Through my work as life coach, I have seen just how destructive anger can be, both when it is expressed in uncontrolled, wildly aggressive ways, but also when it is acted out in highly controlled and yet hidden behavior—passive-aggression. The last resort of the powerless…
Passive-aggressive behavior is a methodical but furtive way of expressing feelings of anger. It is motivated, for the most part, by a person being afraid to express anger directly. The passive-aggressive person feels that things will get worse if the other person was aware of their anger, or lack of desire to perform some task, so they show the feelings in an indirect way. They use a variety of actions—lack of action—to subtly “get back” at the other person. Indeed, anger itself is usually felt or experienced as an uncomfortable emotion, so the passive-aggressive person can get some genuine pleasure out of frustrating the other person. Jody Long labels it the “angry smile.”
Do you ever have times when your dealings with someone leave you feeling like you are on an emotional roller coaster? Likely as not you are dealing with a passive-aggressive person. Here are some of the common things to look for.
- They withdraw and sulk, rather than asserting their opinions or what they need.
- They regularly use words like “fine” and “whatever” to end a discussion rather than agreeing or disagreeing.
- They perform tasks inefﬁciently, or they procrastinate.
- They agree to do tasks differently moving forward, while knowing they don’t plan to change their behavior in any meaningful way.
The definitive sign and their private goal, is that passive-aggressive people trigger others to finally blow up and act out the anger that the passive-aggressive person has secretly been embracing.
There are all kinds of reason (some of them good) why people choose to cover their anger, but what almost all passive-aggressive people share is that they grew up in conditions that made hiding their anger the only safe choice. For the sake of clarity, let me give you two examples of what I mean:
- It is common knowledge that some people were/are raised in homes where they know they will be dealt a terribly harsh punishment or some kind of delayed penalty if they show any kind of dissatisfaction or unhappiness. They grow up walking on eggshells around angry, aggressive, authoritarian parents/adults, learning at an early age that the safe option is to hide their feelings.
- At the other end of the spectrum, there are those people who grew up in families that appearances mean absolutely everything. The natural, human emotion of anger is always suppressed to support the family image. In this type of superficially “perfect family,” children are taught to think that anger = bad, and that good little boys and girls never show their anger.
In both kinds of families, children learn that an open, honest, direct expression of anger would is intolerable. It is easy to forget that regardless of the rules, these feelings don’t just disappear. Instead, they can re-appear in structured, but underground misbehaviors. Think of things like carrying out tasks incorrectly or acting like they don’t hear their name being called, all things that create minor but habitual frustration for whomever is in charge in their lives.
There are five separate and increasingly unreasonable echelons, or levels, of passive-aggressive behavior, from the commonplace to the truly problematic. Learning to quickly see the behavior at any level is the initial step to circumvent being dragged into a passive-aggressive cycle. It is a power struggle with no winners. Here are what I think of as the levels. See if any of them resonate with you or what you see in your world.
Level 1: Temporary Obedience
At this level, the passive-aggressive person appears to agree with a request, but actually delays performing it. For example, in a home setting a parent might ask their child to work on their homework quietly at their table. For most kids, this is an ordinary request, but for a passive-aggressive child who feels angry and resentful at having to complete their homework, their response might be to nod yes when the parent makes eye contact with him, yet find every excuse in the book, from going to the bathroom to getting up to feed the dog, to asking the parent a thousand and one questions, or distracting everyone around them with what would otherwise be considered cute behavior. Every time the young person is re-directed by the parent, there is a reasonable explanation; he drank too much water at lunch, he doesn’t understand the assignment, his pencil wouldn’t write…and on it goes! But when the parent starts to notice that it isn’t just little things, but instead a continuing way of responding to unwanted tasks, they need to understand that this behavior is a form of passive aggression.
The same precaution goes out to employers as well. When employees show patterns of hidden hostility such as delaying tactics, never-ending excuses, and all-to-convenient forgetfulness, be aware that they, too, might just be indulging in passive-aggressive behavior.
What to Do
What are your choices when dealing with passive-aggressive behavior at this level? Early recognition is most important. The tangible danger of passive-aggressive behavior is that it often sneaks up on you, silently amassing a long list of minor but irritating infractions. Then, out of the blue, you get one more excuse or one more delay, and you find yourself unexpectedly at the limit of your patience. The mother raises her voice, the father hands out unexpectedly harsh punishments, or the teacher ultimately reveals in front of the whole class that they have lost control of their emotions. The employer shows visibly the signs of stress that he or she operates under daily and makes a public bad choice. The passive-aggressive person, by contrast, sits there cool as ever, having completely frustrated the authority figure and being the cause of their acting out the anger the passive-aggressive person concealed. Recognizing the telltale signs of passive-aggressive behavior before getting caught up in it is the primary tactic for all of us.
