The term passive aggression was first used at the end of World War II. A colonel in the U.S. Army used it to describe the immature behavior of the men under his command. These troops would become intentionally unresponsive and would carry out orders they disliked in a sluggish or ineffective way. They did this in order to preserve some level of independence in a very structured system.
Simultaneously Passive and Aggressive
A seemingly paradoxical term, passive-aggression asks the question: How can a person be both passive and aggressive at the same time? It is a misconception to think that those who exhibit passive-aggressive behavior swing between the two behaviors. They are not willfully and aggressively seeking to control others at one point and responding in a self-effacing or passive manner at another point. The truth is that a passive-aggressive individual is not passive at one point and aggressive at another, depending on the circumstances. Rather, the passive-aggressive person is simultaneously passive and aggressive. The paradox exists because the individual renounces the aggression as it is happening.
A Form of Indirect Communication
Passive-aggressive behavior takes on many forms but can generally be described as a non-verbal aggression that manifests itself in negative behavior. It occurs when you express your negative emotions indirectly, instead of addressing them assertively. It is manifested when you are angry with someone but you do not or cannot tell them so. Instead of communicating honestly when you feel upset, annoyed, irritated, or disappointed, you may instead bottle up the feelings, shut up verbally, give angry looks, make obvious changes in your behavior, be obstructive, sulky, or put up a stone wall. Passive-aggressive behavior may also involve directly avoiding requests from others by evading or creating confusion around the issue. People who are passive-aggressive are often resentful and resist others’ demands and/or expectations. This type of behavior often stems from a person’s desire to avoid conflict. The truth is that passive-aggressive men and women usually have low self-esteem and feel insecure and powerless much of the time. They use passive-aggressive behavior as a coping mechanism.
Passive-aggression is a destructive pattern of behavior that can be seen as a form of emotional abuse. It erodes trust between people in relationships. It occurs when negative emotions and feelings build up and are then held in because of a self-imposed need for either acceptance by another, dependence on others, or to avoid even further arguments or conflict. It is a negative form of communication that can create immense hurt, confusion, and pain to all involved.
Examples of Passive-Aggressive Behavior
- Non-communication when there is clearly something problematic that needs to be discussed.
- Self-pity or the “poor me” scenario.
- Blaming others for situations rather than taking responsibility for your own actions or being able to take an objective view of the situation as a whole.
- Learned helplessness where a person continually acts as if they cannot help themselves by doing a poor job of something for which they are responsible.
- Avoiding or ignoring people or situations when you are so angry that you feel you cannot speak calmly.
- Evading problems and issues.
- Procrastinating by intentionally putting off important tasks for less important ones.
- Obstructing by deliberately stalling or preventing an event or process of change.
- Ambiguity by being cryptic, unclear, or not fully engaging in conversations.
- Sulking or being silent, morose, sullen, and resentful in order to get attention or sympathy.
- Chronic lateness can be a way to put you in control of others and their expectations.
- Making excuses or always coming up with reasons for not doing something.
Where Does Passive-Aggressive Behavior Come From?
All of us have impulses to protect our dignity and well-being. Healthy social interaction includes direct and assertive communication where we share what we think, feel, and believe. But in a complex culture, we are often subject to the power and opinions of others, and sometimes it is difficult and challenging to confront this power. Being unable to assert one’s thoughts and opinions can naturally lead to a feeling of resentment, which leads to some type of personal resistance. The roots of passive-aggressive behavior are often learned in childhood. The parents of passive-aggressive adults raised their children to be agreeable, polite, and willing to submerge their needs, thoughts, and feelings for the sake of cooperation. Disagreement, conflict, and the open expression of needs and differences were often viewed as impolite and disruptive. Perhaps these parents were stressed, and physically or emotionally unable to deal with their children’s needs. Perhaps these parents were emotionally absent, or saw the expression of feelings as a sign of weakness, or as more than the parent desired to cope with. Whatever the reason, their children learned to submerge their true feelings, thoughts, and needs in order to cope and to gain people’s approval.
Responding with hostility is not the main goal of passive-aggressive behavior. However, if you are on the receiving end of this type of behavior it may seem that way. Passive-aggressive people are not hostile jerks, but they are fearful of being controlled and forced to share and communicate in a way that is uncomfortable. They have learned to frustrate and obstruct others’ ways in order to get their point across without a proper expression of thought and feeling. Relationships that involve dependency, intimacy, and some level of control are most apt to activate their passive-aggression. So coworkers, supervisors, friends, and especially spouses need to be aware that they are at risk of becoming the passive-aggressive person’s dancing partner.
Christian Counseling for Growth and Change
The Bible tells us that if the truth sets us free we will be free indeed. A Christian counselor who understands these and other spiritual and emotional dynamics can gently point you to a place where you can choose to gain insight and understanding. Empathy for you as a person in a safe therapy environment can help you to make healthy choices rather than letting other dynamics dictate your direction and behavior. As a Christian counselor, I would look forward to working with you or your loved one. Together we can unpack the reasons behind your challenge and help you to redirect your life and communication in a way that is best for you and those around you.
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