Many of us respond with passive-aggressive behavior when facing conflict. Do you 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—anger in which the aggressive behavior is masked or “acted out” by passive actions. Like much destructive anger, it can undermine personal relationships, derail careers, and contribute to health problems.
Ultimately, passive-aggressive behavior enhances feelings of powerlessness. It also leads to isolation that results from a lack of assertiveness.
Anger is a powerful and challenging emotion. It is triggered by feelings of threat to our physical or mental well-being. Anger is a mind-body experience that is tension-filled. It is 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 pain may be associated with anxiety, shame, powerlessness, or disrespect.
Don’t worry, you can manage your anger. Our quickness to anger, or what triggers our anger, and how we react to it depends on several factors. These factors include our biological makeup, along with our life experiences. They have a combined impact on the neuron pathways in our brain.
How Passive Aggressive Habits Develop
When we are supported and encouraged to state our wants and needs as children, we learn to feel safe when doing so. Conversely, if we are shamed or belittled on such occasions, we learn that being assertive is not acceptable.
An even worse scenario is if parents react with anger when children attempt to state their desires. Now, the thought of expressing our needs 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. Worse yet, we might become silent or even grow to minimize and deny our wants and needs.
However, major needs and desires that are not expressed will only remain dormant. They are needed for support, connection, and other expressions of love and validation. These key desires move us throughout our lives, and they seek satisfaction.
Anger that results from core desires seeks expression. Otherwise, it can become an 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.” These often come with a denial of the anger. For example, you might say to your wife, “Right! You’re the best cook I know!” This comment might be accompanied by an eye roll. When confronted with 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. This simply shuts down all communication, without stating how you’re affected 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. This can happen with friends or with 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 passive-aggressiveness:
- Stop avoiding expressing how you really feel. Say, “yes” when you mean “yes”, and “no” when you mean “no.” Otherwise, you will increasingly build resentment. Avoiding how you feel only increases your feelings of powerlessness and isolation.
- Never ignore your own desires. This behavior leads to unsatisfactory relationships. You will find these relationships to be controlling instead of nurturing and supportive.
- Be compassionate. Recognize that your passive-aggressive behavior is a learned approach born to protect yourself from fears of conflict when you were a child. Even though you may feel uncomfortable, be kind to the adult version of you.
- Begin with small steps. Address issues that may not be as scary as you think they are to discuss. You might share being annoyed or irritated, rather than angry. Remember, passive-aggressive behavior will ultimately make others feel anxious and angry. This makes others less available to satisfy your needs.
- Learn specific skills to manage your emotions. These new skills will help you feel more comfortable when expressing your desires or anger. Skills like body relaxation exercises, mindfulness, meditation, and self-awareness exercises will help you process your feelings and thoughts.
- Learning assertive communication skills is essential. Assertive communication increases comfort in self-expression. Assertive communication is neither passive nor aggressive, but 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 improved satisfaction in your relationships.