Being passive aggressive boils down to an inability to directly express your anger, and it can wreak havoc on your life and relationships.
According to the American Psychological Association:
“characteristic of behavior that is seemingly innocuous, accidental, or neutral but that indirectly displays an unconscious aggressive motive. For example, a person who constantly keeps people waiting and then is baffled at why they resent this behavior is passive-aggressively disavowing an unconscious wish to be special and to provoke those who fail to acknowledge the specialness.”
Someone behaving passive aggressively might:
Carnesecchi adds: “Other behavior traits can be cynical or aggressive attitudes, someone who often complains, an individual giving backhanded compliments known as disguised insults or non-compliments.”
“Sometimes these people are conflict avoidant,” says Jason Drake, LCSW-S, BCN. “Many times, what underlies passive aggressiveness is a perceived slight or wrongdoing by the other person. Instead of being assertive and addressing the issue, they play a 'get back game' by being passive aggressive.”
“A person may have deep-rooted insecurities and experience envy or jealousy over the other person,” Drake says. “Instead of recognizing the envy or jealousy inside them and being happy for someone else's success, they may be passive aggressive to defend their ego against not having, being, or doing what the other person has, is, or does to create success.”
“An individual can be unable to express their feelings as a result of the following elements, including behaviors they have seen modeled in childhood, the desire to avoid conflict, personality traits or the presence of a mental illness,” says licensed psychologist Jameca Woody Cooper, Ph.D.
“It is not uncommon that many times passive aggression is a learned behavior stemming from childhood upbringing,” says Carnesecchi. “An emotionless upbringing with little to no expressive communication skills results in becoming passive-aggressive. A child's first exposure to emotions and communication is through their parents. When parents cannot adequately teach how to show love, express concerns, take care of our needs, it then only teaches how to manipulate and even lie.”
Passive-aggression, then, is one way that adults with such upbringings indirectly express themselves, as they’ve never learned how to effectively communicate.
“Families who were not allowed to express anger and live in a household of ‘speak only when spoken to’ mentality tend to suppress their anger,” he says. “As an adult, they passively express their anger.”
“Passive aggression is not a mental illness,” says Carnesecchi. “It is a character trait or a symptom of a personality disorder. Passive Aggressive Personality Disorder (PAPD) is not deemed a stand-alone mental health illness according to eh DSM-V but is classified as a trait under general personality disorders. There is not enough research and evidence to codify it as a specific disorder.”
Instead of viewing this behavior in terms of “good” or “bad” (which can often be shame-inducing), let’s frame it in morally neutral terms: Is being passive aggressive working for you? Is it helping you cultivate happy and healthy relationships? Is it allowing you to express and uphold your boundaries? If you’re reading this article, my guess is that the answer is no.
“Being passive aggressive is an immature defense mechanism and likely served an important, protective function at some point in our lives when we did not know how to protect our emotions in other ways,” Drake explains. “Usually this develops when a person is a child when they may not have the words to express how they feel and how to be assertive. Being passive aggressive likely protected their emotions from being hurt further. However, as we grow, our brain develops, we mature, and we are able to analyze situations and have introspection, this defense mechanism may no longer be needed and may cause more harm than good.”
Sure, passive aggression certainly communicates something to the person you direct it toward, but the outcome may not be what you intended.
“While passive aggressiveness does give a person a chance to be angry or to disagree with someone without being openly confrontational or defiant, it is not the best technique to use in most situations,” explains life coach Leah Veazey. “Passive aggressiveness is one of the more detrimental forms of communication to a relationship.”
The first step to stopping passive-aggressive behavior is to recognize it when it crops up.
“If we are able to be aware of how a particular situation is affecting us at the moment,” says Veazey, “then we have the opportunity to consciously address it.”
Pay attention to your emotions and the behaviors that flow from them. Re-read the characteristics of passive aggression above and start to recognize when you’re exhibiting those behaviors and what circumstances trigger them. For example, you might really struggle with passive-aggressive behavior in a workplace setting because you fear retribution if you were to directly express yourself to your boss or coworkers. This is understandable, but if you want to stop being passive-aggressive, you’ll need to learn more direct ways to communicate with the people you work with.
