Passive-aggression describes two similar and related types of behaviour.
THE FIRST and most commonly known type of passive-aggressive behaviour describes the way a person expresses their anger in an indirect way instead of a direct expression of anger to bring attention to, and stop, a offensive behaviour. The passive-aggressive personality will let vexing behaviours pass, and then attack the person later in what can seem an unrelated incident, and so vent their unresolved anger.
All passive-aggressive expressions are created from suppressed or repressed anger of some sort, yet passive-aggressiveness can be expressed in a myriad of ways. When orginally felt, the anger is not expressed directly at the behaviour that caused it. Afraid, for one reason or another, of expressing anger directly, the motive is revenge, under the pretence of self-defence, and it can potentially draw upon a reservoir of molten anger that seethes beneath the surface of a calmly composed smile. The ‘grinning malice’ is a facade for the hidden vindictive motives that swirl under great psychological pressure. Coupled with this fear of direct expression of anger, there is often efforts directed at masking the anger from detection.
This can be exceedingly troublesome for both the passive-aggressive persons and their targets. We cannot rely on passive-aggressive personalities to communicate that they are angry, so we have to rely on our own senses to detect if they are angry whilst knowing they disguise their anger. If they are angry, we have to figure out why. This process is filled with assumptions as we have to empathise with their position whilst deciphering their disguises. This makes it very difficult to know if a person is actually angry. To complicate things further, passive-aggressive persons can forget what it was that originally angered them. Any issues that offend them are stored in memory as mini personal vendettas which will be prepared for release at a later date. This belated burst of anger could be delivered in any form.
In the mildest of cases we may find that a friend or a work colleague is making ‘sniping’ remarks about the way we are conducting ourselves. They may seem overly negative about things we do, and may even try to obstruct us from succeeding to humiliate us. They often intentionally get on the nerves of people who have upset them by depriving them of rest, comfort and security. Passive-aggressive behaviour is highly related to resentment and envy, and these emotions by themselves can fuel other negative emotions.
‘Grinning malice’ can adequately describe the passive-aggressive’s smiling demeanour that is presented to the world while concealing the will to make others pay for offending them somehow previously. It is a personal attack and is punitive in nature, aimed at the person and not the behaviour that was perceived to cause the original offence. This plays havoc with a passive-aggressive’s internal frame of reference (view of the world). Anger is an emotion we feel that motivates us to stop something from happening. If our anger is not directed at the behaviour we intend to stop, then the chances are the behaviour offending us will continue.
It may be that a passive-aggressive person thinks that simply hurting people who offend them, in any way, will cause them to reflect on their entire array of behaviours and so stop the perceived offensive behaviour, yet because the attacks are indirect, it is unlikely that people receiving the passive-aggression will know what behaviours to address.
A significant problem with passive-aggressive responses is the subjective assumptions on which they are based. The passive-aggressive person perceives that they have been wronged and assumes that the perception is correct, and also that the supposed offending person realises they are being offensive too. Firstly, perceptions are not always accurate and most of the time need clarifying when considering behaviours. Secondly, the person who is seen as being offensive may have no idea that they have offended anyone. This can lead to a situations where built up anger is released onto people who see it as an unprovoked attack. They may then retaliate and even feel like the issue is settled when the passive-aggressive person does not respond immediately with an angry expression. Only judging that no direct expression of anger from a passive-aggressive person means an issue is settled is deeply floored thinking. This starts a vicious cycle with both people thinking they were offended or attacked first, yet forgetting what originally caused the hostilities.
It may be conditioning or a conscious choice to act in this way, yet either is because of a fear of expressing anger directly. It could be fear of losing a job. It could be fear of looking uncivilized by expressing anger as some people think that anger is an inferior emotion – not understanding that anger is a moral emotion. It could be fear that a parent will hurt or penalise them if they express anger. It is about the fear that things will get worse if anger is directly expressed. Continued restriction of self-expression is highly associated with the development of passive-aggressive behaviours. A person might develop ways of behaving to retaliate through passive-aggressive means. Keeping their anger hidden, so they remain unsuspected of malice. Much talent can be developed in maintaining this mask, and people can become proud of their passive-aggressive deeds.
