is actually adaptive and possibly the most realistic response. For instance French resistance during the Nazi occupation of WWII carefully planned their actions to look like accidents because overt sabotage would have been met with brutal retribution. Unlike an individual, the French resistance understood consciously the goal. But the similarity with passive aggression lies in the fact that a powerful force can be neutralized best by interfering with smooth functioning. Likewise a child facing constant disapproval and pressure from a parent might only be able to keep their integrity by failing.

When a passive aggressive pattern is carried forward into situations where there isn't’t such pressure, however, it is very limiting and alienating. Still, it is worthwhile to be aware of any 'aggressive-aggressive' force that is being resisted in the present. Such a force might have been so long present that it has become 'invisible.' In a free society, there are rarely uses of power so intractable that passive aggression is anywhere near the best possible response, but encouraging a change to assertiveness needs to take the practical realities into account, especially with children and teens.

The question arises, how are the more self-defeating behaviors protective? Well what is being protected is not well-being in the usual sense, but rather the right to be one's own person. If parents demand success, but simultaneously refuse to accept any individuality, that is an unsolvable bind. Success of any kind can then threaten the twin prospects of either rejection (abandonment), or the loss of self within another person's purposes (engulfment).

Passive aggression is often seen with depression and sadness. That combined with the apparent goodwill, and an expressed desire to please make this behavior pattern absolutely one of the hardest to confront, by either the person experiencing it or others affected by it.

Is it Done on Purpose?

It is best to avoid entering into an argument about whether anybody is doing it “on purpose” This is not really knowable on an by either the passive aggressive person or others affected, and is certainly not provable. True passive aggressive behavior is thought to be unconsciously motivated but the same behavior can certainly be used consciously or semi-consciously by anyone to resist. The desire to know if any uncooperative behavior is done ‘on purpose’ is usually based on the premise that the response should differ according to the answer—punishment if the answer is yes, sympathy and caretaking if the answer is no. However, neither punishment nor caretaking will diminish the behavior or make it easier to live with. Effective responses are natural and logical consequences and the conscious intentions of the other person are not an essential ingredient.

Keeping Sanity and Integrity

In general, coping with passive aggressive behavior consists of structuring interactions so that you are not responsible for or dependent upon the results the passive aggressive person obtains. Diligently avoid entanglements over the issue of whether anybody “can help it”, had bad luck, will try harder, has extra stress right now, etc… Excuses must become irrelevant. That is, excuses or reasons need not be evaluated as good (adequate) or bad (inadequate), and offering excuses need not be criticized—it can all be irrelevant. Results do matter. Perfection isn't’t required, but in the larger picture, promises and intentions aren’t satisfying.

If you are a person that is not generally frustrated with people, then frustration when dealing with a particular person may be the best evidence of the presence of passive-aggressive behavior. In a peaceful, civil society getting everyday things done should not be difficult on average.

Antidotes For People Affected

It may seem that some of the following approaches are cold and completely unempathetic. On the contrary however, when the manipulative possibility of the behavior is removed, we no longer have to protect our interests and we can be truly compassionate.

Antidotes For the 'Stuck'