Level 2: Deliberately Ineffective
Here the passive-aggressive person verbally complies with a request—and yet unlike in Level 1, they actually perform the task, but they do it in a way that is resolutely below the expected norms. For example, in a school setting, (my wife is a teacher so I hear about these sometimes) that same student I mentioned will get started on his assignment right away, but out of the blue he writes with totally illegible handwriting or turns in such nonsense answers that it is obvious to all that he is defiant in his compliance.
What To Do
One of the best ways to deal with this kind of passive-aggressive behavior is to mindfully set crystal clear expectancies from the beginning. In the event that a student turns in sloppy, careless work or your kid describes “cleaning their room” as stuffing all their junk under the bed, you can refer back to your expectations that you made clear at the beginning of the assignment. That gives you the ability to re-direct the child/student/employee to improve their work.
Level 3: Permitting a Problem to Worsen
At this third level of passive-aggressive behavior, what you encounter are “crimes of omission.” It isn’t really what the person does, but rather what they don’t do that causes the problem. For example, I had a client who shared with me that he was pissed at his boss because he felt embarrassed by him in front of his peers by being used as a teaching example for some simple mistake. Being unable to talk to his employer about his feelings, he decided to just show him. The next day, as the shop was being inspected by the compliance director, his boss began having trouble finding the records of tasks completed. First, he couldn’t find the remote to advance the slides on his PowerPoint presentation, then he couldn’t get the speakers to work so that he could play the sound part of the presentation. My client knew very well that the remote had fallen into the guy’s briefcase earlier in the day and that the outlet he was using for the speakers has dead, having used it himself earlier in the week. Instead of telling him what he knew, helping his boss out, he chose to sit in his seat, quietly satisfied and feeling like the public embarrassment was quid pro quo for the humiliation he imagined receiving at the hands of his boss.
What To Do
This kind of passive aggression can be especially frustrating for adults to cope with, when young people can reasonably say, “I didn’t do anything.” In most cases, it‘s hard to prove otherwise. In this kind of situation, your best option is to be calm and be a role model for those around you on how to deal with difficult and frustrating situations that life can deal you. By not losing your cool and blaming others and staying calm, looking for solutions, the leader plays an important role in showing how to be angry in a healthy way.
Level 4: Secretive Mindful Vengeance
At this level, the passive-aggressive person isn’t holding back any longer, but rather they are actively seeking ways to get hidden but conscious revenge on you or who they are angry with. There are a lot of hilarious examples of this kind of passive aggression, such as the wife who is so pissed at her husband for not helping her with the house that she leaves their home for the day to go shopping with the TV remote and his car keys in her purse. The internet is packed with memes showing hilarious images of hidden revenge. Yes, the lengths that some people go to hide their anger can really be quite funny, yet the truth is that this kind of passive aggression can be very serious—and very destructive.
What To Do
Here is something for adults who face Level 4 passive-aggressive behavior from children to keep in mind. First, find a way to eliminate any gratification that the person gets from the passive-aggressive behavior. Second, establish logical and understandable consequences for their behavior if they pursue their destructive ends. When this is done in a fair and firm way, where you convey “zero-tolerance” for the behavior while still showing acceptance and understanding of the offending person’s emotional state, you will start to see the beginning of the end of their need for their anger to be expressed in damaging, passive-aggressive ways.
Level 5: Self-Destruction
This last level is what I call “self-destruction” because the passive-aggressive person is so determined at getting back at someone that they are more than willing to act in self-destructive ways. It matters not to them that their actions might lead to their own personal rejection, alienation, or even harm.
I knew a young woman raised in a family that was absolutely authoritarian. As part of their culture, no young people were ever permitted to openly argue with their elders, and their father’s authority was absolute in the home. Her parents had made the decision that their daughter would go to law school and become a lawyer, but they young woman was extremely talented and wanted to go to music school. She secured a scholarship from Julliard. Rather than daring to openly assert her hopes and dreams to her parents, the young lady intentionally failed her science and math classes in high school, thus sabotaging her college applications. She successfully kept herself out of the colleges her parents hoped she would attend, but it also killed her chance to go to Julliard.
What To Do
People who are willing to cause serious, lasting harm to themselves through passive-aggressive acts of self-destruction need people to recognize their behavior for what it truly is. The ability to distinguish their true emotions from the clatter and noise of their destructive behavior is absolutely essential to prevent more, possibly riskier self-destruction from occurring. At this level, you might just be observing a pattern that will require the professional intervention of a therapist.
That Angry Smile
So, getting back to that “angry smile” again… I hope that you now are better able to see that can appear in a variety of forms—lack of action—to subtly “get back” at the other person….perhaps even you. So when you see it for what it is… recognize that the person feels that this is their last resort in what they see as an impossible situation…whether it is one of your creation or not. Like all of us, they too are doing the best that they can go get safely through their day.
Do you struggle with or run into passive-aggressive behavior in your life? I would love to hear about how you handle it in your life .
If you would like to talk, schedule a time for a call and let’s give it a go.
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