Believing that anger is an inferior emotion and a remnant from a prehistoric uncivilised age is, surprisingly, why some people do not express their anger. A view can be taken that modern civilized people look at such expressions with contempt and disregard, so people avoid expressing anger due to the fear of receiving contempt and disregard from their peers or parents. This generally leads to persons ignoring or suppressing their feelings of anger because they do not want to think of themselves, or be seen, as inferior. They do not learn how anger works or how to use it assertively, and so producing situations where the person ends up acting in an emotionally reactive way whilst ‘swearing blind’ that they are not angry. When anger is ignored or disowned it does not suddenly disappear magically. It is still there and has only been pushed out of conscious awareness. The anger is still felt subconsciously and continues to motivate our behaviours, yet without conscious constraints. This is referred to as ‘acting-out’. People who view anger as an inferior and uncivilized expression can take offence if it is suggested that their emotions have influenced their reasoning. While it may be clear to others that their behaviour is reactive, they can be convinced that it is impossible and can be truly insulted. This can be a major hurdle when addressing passive-aggressive behaviours.
There are infinite methods of expressing passive-aggression. Real-time recognition of this evocative dynamic is important to manage the feelings of frustration, anger and betrayal which are created from being treated with passive-aggression. Many passive-aggressive people like to see how frustrated and angry they can make their targets. Many actually enjoy the success of upsetting their victim, and this shows a sadistic side to this type of behaviour. When we ‘act-out’, on those feelings of frustration and anger that we have been made to feel, it has been termed ‘counter passive-aggressive behaviour’. We generally do this in a reactive manner without realising what is truly going on. This is out-of-character reciprocal behaviour that treats the passive-aggressive person in the same ‘tit-for-tat’ way, as if to say ‘See how you like it?’. This is often experienced as a sudden outburst of anger (which we may be made to feel guilty about later), yet often this leaves us feeling demeaned with ourselves, and unfortunately only creates a passive-aggressive conflict cycle by escalting the animosity within the passive-aggressive person and, if repeated, sustains a ‘vicious circle’ of behaviours. Real-time recognition of passive-aggression allows us to avoid this scenario.
Recognise the hidden anger!
When anger is unexpressed in the moment, it becomes resentment, and this will largely be a habitual way of relating to others. How predisposed a passive-aggressive has become to feeling resentment, represents the degree to which their condition is pathological (compulsively motivated). Resentment is anger for an unresolved offence that has already happened. Resentment always relates to a past event and is deemed as justified by a perceived injury that has already occurred.
These sort of convictions, which are created from resentment, make for very stubborn personality personality traits. They are not easily changed. Addressing passive-aggressive behaviour is a gradual process of addressing the hidden anger, and then letting the passive-aggressive person deny that they are angry. This ‘denial’ can be considered a natural defence-mechanism and self-protective reaction. It may cause too much conscious anxiety for them to admit their feelings into conscious awareness, for they may think they will be punished. By pointing to hidden anger when such behaviour arises, it allows the passive-aggressive person to perceive a non-threatening challenge to the situation and their fears around anger, over time, will be reduced.
Yet although their automatic denial has not been directly challenged, they will know that their anger is no longer hidden and is a topic for discussion. Consider for a moment when someone points attention at something you have put effort into hiding. You most definitely notice, and think about the issue. Don’t you? Yet there is an added complication with the chronic passive-aggressive person, for they live in a world of hidden anger, and it may be so well hidden that they believe that they are not angry people.
A most important aspect of treating passive-aggressive expressions can be shining a spot-light on the anger, in a non-threatening way, and then retreating. Let the person’s concern about the unmasking of the anger dissipate. Then they will be able to consider integrating the anger into awareness. Intellectually, this may seem a simple thing to do, but in reality the situation could be evoking emotions of frustration, anger, betrayal and resentment to name a few. These emotions have to be managed at the same time as shining the spot-light on the passive-aggressive person’s hidden anger in a non-threatening way. Using angry tones or counter aggressive-behaviour will only reinforces the passive-aggressive person’s fear of anger. It will validate their misguided belief that anger is a dangerous, out of control, threatening emotion that is to be publicly avoided at all costs. Simply saying ‘you are angry with me for something?’ in a non-threatening way is very effective in the long run – even if it’s not immediately satisfying.
Mentioning, over time, how anger is healthy can also dissipate the fear around addressing situations which involve anger. Once fears around anger are subsiding, direct discussions about anger will be far more productive.
Although we may perceive a received attack as unprovoked, this is definitely not how the passive-aggressive person will perceive it.
