You’re having a conversation at a party. It sounds normal enough, but something doesn’t feel right, although you can’t quite put your finger on what. You recognize that your friend is telling you something without telling you something — “I normally don’t like the way you dress, but that dress looks great on you!” she says.
Ouch. It hits you: She’s being passive aggressive.
Passive-aggressive behavior is a way of expressing anger in a seemingly non-hostile way — a deliberate and masked way of expressing covert feelings. It’s a behavior that encompasses more than just eye rolls and faux compliments; it involves a range of actions designed to get back at another person without him or her recognizing the underlying anger.
What Makes People Passive Aggressive?
Passive-aggressive behavior, while expressed in many different ways (sarcasm, the silent treatment, running late, to name a few), has the same roots: There is an underlying fear and avoidance of direct conflict, yet a feeling of powerlessness and helplessness.
There can be a number of reasons for the cause of the behavior. One is from a fear of anger. Most of us learn when growing up that it is bad to express anger inappropriately. The passive aggressive person has learned that expressing anger in any way is bad and that he or she is bad for feeling anger.
Another reason is based on upbringing. Children who are raised by overly controlling parents, in an environment where self-expression is not permitted, are forced to learn other ways to express feelings of anger and hostility. Since they are dependent upon their parents, they risk punishment if they don’t do as their parents say. Therefore, they lash out at their parents covertly and maintain that behavior into adulthood.
There are many other biological and environmental factors that can contribute to the development of passive aggressive behavior. A few of these include:
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
- Anxiety disorders
- Bipolar disorder
- Alcohol abuse
- Drug withdrawal
How to Stop Your Passive Aggressive Behavior
Whether you find yourself in a relationship with someone who displays their anger in a passive-aggressive manner, or you recognize such behavior patterns within yourself, consider eliminating this communication style in order to relate to others in a healthier, more effective way.
Learn to recognize the behavior, check your perceptions, confront it, and create a safe space to communicate in more assertive ways.
1. Recognize your behavior
The best way to nip passive aggressive behavior in the bud is to become aware of when you’re reacting in a passive aggressive way.
2. Understand why your behavior should be changed
It’s important to realize that passive-aggression is not less aggressive simply because it’s passive. Essentially, passive-aggression is an indirect form of aggression — not necessarily a milder form of aggression.
3. Give yourself time
Recognizing your own behaviors and understanding them is a good first step toward change, but altering your patterns and reactions can take some time.
4. Realize it’s OK to be angry
You can still be a positive person and feel emotions we typically label as negative. And you can be a loving friend, girlfriend, boyfriend, wife, husband, mother, father, son, or daughter while feeling anger in response to something the other person has done.
5. Be assertive, not aggressive
State facts clearly and be clear about your opinions. Let the person know the impact of her behavior in clear statements.
6. Be open to confrontation
While directing expressing your needs can lead to potential confrontation, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Keep in mind that confrontation can be direct and respectful — even if positivity isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you think of it.
Believe in Yourself
Avoiding the slide into passive aggressiveness requires closing the gap between anger and silence — either by dissipating anger or breaking the silence. The more you believe that you have the right to express your wants and needs, the less likely you are to fear being swayed by others’ opinions or rejected for voicing what you want. And the less you fear those things, the more direct you’re likely to be.
It’s a long, often difficult journey, but as a first step, practice listening to what you want and giving it to yourself. If you begin to treat your desires as important and valid and experience how good that feels, you’ll start to believe that you deserve similar treatment from other people.