Passive Aggression is the scourge of any relationship--romantic, familial, casual, or professional.
In the same dysfunctional and resentment-making family as the expectations for perfectionism and mind-reading, passive aggression is born from the same strain: need for control amidst perceived powerlessness, re-combined with immaturity, lack of awareness, difficulty regulating emotions, communication ineptitude, and a dash of disrespect a la superiority complex.
First, what does Passive-Aggression look like? Obviously it is being aggressive (in some form, whether resistance, delay, quiet sabotage, negativity, making a sign of disapproval instead of , constructive, respectful, tactful, up-front statement, or otherwise doing the negative opposite of what is reasonably expected or has been agreed to or assured) in a very subtle, usually non-confrontational form while claiming to acquiesce or comply.
I’m going to use a quote from Natasha Adamo of Post Male Syndrome’s post “Passive Aggressive: Are You? Is He? Here’s What To Do” because you can’t improve on perfection, and these examples are perfect examples indeed: “Does any of this sound familiar?…
Are you dating someone that makes you feel better than you’ve ever felt one minute and then somehow, gets you to feel more heartbroken, angry, psychotic, jealous and guilty than ever before?
Are you friends with or do you work with someone who’s totally accommodating and kind, making you feel like you’re 'in' one minute and then the next minute, withdrawals and turns icy while making you feel bad for doing some unknown thing that must have made them recoil?
Do you know anyone that has to continually take your loyalty temperature all in the name of 'I’m looking for something serious?' It’s like they put you through a series of never ending 'tests' to see what they can get away with, all while appearing to give a f*ck and passively disintegrating your boundaries & self-esteem?
Do you have any family members that say they’re fine with something, but then make you feel guilty for doing the very thing that they were supposedly totally fine with?
Do you know anyone that consistently gives you back-handed compliments?
Ever had a friend that out of the blue ignores you until you ask them if you did something wrong?
Do you feel like you’re dating a score keeper? Everything is counted. Tit for tat.
Have you ever tried to express yourself to someone and they answer with a 'are you kidding me?' 'you’re crazy to think that!' 'wtf is wrong with you?' or they accuse you of insecurity that they have passively contributed to over time?
Do you know anyone that has to announce that they’re doing a good deed for you (whether it be on social media or in person), with the sole intention of making you feel incapable, less than and inferior?
Do you know anyone that TALKS like they are deeply invested and care, but behaves like they’re too distracted to ACT according to their words?
Are you dating someone that says all the right things but consistently stalls, postpones their promises and shuts down the conversation whenever it becomes too emotional? Do they make you feel like you’re being too needy (even though you’re asking for basics like honesty and respect)?
Have you ever been that person? I can definitely answer 'yes' to everything. If you answered yes to any of the above questions, you’re most likely dealing with a passive aggressive person or you’re exhibiting signs of passive aggressive behavior yourself.”
Me too, Natasha Adamo. Me too.
Why do we engage in Passive-Aggression?
Passive-Aggression is how we maintain an inauthentic image (like being ”cool” when something actually bothers us), or how we get our way when we are afraid we won’t, or otherwise know we probably shouldn’t (it would be unscrupulous; we should be kind and generous; we agreed to a commitment; etc.). It’s a form of Voting With Your Feet, but instead of being honest and up-front about the direction you are going, the whole time you’re claiming that you’re going one way when, in fact, you are doing as much as possible to stand still or go in the other direction...and letting resentment build both in you AND the other person.
Usually we learn the advantages of Passive-Aggressive feet-voting in childhood. For many of us, it was the only logical and/or practical response to a lifetime dilemma of either surrendering our soul and dying as an autonomous individual, or to emotionally survive despite “authorities” who had no interest in who we actually were and what we wanted to be and do (and instead demanded we be what they wanted/needed/expected us to be at all times)--authorities who never allowed us to say the word “no” or to openly assert our independence, Real Self, or opinions. (In Chinese Face Reading, this leads to a single, deep crevasse between the eyebrows called "suspended needle", formed from holding in your power. I have had one since at least the age of 13).
Even if we still eventually had to do what we were told and were ignored or disdained, we had done all we could. We had made a statement as far as we could without severe repercussions, we had reminded ourselves that we still existed with a will of our own, and we had thrown a wrench, however small and brittle, into the works of whatever we disagreed with (but were coerced into anyways).
For a moment we were a one-man protest movement and we felt the thrill of our power and non-conformity and doing what we wanted (or doing what we didn't want to do HOW we wanted) in the ocean of our powerlessness.
That’s powerful, and that sticks with you.
Combine frequent practice with seeing the same behavior modelled over and over in the power dynamics between those same authorities resisting each other under the cover of platitudes and the image of “good manners”...
And by adulthood (especially in the heat of the moment), it’s easy to have forgotten that there are any other feasible or effective ways to handle conflict.
The idea that it is never safe to verbally assert your right to say “no”, leave, or to openly, honestly express ourselves or negotiate or re-negotiate is thoroughly imbrued in thought patterns that, when examined and questioned as a logical adult (instead of a dependent and malleable child), reveal themselves to be insane: *It seems perfectly logical that the only way for people to know what you want or what you are thinking is to read your mind. Speaking your mind is not safe, plus they should *know* you (and your ideas are really the only ones that can possibly make sense in the situation anyway). If they don’t read your mind it is THEY who are willfully passively-aggressing against YOU, and you have every right to become angry, resentful, and attack in kind.
