Understanding Passive-Aggressive Behavior

BY MARCIA SIROTA MD

Passive-aggressive behavior is an extremely troublesome but misunderstood phenomenon. People frequently accuse each other of engaging in it without really understanding what it is. On the other hand, when they encounter the real thing, they’re unable to recognize it and are therefore victimized by those who employ it.

So who is a passive-aggressive person, really? Essentially, it’s someone who engages in the indirect expression of anger. This person is unable to acknowledge to themselves or to others that they are angry, so they unconsciously bury this feeling deep in their psyche. Unfortunately, buried emotions have a way of leaking out, as I’ll soon demonstrate.

Anger is a complicated emotion. In our society, it’s both celebrated (see any action or payback movie) and reviled. Anger is seen as both powerful and dangerous; both the path to success and a sign of destructiveness.

It’s difficult for us to separate anger from violence or to see images of anger expressed constructively anywhere in the media. We’re given mixed messages about this emotion and if we grow up with parents who tell us that our anger was “bad,” our confusion worsens.

Some people might have had a raging parent, and having seen this inappropriate expression of anger, come to feel that any anger is terrible and begin to repress it within themselves.

All of these things go into making someone passive-aggressive. Psychologically, this person needs to have an outlet for their repressed anger but is terrified to let it out. They fear that their anger might hurt others or that they’ll be punished for showing it. On the other hand, like any feeling, it pushes against the unconscious barriers to be released.

The anger, like any emotion, has to be expressed. If the person is unable or unwilling to let it out, their unconscious mind finds a different way, which is to make the people around them angry. The feeling gets expressed, but vicariously.

Examples of such behavior are chronic lateness, forgetfulness; losing borrowed objects; breaking dishes while washing up; forgetting to lock the front door; not closing the back door and allowing the dog to escape. All these behaviors serve to upset and enrage others.

When the recipient of this behavior becomes angry, they are told that they’re over-reacting; that it was an accident; that it wasn’t done on purpose. This makes the person on the receiving end all the more angry. Interestingly, once the other person explodes in anger, the passive-aggressive one feels a great sense of relief, as if it were they themselves who was releasing this pent-up rage.

The treatment of this condition is to come to terms with one’s anger and to recognize that it’s not necessarily a bad emotion; just one which needs appropriate expression. For the person on the receiving end, this behavior is abusive and if they can’t get their loved one to stop it, the only solution might be to walk away.

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