How to Identify and Correct Passive Aggressive Behavior
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Passive aggressive behavior is insidious. It is covertly destructive and difficult to address. Many people who exhibit passive aggressive behavior don’t have the wherewithal to consciously identify it within themselves; it is ingrained and a reflection of their inability to properly communicate their displeasure or anger. Some people only react this way toward specific people—a spouse, parent, or employer. However, many exemplify this trait as a part of their character.
Whether you are having difficulty dealing with a person who exhibits passive aggressive behavior or you suspect that you may be the offender, passive aggressive conduct is easy to spot once you’re aware of the signs. Passive aggressive people typically…
· Are resentful
· Act like the victim
· Demonstrate hostility
· Complain and criticize
· Give the silent treatment
· Intentionally sabotage themselves and others
Other subtle behaviors exist in the repertoire of a person with a passive aggressive personality. And that’s the key to this type of behavior: it is meant to be subtle. Overt action requires confession, communication, and assertiveness. For whatever reason, mostly because it is natural to avoid conflict, people who act this way do so to undermine and harm another person. But it’s not nice to do these things on purpose, so they passively aggravate.
Why Passive Aggressive Behavior Occurs
People who demonstrate passive aggressiveness, or a negativistic personality, act as such because direct communication is difficult for them. There are a number of reasons for this type of conduct, such as perfectionist tendencies, fear of confrontation, pessimism, being overly critical, etc. Basically, many of their personality traits influence this reaction. Instead of being clear about their intentions, emotions, and needs, they try to make another person feel their negativity through less direct means. It is an excuse not to develop individually and take responsibility for their being uncomfortable with certain emotions.
Passive aggressive behavior is common. Instinctively, people don’t like conflict. Our brains will do anything to avoid it. Of course, individual characteristics typically dictate this type of behavior, but more importantly, societal norms foster this type of conduct. Although anger is a basic human emotion, we have moved in a direction that labels anger as unhealthy. Instead of diffusing anger in a healthy manner, many people repress it. Here’s where the passive aggressiveness comes out. In addition, we’re also taught through societal norms that we should avoid making people feel badly. Again, passive aggressive behavior is a means of sugarcoating reality.
Not only is it easier to avoid conflict, but it puts people in a more commanding position. For instance, instead of telling your spouse you resent their constant demands (even though they may be miniscule), you agree to clean out the shed. But rather than clean the shed, you do odds and ends around the house, doing anything but cleaning out the shed. This behavior isn’t just procrastination. It is a form of vengeance, which serves two purposes: it punishes and projects blame. Not only have you not given your spouse what they’ve requested, regardless of how warranted their demands, but you’ve put them in a compromising position. They can either clean out the shed themselves or become a nag. Even worse, you’ve avoided any blame, because this motivation is difficult to establish. If they blame you for neglecting their needs, you simply explain that you hadn’t got to the chore yet. How unfair.
Put an End to Passive Aggressiveness
Development needs to occur within the offender. Although there are ways to deal more effectively with someone who is passive aggressive, it is impossible to remedy the situation without their self-reflection and effort.
For people trying to deal with others’ passive aggressiveness:
Step 1: Approach this type of behavior without taking personal offense.
People who act in a passive aggressive manner do so because they have an issue. Most likely, you are not the reason for their conduct, and you should remove any emotions that make the situation personal.
Step 2: Stay away if you can.
This is not always easy. Your work may depend upon them, you may be married to them, or they may be your parent. However, for your health and well-being, keep your distance when possible. I know this sounds harsh, but chronic passive aggressiveness will hurt you.
Step 3: Be the bigger person.
You can only control yourself. Don’t be baited into their negativity. If possible use humor to diffuse the situation. Regardless of the seriousness of a situation, use clear communication. But do not exhaust yourself with unwinnable arguing. Be firm, direct, and focus on your emotions—not their behaviors. Always maintain composure.
Step 4: Make them rethink their resistance.
It may be possible to create consequences for someone who acts this way. For example, if your spouse does not clean out the shed by a certain day, pay someone to do it. It’s not a huge consequence, but the work will get done with or without them, and now it’s cost you money.
If you want to stop your own passive aggressive behavior for personal growth:
Step 1: Recognize that it is okay to be angry.
Anger is not an emotion to avoid; it is an emotion to handle. Manage it with by communicating your emotions, or releasing its severity through exercise and other activities before responding to someone else.
Step 2: Identify patterns in your behavior (and the reactions of others).
It may be difficult to realize that you’re acting in a certain way. However, you may begin to sense other people’s negative reactions to your behaviors. You may also feel constantly frustrated, because you can’t clearly communicate your emotions. Take note of individuals that you treat this way. Identify situations when this occurs. Detect which behaviors you use most often, and which types of events you react to.
Step 3: Recognize your inclination for negativity.
Most likely, your anger is misplaced. If you are someone who regularly uses passive aggression to “communicate”, then you get upset over things you shouldn’t. This negativity can stem from a variety of characteristics: perfectionism, being a people pleaser, never feeling good enough, always feeling like someone is out to get you, etc. Try to identify the root cause behind your inability to address your emotions. Are you afraid of being reprimanded by a supervisor? Are you resentful that your spouse asks too much of you? Do you feel as if the world owes you more?
Step 4: Embrace necessary conflicts.
This is not an excuse to fight, but becoming more assertive will help you to develop healthier relationships and reactions. Practice telling someone how you feel. If you are angry with your boss for giving you too much responsibility and not enough pay, address this situation or accept it. If you are afraid of making a mistake, so you purposefully put off a project your spouse asked you to do, be open about your fears. Instead of punishing them for your avoidance, your confession may help them see your perspective. Communication is contagious. It breeds empathy and ensures progress.
- Melissa Lavery, M.S.
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