The key to overcoming anything is to tackle it at the source. If your passive-aggressive tendencies stem from a childhood upbringing where healthy communication was never modeled to you, you might struggle to express yourself and turn to passive-aggression as a way to do so indirectly. The key here, then, would be to learn more effective ways to communicate.
Carnesecchi recommends beginning with being mindful.
“Mindfulness is the power to be in the present, in the now, and be aware of one's emotions, feelings, thoughts, and behaviors,” he explains. “When a person has mastered mindfulness (which takes lots of practice), they can think clearly about responding to situations and conversations rationally. They become entirely in control of their mind and body. I recommend the person take inventory of the scenario and parties involved to ensure a positive outcome will occur instead of being in a counterproductive environment.”
To help you understand how passive aggression is negatively affecting your life, Drake recommends keeping a journal and writing about when you feel passive aggressive throughout the day.
“In the journal, they can write down what the situation or experience was, their thoughts in that moment, and the feelings that resulted due to those thoughts,” he says. “Over time, this can help a person recognize common themes which lead them to be passive aggressive. Once you know the ‘why,’ you can then work effectively on the ‘how’ to stop being passive aggressive.”
Practicing assertiveness will help you overcome passive aggression. This is a practice you can do in addition to journaling or instead of it.
“A person would need to be observant of the times when they are passive aggressive,” Drake says. “They need to stop, think about the thoughts, feelings, and experience which led them to be passive aggressive. And then, it would be important for them to approach the person and apologize for being passive aggressive. Depending on the person, they may even have a conversation about what the thoughts, feelings, and experience was that they really are feeling that they were defending against with passive aggression. Most people will respond positively to this. But, you will need to be mindful of the person as this may not be productive depending on the person who elicited those feelings for you.”
Passive aggression often arises when we have no way to express our anger about something. When we bottle up those emotions, they end up coming out anyway—often as passive aggression. The key, then, is to find healthy outlets for your anger. One such way is through exercise. A 2019 study published in Asian Nursing Research found that exercise is linked to decreased anger and increased anger control. The study involved 290 nurses in South Korea.
And don’t let the word “exercise” intimidate you. You don’t have to go to the gym or do anything intense if you don’t want to. A healthy way to blow off steam could be something as simple as going for a walk around your neighborhood. And if you can find a nature walk—even better! In the 2018 research article “Psychological Benefits of Walking through Forest Areas,” walking through forest areas for 15 minutes decreased anger-hostility emotions in participants compared to walking through city areas.
A friend of mine used to assist in kindergarten classes, and one of the lessons she learned from that experience is what the teachers would tell the 5-year-olds: “Use your words,” as in, use words to express how you feel, instead of throwing a tantrum. And how useful this advice is for those of us who are adults! Passive aggression is a failure to use your words to express what’s going on inside of you (or a failure to use those words accurately, such as when you say “no, it’s fine,” without really meaning it).
So the next time you feel passive-aggression creeping up on you, try writing out what you want to say. Then, share it with the other person. It’ll probably go over better than huffing, sighing or avoiding the person in the hopes that they’ll guess what you’re mad about.
If you’re still struggling to “use your words,” try crafting a “when-then” statement as recommended by licensed psychologist Thomas DiBlasi, Ph.D.:
“Saying something like: ‘When you yelled at me, I felt hurt. It seems like you didn’t take my feelings or perspective into account and it makes it hard to be around you.’ In this case, the when is ‘when you yelled at me’ and the then is ‘I felt hurt. It seems like you didn’t take my feelings or perspective into account and it makes it hard to be around you.’
By using these words, you are being open and honest with the other person by telling them how you feel. You are also doing it in a way that is most likely to get what you want—the other person not yelling at you. It is really important to communicate how you are feeling, not what you are thinking. People can argue thoughts with you until they are blue in the face, but no one can legitimately tell you that what you are feeling is wrong. Communicating how you are feeling makes it less likely that you and the other person will get into an argument.”
By learning more about how to stop being passive aggressive, you can start to make small changes today that will reap rewards in the long run. It may seem overwhelming now, but you’ve already gotten a head start by realizing that you’re resorting to passive-aggressive behaviors.
“The first step is for a person to be able to recognize that being passive aggressive is not working for them,” says Drake. “It negatively impacts relationships and overall happiness in life.”
And, hopefully, this recognition will fuel your motivation to make a positive change.
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