Therapy Can Work

Katherine Rabinowitz, LP, M.A., NCPsyA

Licensed Psychotherapist & Psychoanalyst
Union Square, Greenwich Village, New York, NY

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Therapy Can Work

Katherine Rabinowitz, LP, M.A., NCPsyA

Licensed Psychotherapist & Psychoanalyst
Union Square, Greenwich Village, New York, NY

What Is True Passive-Aggressive Behavior?  Recognizing It And Dealing With It.

What Is True Passive-Aggressive Behavior?  Recognizing It and Dealing With It.

I think I have some anger-management issues, and they end up coming out
in these passive-aggressive songs that sound happy.

~ Sara Bareilles (Singer/Songwriter)

What does “passive-aggressive” behavior mean, exactly? You hear it a lot these days, and a lot of the time it’s misused. People say passive-aggressive when describing what sounds to me, anyway, pretty plainly and purely aggressive. One of the best definitions of actual passive-aggressive behavior I came across was “being mean with a smile on your face.” Hostility, but delivered indirectly.

Pure aggression is often equated with anger, but this is not necessarily the case. Anger is an emotion – being worked up with heated feelings. Aggression is behavior, and it’s meant to harm, deliberately, but can sometimes occur without anger, though anger is often the motivating underlying prompt for aggressive behavior.

Passive-aggressive behavior isn’t usually that conscious. It can be knowingly deliberate, but isn’t always. It tends to be more subtle, indirect, and often unconscious (hence passive) aggression. It’s a way of expressing negative feelings with oblique remarks or “innocent” behavior, rather than directly expressing them verbally to the person at whom they’re aimed. It has likely built up over years, generating a wellspring of resentment, which creates a reservoir of animosity that comes out in the most curious of behavior patterns.

You’d think someone with this much underlying anger would be willing to let you know about it, but that’s not how it usually plays out. It’s acted out in ways that, in isolated and only occasional incidents, are not problematic. But when you see a consistent pattern of it, you know you’re not dealing with something unusual or very innocent. It’s a way of someone getting back at you (or someone else) but appearing to be totally harmless or even all sweetness and light.

Passive-aggressive people don’t like to say no. They want you to think they’re doing their very best to please, but somehow it never comes out that way. They back out of an already accepted invitation at the last minute, pretending to be “under the weather,” when really they just don’t want to go. So they make up a plausible excuse. Some even pretend they didn’t see the email, or “forgot” to make a note of it, or “something came up” that they couldn’t get out of. But they’re so, so sorry…

At work, a passive-aggressive person is eager to be seen as cooperative, and accepts assignments with absolutely no intention of finishing on time, if ever. Turning in a half-assed job at the last minute is a great way to get revenge. That’ll teach ‘em. (The person was passed over for a promotion, you see.) If you’re at the receiving end of their vengeful behavior (and they surely don’t want to be perceived that way), you might “accidentally” be left off an email list about an important meeting. Oh, did I leave you off the list? I didn’t mean to…sorry. Everyone but you will get a cuppa’ Joe one morning. Or not be acknowledged with a “hey, good morning, how ya’ doin’?” in the hallway.

Here’s another truly passive-aggressive bit of behavior. You’re working very hard to lose some weight, and everyone knows it. Yet how delightful that you’re presented with a cupcake at lunch “just because it’s Friday and I thought you might like it.”

Other indications of a truly passive-aggressive person are stubbornness, procrastination, frequent critical remarks, usually made behind your back, complaining that no one appreciates them, pretending not to understand your explicit directions on how to complete the project (“I’m sorry, could you go through that again? I didn’t quite get it”), then being completely ineffective in how it’s executed.

Here are other indicators of truly passive-aggressive behavior: sullenness, perpetually “running late,” the silent treatment, self-pitying remarks that exhibit envy – “oh that’s sounds like a GREAT vacation you guys are taking. I wish I could do that, but of course it’ll never happen. I never get to do stuff like that.” You respond with an encouraging answer something along the lines of maybe you can make that happen on your next vacation, and are met with Oh, don’t worry, it’s fine. And fine is said so emphatically you know it’s not at all fine.

Perhaps the worst of all is the back-handed compliment, often appended with an implied or direct “but,” and is actually a pretty explicit insult. For example, “I don’t mean to come off insensitive – I really LOVE that new bag you have, but don’t you think it’s a little big for someone as petite as you?” A loudly disappointed “Oh,” when you show your engagement ring. Or, “I really would have chosen a lighter color for this room, but this works, I guess…” in your new home that you’re thrilled with.

I think by now you get the picture. Now that you understand what truly “passive-aggressive” behavior is and isn’t (that when you call it passive-aggressive, what it often really is is downright aggressive), what do you do about it? How do you handle it?

Become aware that the behavior is a pattern, not a one-time incident. When you do recognize it for what it is, accept it, and don’t blame yourself – you’re not crazy. You’re probably not the first person who it’s been directed at. Turnabout in this situation is not fair play. Tit-for-tat only sets up future escalation, and is passive-aggressive on your part as well. Hold back on your own anger. If you call the person on it, it’s just as likely that it will be denied, didn’t mean it, was “just kidding” (I love that one, because you know damn well they’re not just kidding).

Set boundaries, and stick to them. If the person has canceled on you several times, make it clear this is the last invitation, and prompt arrival is mandatory. If the “trains were running late” (you can check that), the boss called a last minute meeting just as they were leaving, or whatever the excuse for being late or a no-show, don’t backtrack and reschedule. That person is henceforth persona non grata.

The best response is no response. Ignore both it and the person dishing it out. If you don’t show irritation, don’t betray being provoked, there’s no reward in it for them, so they no longer have a motive for continuing it. So just keep your distance.

One other point: are you the one exhibiting passive-aggressive behavior? Take a good hard look at why people in the office are avoiding you; why you were the one passed over for promotion; why you were not invited out for a drink after work, or on the group outing. Are you a sulker and tend to blame others for your mistakes? Somehow always finding a way that it’s not your fault? Are you sarcastic? A procrastinator when it’s crucial to produce good work and hand it in on time?

If you recognize yourself in any of what I wrote above, give yourself permission and time to change your style. Your current behavior no longer serves you well (if it ever did), and you would do yourself a big favor if you 1) accepted responsibility for it, 2) held yourself accountable, 3) found ways to work through whatever anger, low self-esteem or other underlying issues are creating the impetus for your behavior.

Remember that your behavior is your responsibility. You’re in charge of it. You can change it. If necessary, seek professional help to guide you through the morass of emotions that have taken hold and steered you in the wrong direction.

You do realize that passive-aggressive behavior is aggressive behavior for cowards, right?

~ Carolyn McCray (Thriller/Mystery Author)

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