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
- An uncanny amount of accidents.
- Losing items frequently
- Forgetting important items or tasks
- Delay and slowness, even when the benefit of briefly speeding up or promptness is clear
- Stubbornness, an inordinate resistance to something new or variation
- Obvious serious errors made in context of otherwise meticulous work
More Provocative Examples
- Rarely saying no to requests, but then not following through. May then claim others expect too much.
- Not following through with agreements and promises, usually accompanied by a great many unsolicited promises to follow through
- A general tendency to put others in a bad light, such as mentioning embarrassing past events repeatedly in the guise of a 'good story', or repeatedly bringing attention to what another hasn't accomplished yet, or to part of a project not worked out yet.
- Completing tasks late or slowly even if others are waiting.
- Hints of being overworked and overburdened, but when help is offered, it seems no tasks can be delegated and no advice seems to alleviate the burdened feeling.
- Hints of being controlled by other people’s demands, even when the passive-aggressive person had originally offered the help, or could withdraw at any time.
- Always managing to be unhelpful, even when the person has placed him or herself in a helping position, or otherwise promised help.
- Managing somehow to complain without actually complaining.
- False apologies: These will have the basic form of polite apologies, but somehow they leave the recipient uneasy. Usually the passive aggressive person describes being inconvenienced by you and then apologizes for not having anticipated it in advance and taken steps to avoid it. Since everyone inconveniences everyone else all the time, this is changing part of life into an injury, and despite the apology, it is designed to make you feel guilty. If your behavior was really fine, then it is impossible to protest because of the convolution.
- Complaints of being misunderstood, that don’t seem to lessen even when efforts to understand are made. No matter how many times one listens and paraphrases what they say, they insist that you just don’t get it.
- Asking others if they should take an action, then acting abused when they are encouraged to do it. Similarly asking a general opinion and acting personally injured by the answer. On the internet this is called 'trolling.'
- Insisting that an unnecessary routine or procedure be followed even in trivial transactions.
- Difficulty understanding instructions or directions. This puts the person giving instructions or directions in a bad light, because it imposes the vague sense they are asking for something unreasonable or undoable. Also since people feel committed once they start explaining something, this can keep the explainer 'on the hook' for far longer than they want to be. Even if the thought occurs to just stop and ask someone else, it seems rude not to be finally clear about what was wanted.
- Starting projects and not finishing, but also great upset when someone else finishes what they haven’t
- Borrowing things and forgetting to return them until asked several times, possibly after a window of usefulness to the owner has passed, and possibly slightly damaged.
- Asking frequently for what someone does not have, or what would be difficult to keep around.
- Bringing up duties or unfinished tasks or obligations to someone who is taking a break, resting, or enjoying themselves.
- Forgetting to share important information. Letting someone go to great deal of trouble, or lose an opportunity, because they do not share what they have already found out.
- Complaints of being bored, but rejecting suggestions about what to do.
- Weaving into every conversation the subtle implication that others are not doing what they should do.
- Hints that he or she is angry or that there is a problem but won’t say what or why. Strongly disavowing anger when it is pointed out.
- Canceling appointments, showing up late, or just not showing up, but always with a good reason.
- Inability to maintain employment. Failing to succeed or 'fit' in jobs others set them up in.
- 'Malicious compliance' which is carrying out a policy or rule even when it is obvious that it will produce a unintended or damaging result.
- There is often a tendency to take on 'receptionist' positions, which simultaneously possess low authority (and accountability) but extensive gate-keeping functions. Also in this role, it is hard to evaluate productivity.
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:
- Feeling 'stuck.'
- Feeling incompetent and stupid,
- Decisions are almost impossible to make, especially since it seems they have turned out badly so often.
- Efforts to be nice and cooperate are rejected by other people.
- Other people don't appreciate the efforts made.
- Difficulty saying no
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.
- Passive aggressive behavior can flourish in non-profits or social service agencies. This is because the emphasis and attention is generally on intentions and sentiments and not results. However, people affected by passive-aggressive behavior have the right to address results.