Simon is an intelligent and charming teenager with parents who are strict and have very high moral standards. Whatever his parents say goes, and they know best. As they often remind him, Simon could learn a lot from them. He feels stunted and that his parents patronise him continually. There are many things he wants to do that they would disagree with. He feels he works all the time, is continually told what to do in angry tones and gets no rewards for his efforts. Even though she has known for weeks that he really wants to go with his friends to a theme park, early one evening his mother tells Simon to get ready for an important dinner party which has been planned for months. ‘Sure Mum’, he says but doesn’t move a muscle. Mum is running around getting everything ready and does not notice until an hour later that Simon is still sitting on the sofa. ‘I told you to get ready an hour ago?’. Simon looks up, ‘An hour, really, wow, is that the time, sorry I’ll get ready right away’. Flustered and annoyed mum says ‘OK, remember to put the rubbish out for collection tomorrow. There’s only an hour to go’, then she goes up to the bathroom to get ready.
Getting up off the sofa, Simon notices that the car keys are sliding down the edge of the cushion. His mother had sat down on the sofa when she returned from work and must have left the keys there. Simon goes up to his room and realises that there’s a tiny spot of dirt on one trouser leg of the smart clothes he has planned to wear. He picks them up, takes them down stairs, puts them on a wash-dry-cycle and sits back down in front of the television.
Fifteen minutes before they are due to leave his mum comes down the stairs and sees him sitting on the sofa watching the television in his boxer shorts. Screaming out loud she says ‘Simon WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING, YOU HAVEN’T EVEN CHANGED?’ Red faced from frustration and anger she stands with glaring wide eyes, panting with fury, waiting for an answer. ‘My clothes were dirty so I put them in the wash as I know how important this dinner is to you’ he says. Simon’s appearance is one of a loyal dog waiting for the washing machine to end. Stomping, his mother, strides into the kitchen to see how long is left on the washing cycle. ‘Two hours!’ she yells. Looking up at the heavens, she takes a deep breath and hangs her head as she sighs. She then screams ‘the frigging rubbish, the frigging bloody rubbish is still in the kitchen’ her voice reverberates out of the house in near hysterical tones. ‘Oh, wow, I forgot due to thinking about the washing, sorry mom’ Simon replies.
Feeling angry and betrayed, his mother is livid. Yet with every angering moment his mother feels there is a seemingly innocent reply of stupidity, which makes her furious feelings seem unreasonable and out of proportion. Frustrated at every move, she orders Simon to go up stairs and put some clothes on straight away. ‘OK, sorry mum, will do, no problem’ Simon says helpfully.
Five minutes later, Simon appears, with creased clothes and dirt smeared on the ankles of his trousers. Eyes wide, his mother stands pale and in shock. Dazed from consternation she tells him to get in the car. They walk outside to see his dad and sister waiting to get in the car. ‘Why didn’t you get the car ready?’ his mother says to them ‘I thought you had the keys, you used the car last’ his dad says.
Simon sits on the sofa for 45 minutes while his parents look frantically for the car keys. Then before the washing machine ends he reaches down and says, ‘Dad I’ve found them’. ‘Well done, Simon has found the keys, let’s go’ his dad says praising him. They arrive an hour and twenty minutes late, his mother is in a grumpy mood and doesn’t enjoy herself at all. Simon sits, in scruffy creased clothes, smiling the whole evening.
Jane is a shop worker at a Tesco store in London. She stacks shelves, serves at the tills and helps customers with enquiries. These tasks are done continually as the shop is in a busy location. Jane’s boss, who is only a few years older, orders her to stack the shelves when she has just started serving at the tills. This upsets Jane as she had been stacking the shelves for hours before her boss came on duty, and she was looking forward to a calmer time on the tills. Jane is angered especially with the tone with which he ordered her around unfairly, but she does not air her concerns. This was not the first time it had happened, but Jane was too scared to tell her boss how unfair she thought he was being. Her parents always reacted with unreasonable anger when she stood up to them. In her experience confrontation made things worse.
The next day Jane is stacking the shelves. She expects her boss will come in later and order her off the tills again, so she thinks she will teach him a lesson. The method of revenge is southern-fried-chicken-steaks and other non-offer products. Product that just so happen to resemble a host of other items that are on 3-for-2 offers.
Later her boss arrives, orders her off the tills and shortly after starts manning the them himself. It is not long before he is run off his feet dealing with angry customers who are not getting the discounts they are due from their 3-for-2 offers. Some customers had got home before realising the discount error and angrily came back to complain. The queue at the tills grew increasingly with angry customers for the next few hours, and Jane’s boss was the one responsible for dealing with the discount problems. Jane watched as her boss hurried around the shop trying to cope with all the demands of the angry customers, and she gave a sympathetic smile at her boss whenever he passed while secretly enjoying the stress he was experiencing. At the end of Jane’s shift her boss looked ‘fed up’ and drained. He was still dealing with a queue of angry customers when Jane smiled innocently at him as she left. He read it as a sympathetic expression and smiled back with a frown. This made Jane very proud of herself.
