Passive aggressive behaviour seems to be on the up rise, especially among young people. This sucks. What’s scary is this is the most damaging anger style. Even worse, most people don’t really know how to define passive aggressive behaviour; they know the term and can sometimes recognize it when they see the behaviour being done, but based on the clients I’ve worked with, barely anyone really knows what passive aggressive is. As a therapist, within the first few sessions I always go over the four anger styles (i.e. aggressive, passive aggressive, passive, and assertive) because so much of our conflict is created by unhealthy expressions of hurt and fear, which are the backbone of anger. Going over this is especially important when there is a passive aggressive person in the relationship because this person doesn’t accept that they are doing anything wrong to cause the issue. In my first relationship, that person was me. In my second, which is my marriage relationship, I started passive aggressive, but my wife beat it out of me… thankfully. The problem was, like most people, I had no idea how to define passive aggressive behaviour, but it felt right. I fortunately learned about it when I started my schooling for counselling, which is when I learned that the silent treatment, my go-to at the time, was passive aggressive and very unhealthy. I just knew I wasn’t yelling at people like my dad did with me, so I felt superior to him. My Nana was the queen of the silent treatment. After she passed away I learned she’d go a week without talking to my grandpa until he bought her a present to apologize for something that he did wrong even though he had no idea what that was. What’s funny is my Nana often didn’t know what it was that he did either; she just knew she had been angry and wanted to know he was sorry, which is such a princess move (aka passive aggressive).
When I see a couple in therapy the odds are one of them has passive aggressive tendencies, which is an easy spot as it typically involves an air of superiority, contempt, criticism, condescending tones, emotional punishments, and unfairly blaming others. As I taught a month ago, it’s always 50% my fault and 50% your fault when there’s conflict between us, which means the statement ‘it’s all your fault’ is wrong… suckers (that was almost passive aggressive). I once had a woman come in to see me for therapy and after a few sessions she blurted, “I just want you to tell me I’m right and they’re wrong!” She had no interest in growing or accepting responsibility for everyone in her family being “against” her. She simply wanted me to say she’s the victim of their suckiness thereby proving she was right and giving her the chance to say “The professional says I’m right!” I call this behaviour ‘building an army’ and it’s very passive aggressive. I also used to do this, but I would go to all my friends and have them tell me I was right, so I could go back to my girlfriend and tell her that “Everyone says I’m right,” thus proving… I have biased friends and/or I gave a biased perspective so naturally I looked right. This was, however, passive aggressive and very poopy behaviour.
One of the reasons passive aggressive behaviour is on the rise is our culture is so afraid of aggressiveness, especially in children. Boys need to be able to roughhouse and bounce around in sports and play, but this is squashed in the daycares and education system because those worlds are dominated by women who don’t like competition and want games that are more social driven and no one wins or loses, which is how girls spent recess when I was growing up; meanwhile, the boys played sports. By not letting boys be aggressive they have to resort to more sneaky and mind game oriented ways of getting their point across, which teaches them to be passive aggressive like I was. Please know, I’m not suggesting boys should have fist fights, but in general they do need to have healthy expressions of competition and physicality where there are winners and losers, especially in sports.
The reason passive aggressive behaviour is so dangerous is because it’s wrapped in pride and makes them impossible to reason with because they’re “right” and the other side is 100% wrong. To add to this, both parties usually end up hurt because passive aggressive people don’t necessarily feel good after “winning” and the other person usually feels belittled, confused, and/or resentful. It’s all around painful for everyone involved.
The following is a list of possible Passive Aggressive behaviours:
- You eye roll or sigh when someone says something dumb
- You always assume everyone else is being passive aggressive with you
- You play the victim and think “poor me”
- You have a list of what the other person did wrong you can use against them to get your way
- You make attacks on the computer and never in person
- What you say is shrouded in mystery as you “hint” at what you want
- You assume the other person will know what you mean if they truly loved you
- What you say is demeaning (e.g. “You’re not going to wear that are you?”)
- There can be degrading sarcasm (e.g. “I like your outfit; I’d wear that too if I was poor.”)
- You get other people to do your dirty work
- You think aggression is the worst thing in the world
- You’re drawn to feeling power in the relationship
- You’re controlling
- You use mind games and manipulation to get your way
- You use guilt trips and/or blackmail,
- You like drama
- You refuse to talk to someone until they apologize first even if you’re beside them for awhile
- You expect other people to say hi first
- You believe you’re not loved if you don’t get things your way all the time
- Your relationships end horribly with lots of hurt feelings
- It feels like the world is against you, which means everyone is wrong
- You don’t accept any responsibility
- You use punishing behaviours and/or believe others owe you
- You hurt others and justify it in order to not feel guilt
- You backstab and/or gossip
- Your joking has a hidden message behind it and/or you assume other people always have a hidden message in their joking
- You won’t talk to the person that upset you directly, but you go to their boss to complain
The good news is most people who are passive aggressive will react like me when I learned I was passive aggressive: “This is bad? Oh crap!” As soon as I learned the silent treatment and building an army are bad I quickly stopped these damaging behaviours because I was just trying to find a way to get my point across without yelling. The trick is learning how to stand up for yourself in a loving way where both parties feel like they are cared about. This, however, is what my clients spend a lot of time working on because it can’t simply be taught in one blog… or that’s what I’ll say because I need to keep some secrets that people will pay me for teaching.
This week may you start to recognize any damaging traits you might have that are holding you back from having healthy relationships.
Rev Chad David, ChadDavid.ca, learning to love dumb people