- If a reasonable focus on results is criticized as uncaring, point out that an overall environment of ease and effectiveness is best for everyone's emotional well-being in the long run.
- Receptionist positions are 'ideal' for passive aggression. There is enormous 'gatekeeper' power. On the other hand, there is low authority, so in-depth problem solving cannot be expected, and so people can be sent away disappointed. Keeping people waiting is actually part of the job, and whether waiting has been kept to a minimum can never be determined. There is usually only one receptionist, and so overall results and ease cannot be compared.
- At work, it may be prudent to structure team or joint projects so that the work cannot be held up by one person not doing their part.
- Always make sure there is more than one way to get something done, such as un-locking a door, retrieving a file, etc..
- If you make an agreement where passive-aggression is a worry, make it very concrete and transparent as to what constitutes fulfillment. Discuss time limits carefully and make it clear that the time limit is an essential part of the value of the agreement. Of course anyone can not keep an agreement, but with a clear format, the nature of the transaction is less disguised.
- Avoid open ended offers of help, like support until someone "gets back on their feet.." Instead, define very precisely what help you will give and for how long.
- Find someone else, without ill feeling, to do a project that someone has promised to do but is unlikely to finish, or has started and not finished. If this person protests, don’t try to explain or prove anything. Just state this is your choice.
- When faced with complaints of unfairness, identify with the miserable person, but not the misery. Don’t allow yourself to get infected with the hopelessness. Don’t become guilty because you seem to have it better.
- Don’t make any social plans with the passive aggressive person that would be ruined if he/she failed their part. Better yet have a satisfying adventurous backup plan. If the passive aggressive person complains of being left out or uncared for, tell them they were missed, and that you hope they can make it next time.
- Don’t lecture the passive aggressive person about his or her behavior. The whole point of passive-aggressive behavior is that it cannot be proven, meanwhile you are kept involved, which is a possible secondary gain of this behavior.
- When the passive-aggressive person refers to your unsuccessful events over and over, avoid the temptation to defend. Instead, ask them what they would have done in that situation, specifically, and mean the question.
- When faced with innuendo or hinting, state that you want to be sure what is meant, and ask the person to explain in more detail.
- Name the provocative behavior and merely state that you want to see a lot less of it. If it is protested that it can't be helped, just explain that you are expressing your dislike of a situation. If it indeed can't be helped than no harm is done, but if passive aggression is involved, it will usually change. This may be from setting a limit, but it may also be because passive aggression, even unconsciously, relies on the provocation not being recognized as such.
- Avoid trying to tell the person what they should, must, or will do. Instead tell them what you will do, matter-of-factly, kindly, and mean it.
- Avoid the understandable urge to retaliate. This will not be easy since tiny, seemingly unanswerable, provocations accumulate like water torture. If and when you do finally explode, it will surely be out of proportion to the immediate circumstance, and as the explosion subsides, it will be hard to avoid feeling sheepish, guilty, mean, crazy, etc…
- Try to relieve the tension of small provocations as they occur, for instance, by saying “ouch” (with no explanation).
- If one is in a committed relationship with someone passive aggressive, couple and individual therapy with a therapist knowledgeable about this pattern can be helpful, because the detachment and matter-of-factness needed are very tricky in that situation.
Antidotes For the 'Stuck'
- Start distinguishing between what one wants to do and what one 'should' do. Then, start doing a considerable amount of what one wants to do. Of course an adult comes to want to do most of the things they should do, but if the 'want to do' has been too far forgotten, unconscious resentment can be creeping in.
- Play more. This must be done playfully.
- Get reacquainted with anger, good healthy non-violent anger. Learn to express it respectfully and directly
- Practice saying "no". Then say "no" more, respectfully and directly.
- Remember that out of feeling, not information, is how important personal decisions can and should be made.
- Remember that being long-suffering does not endear a person to others, in fact others are turned off. This may not seem fair, but it is verifiable by observation. It seems to be the way human biology works.