These are two prime examples of lower level grinning malice or passive-aggressive behaviour. Remember passive-aggressive behaviour creates dysfunctional situations that cause, the target of the hidden anger, stress and inconvenience. Simon and Jane manage to keep their anger hidden the entire time, yet receiving no criticism whilst witnessing the stressful chaos they created. Jane’s boss, as she saw it, should stop being so unfair towards her and stop using domineering tones in his voice when he orders her around. ‘He should simply ask me instead of ordering me around, he’s a brute and deserves it’ Jane thought. Yet her passive-aggressive behaviour does not improve her sitauion or her boss’s behaviour.
One of the main points of passive-aggressive behaviour is that it creates dysfunctional situations on several levels. Firstly, the behaviour causes pain and suffering. Secondly, because there is no direct challenge made by passive-aggressive people about perceived offensive behaviour, there is no opportunity for accused persons to adapt their behaviour relevant to the perceived offence. Thirdly, there is also no opportunity for the person to defend their behaviour, and so opportunities for reasonable progress are lost. These points mean that the passive-aggressive scenario is a dysfunctional one that increases entropy, or decay, in surrounding relationships. Most things in society are geared towards reducing behaviours that make relationships worse. Passive-aggressive persons aim to worsen the relationship and in doing so rupture the psychological makeup of the persons they are secretly angry with. In more serious cases passive-aggressive people can wilfully destroy opportunities for the target of their aggression. In chronic cases passive-aggressive persons will seriously compromise their future in the process of hurting other people. Passive-aggressive persons may even know what cost they will pay, but they feel compelled to ‘act-out’ from the resentment which fuels their revenge. Wanting to damage the life of the person they resent so much that it is considered an acceptable expense. This is the pathological side of passive-aggression, but it may be far more common than we are comfortable to admit. The following example gives a context on just how much the passive-aggressive can lose to achieve the discomfort of the persons they resent.
Ryan was a high achieving teenager who was set for a top university and great professional success. His parents had always pushed him and praised him whenever he did well. Recently, however, Ryan had realised that when he pursued leisure activities, which he found enjoyable, his dad would tell him to get on with something more constructive and not to waste his life doing unimportant things. This grated against Ryan’s sense of personal liberty of which over the past year he had realised he had very little. He had found a couple of things in life that gave him satisfaction and made him feel good, yet these things were not on his father’s list of things for success. This made Ryan angry with his father and his mother who always agreed with his dad regarding issues of Ryan’s future. Ryan would never express his anger as it was met with deep disapproval and classed as dysfunctional behaviour by his parents.
The growing resentment broke the camel’s back when his father ordered him to study law at university. This was the ultimate in dictatorial behaviour in Ryan’s eyes. He started viewing his parents as Nazi-like figures who cared little for his well-being and more for their vanity. His parents loved to say how well their son was doing. It was a point of pride for them. This made Ryan feel uncomfortable, especially when they did it to his friends’ parents, virtually belittling them for not having such a successful child too. As if his brilliance was a testament to their parental success and nothing to do with his interest and hard work. In their minds, having a son that studied law at a top university was the ultimate achievement in parental success. This is the point that angered him most. Their intentions were really motivated by thoughts of their success and not his. This was the worst betrayal of his liberty that he could envision. They were willing to make him work really hard for several years at a subject, which he once fell asleep in class studying, just so they could puff up their egos.
Shortly before his exams Ryan started a relationship with a girl a couple of years older. His parents had said that she, ‘couldn’t speak English properly’. He also started smoking cannabis and dressing in dark black clothes. He incurred their anger on a daily basis, but ignored it and kept out of their way. Ryan never revealed his anger to his parents. In their eyes it was all to do with his new girlfriend. She was corrupting him, and that was a convenient way for Ryan to conceal his anger from them. Over the exam period Ryan turned up late, doodled on the papers, with pictures of his parents arguing, and was intentionally inefficient with time when answering the questions.
When his exam grades were released his parents were eager to see them, for they thought a trip far away to a university would get him away from the corrupting influences of his girlfriend and get his life back on track. They fell apart in front of his eyes when he told them he had failed. It was the first time that Ryan had ever failed a subject and he had failed every exam this time with less than fifty percent correct answers. Ryan said ‘Oh well, what can you do?’ He understood that his parents would blame his girlfriend and his cannabis use. They had no idea he hated them. His parents were deeply hurt, despairing and increasingly argued with each other. Their despondency was increased when, shortly after, Ryan got a job at a local supermarket and moved in with his girlfriend. He knew how much this would hurt them, but this was his way of ending their hopes that he would ever be studying law at a top university.
