Passive-aggressive behavior is subtle and so can be difficult to detect, understand, and change. Let’s look at how a typical passive-aggressive person behaves, and then we can attempt to understand it.
Jane had a troubled relationship with almost everyone in her life. She never really got along with her parents, always disliked her younger sister, and now had a precarious relationship with her husband, who complained she was a hard nut to crack.
Although Jane couldn’t see it herself, anyone who looked at her behavior objectively would’ve easily reached the same conclusion as that of her husband.
When Jane had problems with people, she never confronted them directly but contrived complex ‘plots’ to get back at them.
For example, she always accepted her sister’s invitation whenever she invited her, mostly just to please her. Her sister grew worried lately as Jane had been declining her invitations, coming up with excuses not to see her.
After a confrontation, it was revealed that Jane had gotten upset over a remark that her sister had made the last time she visited her.
Jane meted out exactly this kind of treatment to her husband. She seemed to be skilled in hiding her disapproval and getting back at him in covert ways.
When he asked her what he’d done wrong, for example, she’d say, “Nothing, forget it” when she actually meant “You better figure out what you did wrong”. When she was upset she’d say “I’m okay” but actually meant “I’m not okay with that”.
To express her disapproval, she’d say, “Fine. Whatever” but actually meant “I’m not fine with that at all.”
The result was confusion and frustration on the part of the husband. He used to scan his mind for any awry event in the recent past but usually found nothing. When he did find something, it took him ages to do so.
Understanding Jane’s passive-aggressiveness
Like many other personality traits, the roots of passive-aggressive behavior can be traced back to one’s childhood experiences.
So let’s rewind and look at Jane’s earliest life experiences…
As is true for any other human baby, Jane was a helpless little lump of life when she was born. She depended on her parents for her survival- nurturing, feeding, clothing, everything. Her parents gladly did all that for their darling child, holding nothing back, neither their love and attention nor their material support.
When Jane was 3 and her sister was born, things began to change. Her parents now had to divide their resources between the two kids.
Jane, after being on the receiving end of continuous love and support from her parents for three years, saw this as ‘unfair’, unconsciously of course.
From then on, she always felt like her parents ignored her needs and, as a result, harboured a deep-seated resentment toward them and her sister.
Her young mind was now faced with a dilemma. She relied on her primary caregivers for her survival. She couldn’t afford to risk that relationship by voicing her grievances. At the same time, feelings of hostility continued to bottle up in the recesses of her mind.
To worsen the situation, her parents, like many other parents, never really encouraged her to express her feelings openly, especially the ‘negative’ feelings such as disapproval and anger.
“Good kids are grateful and don’t become angry”, they told her, and the same message was repeatedly reinforced by society. She became convinced that it was ‘wrong’ to express her negative feelings.
But repressed feelings never really go away, they come back to haunt a person in uglier forms. To put Jane out of her dilemma, her mind adopted a new strategy- passive-aggressiveness.
Passive aggressiveness simply means expressing your hostile feelings indirectly.
By turning Jane into a passive-aggressive person, her mind basically accomplished two very important things…
First, it allowed her to release her negative feelings that can become quite burdensome if they remain unexpressed for long. Second, she could do this without risking her most important relationships because passive-aggressiveness is indirect and avoids direct confrontation.
Passive aggressiveness harms relationships
So passive-aggressiveness is basically a psychological state where you release your hostile feelings toward the other person indirectly so you can minimize the costs carried in doing so.
But this strategy mostly backfires. Although you may successfully avoid directly hurting the other person, it almost always results in confusion, frustration, and relationship dissatisfaction. So you end up hurting the other person, anyway.
All Jane’s doing is repeating the passive-aggressive behavioral patterns that she learned in childhood and hence the current state of her relationships.
We’ve all been passive-aggressive at some point and that’s okay. The problem occurs when it becomes a dominant trait in our personality (as in Jane’s case) and harms our well-being and relationships.
In any case, honesty and openness is a much better strategy. At its root, passive-aggressiveness results from a lack of assertiveness. Assertiveness is the antidote to passive-aggressiveness.
Hi, I’m Hanan Parvez (MBA, MA Psychology), founder and author of PsychMechanics. I’ve written 280+ articles and published one book about human behavior on this blog that has garnered over 3 million views. PsychMechanics has been featured in Forbes, Business Insider, Reader’s Digest, and Entrepreneur.