How comfortable are you with conflict? Do fear directly expressing how you really feel–especially when angry? Or, might you feel selfish or even shameful, when stating your desires or having them satisfied? These could be signs of passive aggressive behavior.
What is Passive Aggressive Behavior?
These are key attitudes that underlie passive aggressive behavior–a form of anger in which the aggressive behavior is masked or “acted out” by passive actions. Like much of destructive anger, it can undermine personal relationships, derail careers, and contribute to health problems.
Ultimately, passive aggressive behavior enhances feelings of powerlessness and isolation that result from a lack of assertiveness.
Anger is a powerful and challenging emotion, triggered by feelings of threat to our physical or mental well-being. It is a mind-body experience, one that is tension-filled and based on the interplay of feelings, thoughts, and physical reactions within your body.
It is also often a reaction to–and a distraction from–some form of inner pain that may be associated with anxiety, shame, powerlessness, or disrespect.
How anger is managed—our quickness to anger, what triggers our anger, and how we react to it—depends upon our biological makeup, as well as our life experiences and their combined impact on the neuron pathways in our brain.
How Passive Aggressive Habits Develop
If, as children, we are supported and encouraged to state our wants and needs, we learn to feel safe when doing so. By contrast, if we are shamed or belittled on such occasions, we learn that being assertive is NOT acceptable.
Worse yet, if our parents react with anger when we attempt to state our desires, even thoughts of expressing them may overwhelm us with anxiety.
The intense dependency we have as children heightens the sense of threat associated with such expression. It is then understandable that we might become passive–being silent or even grow to minimize and deny our wants and needs.
However, major needs and desires, whether for support, connection, or other expressions of love and validation, only remain dormant. They are key desires that move all of us throughout our lives; and they seek satisfaction.
Anger that results from core desires seeks expression or becomes ongoing resentment or hostility.
Specific Forms of Passive Aggression
Habitually ignoring your desires may lead to the following passive aggressive behavior:
You make statements that can best be described as “half humor and half anger”–often with a denial of the anger. For example: you might say to your wife, “Right! You’re the best cook I know!” accompanied by rolling your eyes. When confronted on your anger, you’re quick to respond with “I was just kidding”.
2. Silent Treatment
You may refuse to discuss an issue. Your silence may last for minutes, hours, or even years. You simply shut down all communication, without stating how you’re impacted or your desires. You may do this in a personal relationship or in the workplace.
3. Being Critical
Being critical may be a “go-to” response when you harbor anger that’s not clearly recognized or effectively managed.
4. Not Following Through On a Promise
Resentment that your needs are not attended to can undermine your desire to please others.
5. Sabotaging The Plans of Others
You do or say something that undermines the success of someone’s plans. Perhaps you forget to convey an invitation to an invited guest due to anger with the host or guest. Or, you might fail to provide a co-worker with information that is essential for her timely completion of a project.
6. Not Expressing Opinions
You may frequently defer sharing your opinion, whether with friends or your significant other. This tendency leads to feeling invisible, a reaction that only further fuels passive aggressive behavior.
Passive Aggressive Behavior: The Good News
While how we manage anger is a habit, the good news lies in the brain’s neuroplasticity. By cultivating new habits in thinking and feeling, we can increase the strength and number of neuronal connections devoted to that new habit.
The more you engage in new habits, the more they become a natural part of your repertoire. The following are strategies you can do to address being passive aggressive:
- Remember that when you avoid expressing how you really feel or say, “yes” when you mean “no”, you will increasingly build resentment. By doing so, you only increase your feelings of powerlessness and isolation.
- Remember that each time you ignore your own desires, you will experience relationships as being unsatisfactory and controlling, versus nurturing and supportive.
- Be compassionate and recognize that your passive aggressive behavior is an approach you learned to protect yourself from fears of conflict when you were a child. Even though you may feel uncomfortable, you are NO longer a child.
- Begin with small steps, first addressing issues that may NOT be as scary to discuss and, about which, you might share being “annoyed” or “irritated”, rather than “angry”. Remember, passive aggressive behavior will ultimately make others feel anxious and angry, and even less available to satisfy your needs.
- Learning specific skills to manage your emotions can help you feel more comfortable when expressing your desires or anger. These might include body relaxation exercises, mindfulness, meditation, and self-awareness exercises, regarding feelings and thoughts.
- Learning assertive communication skills is essential for increased comfort in self-expression. Assertive communication is neither passive nor aggressive, but rather a more authentic sharing of who YOU are.
Overcoming passive aggressive behavior takes time, patience, and commitment. It is a challenge that involves recognizing and accepting difficult feelings. You can effect positive change, whether you do this on your own or seek counseling.
By doing so, you will develop resilience, a sense of empowerment, and an improved satisfaction in your relationships.