Throughout this traumatic and sad experience Ryan does not express his anger directly to his parents once. They never realise he is angry with them. He uses this and creates situations that keep his anger hidden by having blame attributed to his girlfriend and cannabis use. Passive-aggressive people are often very intellectual and naturally bright people, yet they all share in common an inability, for whatever reason, to express their anger directly. It may be considered inferior to express anger or be fear of retaliation that at first pushes the anger out of awareness and overtime suppression eventually leads to repression. Family taboos have long been associated with the creation of this ‘screening off’ process that begins from an early age in the associative networks or psychological architecture of children. In the repressed, more pathological, cases the serious dysfunctional behaviour that is created is an uncontrollable expression of the repressed feelings. It is uncontrollable behaviour because the passionate motivating feelings are below awareness, so the emotions cannot be consciously controlled.
Just like the well educated young woman that drops out of college due to an unplanned pregnancy and moves in with a person she know her parents will hate. Passive-aggressive children will usually be able to recollect in a confidential, trusting and non-threatening, environment times when they have felt deeply betrayed by their parents and be shocked by the deep and overwhelming feelings of resentment they discover. Yet they may be unaware and unwilling to accept those feelings have any bearing on their behaviour. In their minds they can intellectually separate emotions from actions and so decide that there is no connection between the two. This is a common characteristic of over-intellectuals that have an under-developed understanding of emotions.
It is very useful to remember this when witnessing highly intellectual people doing seemingly stupid and uncontrollable things. For the seemingly highly intelligent person who cannot understand why they act in such ways, it can be an incredibly uncomfortable intellectual realisation that causes deep psychological disarray. Trying to reconcile their intellectual prowess with their uncontrollably dysfunctional behaviour is often hindered by the feelings of guilt that arise from owning the troubling situations that have manifested due to their recently discovered feelings. Guilt and the fear of punishment may desperately be avoided at a time of already tense psychological disarray. Guilt and fear of repercussions alone stops many people from ever accepting their anger. These reasons coupled with the demoralising feelings that are bound to affect the ego’s sense of superiority and control (seeing their self as pathetic) are all common reasons that compel the passive-aggressive person to keep their anger hidden – from the outside world and to their self. Intellect does not equal intelligence, it is a part of intelligence.
THE SECOND MEANING, and less commonly understood, type of passive-aggressive behaviour relates to how cycles can emerge. It is also an explanation of how a build up of anger can cause unconscious behavioural patterns. It is a common phase when a person is trying to break out of a routine of being too passive or too aggressive as they find themselves doing the opposite behaviour as over compensation.
If someone is doing something that angers us, but we remain passive and endure the emotions until they pass, then those negative emotions can build up. Overtime we may feel very resentful with what someone is doing and all of a sudden express a short, but intense, amount of anger towards them. This outburst of anger is ‘over the top’ and ‘out of proportion’ to the current situation, so the person who we have expressed it to feels (or acts) offended and we feel responsible. This then prompts us to become attentive of our reactions and more passive when we are angry again. We endure our anger without expression in an attempt to make up for our uncontrolled outburst, yet this sets us into a path of passiveness again and so our anger builds up overtime until we have another outburst. In this respect we enter into a passive-aggressive cycle, too-passive to too-aggressive, back to too-passive and again to too-aggressive and so on. This is experienced as a rollercoaster ride of emotion.
We all make mistakes. It is ridiculous to suggest that we can express our anger appropriately all of the time. The point is that passive-aggressive type behaviours are expressed by people who have issues around expressing anger and a lack of understanding of anger. It is incredibly common and we all do it to some degree.
Passive-aggressive behaviour is found to be more prevalent in school and office environments than anywhere else in society. Environment which suppress, limit or punish expressions of anger will always be prone to such behaviours.
Eng. = Passive-aggressive behaviour was coined by Colonel W Menninger during the Second World War in the context of the men’s reaction to military compliance. It is now recognised that any organisation, or procedural format, that restricts self-expression is ideal for passive-aggressive behaviour to form.
1. The use of aggression in an indirect way.
2. A cycle of feelings denoted by being too passive for extended periods of time, leading to the bottling up of aggression which is then released in an indirect way, but with an essence of resistance or rebelliousness.
3. Passive-aggressive behaviour can be seen as a defence mechanism that allows people who are not comfortable with expressing aggression directly to the person who is making them angry, so they release the anger at a later point in time and usually at something unrelated to the actual cause. It can be seen as an attempt to avoid confrontation and remain liked.