It’s frustrating. It’s mind baffling. It’s anger provoking. It’s disingenuous. Passive-aggressive behavior is all of these things, and more. So why do good people resort to such relationship-damaging behavior? And why is it so hard for them to change?
Here are 4 reasons why passive-aggressive behavior continues to thrive.
1. Rather than expressing opposition directly, people have learned (often from childhood) to express it indirectly.
It’s not unusual for kids to be passive-aggressive when asked to do something they don’t want to do. When a parent asks, “did you do your homework,” they could say ‘no, stop pestering me, I hate homework,’ but then they’d be subject to a barrage of disciplinary lectures. It’s so much easier to say,
“I’ll get to it in a minute, Ma.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll take care of it.”
“I’ll do it as soon as I finish this program.”
On occasion, these responses may be true but if the kid is using them to get a parent off his back, he’s honing his passive-aggressive skills.
2. People are viewed as “good” when they squash their anger and resentment.
Hide your angry feelings. Don’t feel resentful. Put a smile on your face. From a young age, we’re taught to express our negative feelings in socially acceptable ways. Not a bad message. But some people take it too far.
Rather than say what they mean and mean what they say, they say what they think others want them to say. The trouble begins when their actions don’t fall in line with their words.
“Yes, no problem; I’ll do it.”
“Yes, I said I’d do it.”
“Yes, I’ll do it shortly, I’m busy now.”
“Get off my back, will you? I’ll do it in my own damn time, not yours.”
Passive-aggressive behavior often begins with a “Yes” and a “no problem” but ends up with endless excuses and angry blowups.
3. Passive-aggressive people often cast themselves as the “victim,” viewing the other person as the “persecutor.”
If you’re part of a family, work group, sports team and don’t take care of your responsibilities in a timely way, others will be annoyed with you. Rather than owning up to what you need to do or re-negotiating your responsibilities, the p-a approach is to view yourself as the “victim” being “persecuted” by the other person.
“Why do I need to take out the garbage?”
“These rules are ridiculous.”
“The coach doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about?”
Passive-aggressive behavior is a terrific way to get yourself off the hook. Rather than working as part of the team, you keep yourself apart from the team. Then you wonder why you feel so alienated.
4. People don’t know how to assert themselves in an emotionally honest and respectful manner.
When there are disagreements between people (as there always will be), people can respond passively, assertively or aggressively. When one’s pattern is to respond passively, the interaction often deteriorates into aggressive behavior, both for the passive-aggressive actor, (“Stop telling me what to do!”) and for the other party (“You’re a liar; you said you’d take care of it and you didn’t….once again.”).
Few people know much about conflict resolution skills. Hence, they really don’t know how to express themselves openly and honestly while remaining respectful of the other person’s sensibilities. So they just keep on doing what they have always been doing while the resentment, rancor and outrage keep ruining relationship after relationship.
Too bad. Next edition of the newsletter, I will explore ways to become more assertive rather than continue the passive-aggressive path that so many are on.
“Most truths are so naked that people feel sorry for them
and cover them up, at least a little bit.”
Edward R. Murrow
Linda Sapadin, Ph.D. is a psychologist and success coach in private practice who specializes in helping people enrich their lives, enhance their relationships and overcome self-defeating patterns of behavior.