Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Passive-Aggressive Behavior

Recently, in pastoral conversations, a number of people have brought up their difficulty in dealing with others who are displaying passive-aggressive behavior. They struggle with the proper approaches to take. I noted to them that I would post some descriptors for them on my web page so they could read the materials at their own leisure. Understanding the dimensions of characteristic behaviors help a person not get hooked when someone expresses negative attention behaviors. 

Passive-Aggressive Behavior - Expressing negative feelings in an unassertive, passive way.

When resentment and contempt lurk beneath the surface of a dysfunctional relationship, Passive-Aggressive behavior is like a residue which rises to the top. It is a form of behavior where anger is not expressed openly, rather, it emerges in sometimes subtle ways which avoid direct confrontation.

It is common for someone who feels they are in a position of relative disempowerment to express their anger at the more powerful person through Passive-Aggressive behavior. They may feel inferior, or afraid of the person they are angry with, who may also be an authority figure such as a parent, older sibling, employer or teacher. Or, the person may be a peer such as a spouse, partner, sibling or friend who dominates or assumes the lead position in the relationship.

Passive-aggressive behavior is a common feature of relationships between people with Personality Disorders and those who act positively. People with Personality Disorders often feel a great deal of pain over their own situation. Because of the way their emotions can overwhelm their rational thinking, they are prone to destructive behaviors, emotional outbursts, making poor choices and having feelings of self-loathing, powerlessness and discontent.

Faced with this, it is common for them to look for a person who is willing to share the burden, help clean up the mess and help them feel better about themselves. Family members, spouses, partners and friends are prime candidates for this role - a role which they sometimes accept willingly; hoping to make a positive difference in their loved one’s life.

However, healthy people may hold over-optimistic expectations about the degree to which they can ‘help them change’. For the person with the Personality Disorder, the other's inevitable failure to solve all the problems and fill all the voids can create feelings of disappointment, disillusionment and even resentment . Filled with anger towards those who have disappointed them, yet consumed by fear that they will be abandoned by them , the Personality Disordered person may develop a pattern of Passive-Aggressive behavior towards the Non.

On their part, people are often confused about the erratic state of mind of the Personality Disordered individuals in their lives. They may respond to poor treatment with feelings of anger and hurt while at the same time they may become afraid of future outbursts. They may be fatigued from taking the “high ground” over contentious issues while also managing their feelings of anger towards a Personality Disordered person who appears to be taking the “low road” or taking advantage of them. They may themselves develop a pattern of Passive-Aggressive behavior as a way of registering their disapproval while not provoking further conflict.

What it Looks Like

Withdrawal - of material support, contribution to shared goals, Re-prioritizing alternate activities and goals, “go-slow’s”, procrastination or targeted incompetence.

Silent Treatment - inappropriate “one-word” answers, inattention, making yourself generally “unavailable”.

Off-line Criticism - propagating gossip or criticism to a third party in an attempt to negatively influence the third party’s opinion of a person.

Sarcasm, Critical and “Off-Color” Jokes - Humor which targets a specific individual is a form of Passive-Aggressive communication.

Indirect Violence - shows-of-strength such as destruction of property, slamming doors, cruelty to animals in the sight of another is passive-aggressive.

The Bottom Line

Passive-Aggressive behaviors and communication styles are rarely effective in getting people what they want, and are more likely to add fuel to the fires already burning. An assertive approach to managing conflict is far more likely to get both parties in a relationship what they want. Where there are episodes of abuse involved, assertiveness can also involve setting firm, healthy and appropriate boundaries which protect the Non from further abuse.

What NOT To Do:
Don't respond with a passive-aggressive approach of your own.
Don't feel responsible for another person's passive aggressive words or actions.

What TO Do:
Speak the truth, clearly, accurately and simply, then leave the conversation if that is not enough.
Do something healthy and productive for yourself.

Barriers To Overcome

Confusing communication. Passive-aggressive people might say one thing (like “Sure, sounds great!”) and mean quite another, which can be disorienting and disconcerting. You may simply have no idea how to respond.

Mixed messages. You may be tempted to consider a passive-aggressive individual’s apparent agreement as a commitment: She said she’d handle the project, didn’t she? And yet, on some level, you may sense there’s a very real possibility that she will not do what she “agreed” to do — or that she’ll do it but resent it, perhaps making you wish you’d never asked.

Fighting fire with fire. Since the passive-aggressive person is angry to begin with, he or she is likely to meet anger with even greater defiance. “You won’t get very far if you roll your eyes or get sarcastic in return,” says Oberlin. You’ll just escalate the situation.
Bad boundaries. “Passive-aggressive people tend to seek out people-pleasers,” says Oberlin, “because they know that they can push their buttons.” If you’re conflict-averse or have trouble setting boundaries, passive-aggressive people may tend to target you, making you the focal point of their hostilities. They may create dramas that directly affect you at work

Strategies For Success

Don’t take it personally. “A passive-aggressive person’s anger stems from his or her own background and life situation, and isn’t your responsibility,” says Oberlin. “You are probably just the most convenient person for him or her to interact with negatively.”

Moderate your response.
Oberlin recommends developing a “Teflon coating” for yourself when dealing with passive-aggressive people — stay calm, keep your voice neutral, hold your emotions in check. “The less reactive you are, the less fuel they have for their passive-aggression,” she says.
Empathize. Though it may be difficult, cultivating empathy for a passive-aggressive person can help disarm him or her. Oberlin suggests reflecting the person’s suppressed feelings by saying things like, “It seems as if you were frustrated by what happened in the meeting today. That must be difficult.”
Be direct. If you’re dealing with a person who resists assignments and requests, says Oberlin, “you need to be assertive and very clear about what you expect, and what the consequences will be if your expectations aren’t met.” Keep everything factual, not emotional, she suggests. Clarity and level-headedness are your two best defenses against passive-aggressive behavior.


  1. I think I waver between being a personality disordered person and the one who acts positively. Seems I can fit into both categories, even within the same relationship. Boundaries are important for me. Even within myself I have to watch my "self-talk".

    1. Thanks, Beth. We all do. Sometimes we become passive-aggressive with only certain people who hold power over us. We always try to move towards healthier boundaries and we suffer errors along the way. That is O.K. We just keep trying. Shedding light on the behaviors of others makes us freer because it is not our drama to take on. Boundaries are always helpful for us and for others because we learn the rules of engagement.