How to handle passive-aggressive behaviour
An eye roll, a ‘hands off!’ note on the milk, or the classic, “I’m not angry,” followed by a silence so filled with rage, it positively screams its message. Unlike active aggression, passive-aggression doesn’t leave visible bruises, but it can still do serious damage.
“A person displaying passive-aggression is often adept at getting the person on the receiving end to doubt themselves,” says Dr Scott Wetzler, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Einstein College of Medicine and author of Living with the Passive-Aggressive Man. Whether this individual is a colleague, family member or your partner, chances are he or she will make you wonder whether you’re the one at fault. They do this by showing their hostility in covert ways which make it difficult for you to easily define and address their behaviour.
If you’ve been subject to passive aggressive behaviour, you’re probably all too familiar with the feelings of powerlessness and frustration of it all. It can happen in your family, at work, socially or with your partner, even with a random stranger. But if you’re dealing with passive aggression on a daily or regular basis, it can lead to more than just frustration: confusion, self doubt and insecurity can creep up on you and take over. This is because unlike other forms of aggression or hostility, passive-aggression is secretive, manipulative and often turned against you.
If you suggest a passive-aggressive person is angry, they may turn it back to you, asking why you’re trying to start an argument. If you point out their silent treatment is making you upset, they’ll claim they’re not doing that. “The technique is to get you focused on your own behaviour,” says Wetzler, “and take the focus off theirs.” In this way, they are aggressively arguing against you, but in a way that gives them more control and reduces yours.
Words Are Like Weapons
A feeling of lack of control in the workplace or within a romantic relationship can be especially damaging. “You may begin to doubt yourself to the point of feeling you’re the one with the problem,” says Wetzler. A hallmark of passive-aggressive behaviour is the cause of the anger isn’t revealed. A partner refuses to talk; an employee consistently turns up late; you’re the only one who’s not invited to a family get-together, but you have no idea why. When you ask, the passive-aggressor will deflect the question, leaving you confused.
Further complicating matters is we now communicate more than ever via the written word. Tone and the intended meaning is harder to pin down without vocal inflexion, body language and facial expressions to guide you, leaving you ever more doubtful of your sanity. And because passive-aggression can involve such things as withdrawal of conversation or physical affection, being cold or silent, modern-day communication makes it even more difficult to say for certain whether a behaviour is passive-aggressive or simply a case of ‘my phone died’.
Hard Habit to Break
Some seemingly normal behaviours can be a sign of passive-aggression: being consistently late, procrastinating on a task or doing it badly. It was these types of petty acts that led to the term being coined in the 1940s, when it was used to describe the behaviour of soldiers who couldn’t refuse orders, but did their best to comply defiantly. Psychologists leapt on the term and defined it as a personality disorder.
The term is so broad and covers such a wide range of behaviours that psychologists no longer use it as a diagnosis, nor do they consider it to be maladaptive, instead referring to ‘passive-aggressive behaviour’ as something any of us can display. Some, though, rely on it to avoid expressing themselves. By displaying hostility in a covert way, a person can avoid direct confrontation or revealing their true feelings.
Covering up feelings is just one reason people display this kind of behaviour, and it’s often down to how a person was brought up. If a child learned to suppress their emotions because it’s frowned upon or discouraged, passive-aggression becomes a survival tactic. Similarly, children in controlling households may find the only way to exercise some sense of control is by acting this way. If assertiveness and confrontation are discouraged, passive-aggression may become a habit.
Open Up and Say “aaAArgh”!
If you find yourself dealing with passive-aggressive behaviour the first step is to call it what it is, at least in your own mind. “Once you see the behaviour for what it is – hostility – you immediately have more power because you are no longer living in the dark, wondering if you’re right or wrong,” says Wetzler.
“Then you can find ways to deal with it and get around it, whether that’s by setting limits, talking things through, getting the person to recognise they are destroying your relationship, or in some cases, removing yourself from that person’s life.”
Next, be more open yourself. If your sister makes a comment about how your new outfit helps disguise saddlebag hips, immediately state in a matter-of-fact manner what she said makes you feel bad. If your husband refuses to make eye contact, tell him his behaviour is making you feel upset. It might feel like you’re letting them ‘win’, but it’s the opposite: you’re not letting them get away with it and if they do it again and again, they can’t say they didn’t mean it in a bad way. By being open yourself, you may help them open up to and explain where their resentment or anger stems from.
At work, the same applies. By being open about how a colleague’s statement or actions make you feel and doing it in front of others, you gain valuable witnesses should the case end up being addressed with HR. Sometimes the behaviour is from someone you don’t know well at all: the man who parks his car badly, or the woman in the post office who loudly complains about ‘people pushing in’ when you’ve joined a disorderly queue.
The ideal thing is to respond calmly and openly. Ask the driver of the other car to move, or at the post office, a genuine-sounding, “I’m sorry, did I push in?” should be enough to take the wind out of their rage-filled sails, while also sending the message that being open and honest is best. But maybe you can’t do that.
Perhaps the urge to park your car so close to theirs that they can’t open the door is just too great, or maybe you can’t bear the thought of letting the lady in the queue ‘win’ by allowing her to go first.
If that’s you, then congratulations because that’s some classic passive-aggression right there. But who cares, right? Yeah, whatever you say…