*Instead of truly sticking up for yourself; walking away and being okay; allowing (and being okay with) the other person to have the option to walk away; or finding a compromise that is mutually satisfactory...YOU force YOURSELF into doing something you don’t want to do WHILE creating the same resentment and helplessness in the other person that you are so familiar with.
They feel helpless because you are sending so many mixed signals and cloaking your defiance that they aren’t sure what is going on or what to do next.
You self-sabotage your reputation because word quickly gets around that you always somehow manage to inexplicably cause a multitude of problems and are a (very polite, congenial) pain in the ass to deal with that, despite being “very nice” still leaves everyone feeling dirty somehow...
And you find yourself ghosted, avoided, excluded, dumped, moved out on, and/or fired/let go.
All those negative consequences and at the end of the day, you still not only did something you didn’t want to do, you drew the length of it out.
PLUS your fear of being easy to abandon and dislike have again been CONFIRMED. There were no winners.
*Any victories you do have feel hollow because the honorable, kind, consistent TRUE you can’t really enjoy something steeped in an integrity-less, toxic, trauma-filled past.
It just feels like “blood money” and you feel dirty and less-than because sub-consciously, you know your behavior was very unbecoming.
In order to quash the feelings (and because it's impossible to think of anything else to do while you feel your emotional survival is at stake because you feel the shame of being “bad”), you cling to your “victory” harder, double-down because you convince yourself that you just didn’t win “big enough”, and take up unhealthy or detrimental coping mechanisms to deal with the depression (“celebrating” by overspending or overdrinking, etc.).
*When faced with the passive-aggression or toxicity of others, even and especially if they are forthright about their dysfunction and unwillingness to concede to whatever you know you want and deserve, you either do everything you can to out-passive-aggress them in a war of attrition, OR you put on your one-man brass band suit and do everything possible to “be good enough” for them to change.
This in and of itself is, you guessed it, a form of passive-aggressiveness since, instead of letting them be as they are, you are trying to manipulate them into what you want them to be (and crossing their boundaries they clearly stated).
NEWSFLASH: This never works! Once again you self-sabotage by YOU putting YOURSELF in a situation that YOU don’t actually want (while feeling bad and out of control the whole time), then blame the other person.
The tendency to passive-aggress runs so deep we often have no idea we’re even doing it in the moment. What worked “fine” in the artificial, closed system of our childhood home has become the undefinable “bad luck” in our relationships and career that we just can’t seem escape, no matter how promising it starts out, how good our grades were, how much fun we have together, or what we do in general.
Why? Because we create insecurity (and therefore fear and anger) in everyone around us because we can't be counted on to be consistent at anything except disappointment, stress, and a frustrating hassle (which is always remembered by the brain stronger and more vividly than positive interactions...that's just the world we live in).
What matters most, at the end of the day, is how we make people CONSISTENTLY feel overall (the most golden of all feelings is ‘respected’), how reliable we are, how well we deliver. Being an adult boils down, in many ways, to the following:
“Nice guy? I don't give a sh*t. Good father? Fu*k you! Go home and play with your kids. You wanna work here - close! You think this is abuse?...You can't take this, how can you take the abuse you get on a sit? You don't like it, leave. I can go out there tonight with the materials you've got and make myself $15,000. Tonight! In two hours! Can you? Can YOU? Go and do likewise. A-I-D-A... Go and do likewise, gents. Money's out there. You pick it up, it's yours. You don't, I got no sympathy for you. You wanna go out on those sits tonight and close, CLOSE. It's yours. If not, you're gonna be shining my shoes. And you know what you'll be saying - a bunch of losers sittin' around in a bar. 'Oh yeah. I used to be a salesman. It's a tough racket.' These are the new leads. These are the Glengarry leads. And to you they're gold, and you don't get them. Why? Because to give them to you is just throwing them away. They're for closers. I'd wish you good luck but you wouldn't know what to do with it if you got it.”
--Blake, Glengerry Glen Ross (1992)
That’s a pretty tough Dutch-uncle speech but...in many ways, life will tell you the same thing (with a kick to the pants).
So how do we stop being Passive-Aggressive so that we can “close” in our relationships and our career?
AWARENESS. Awareness of how you feel, how you are behaving in regards to how you are feeling (however latent), and how others may feel about how you are behaving.
Passive-Aggressiveness makes a funny meme, but no one in real life thinks it’s cute, nor do they want to be the on-call therapist/punching bag/door mat/wrecking room/clean-up crew for issues you don’t even realize you have.
Make your number one goal that everyone you deal with feels respected. Your behavior should always benefit you and this is one of the absolute most important, if not THE most important, ways to do that: To make everyone feel valued and respected in the truest senses of the words (not just shallow flattery and polite pleasantries and platitudes but with SUBSTANTIAL, RELIABLE ACTION).
Every day, make it a point to:
recognize when you feel the impossible need to be “perfect” or “in complete control”;
recognize when you are being in denial about not following through for people (in the very act of disappointing them);
recognize when you are sending mixed signals;
recognize when you are feeling or being selfish, entitled, CONTEMPTUOUS, and “impositioned” when you are just being a worker/lover/friend/human with the basic level of expected decency and competency. Each time you are able to catch yourself in the act and re-route both mindset and actions is a massive victory for the TRUE SELF that you know you are and should consistently be.
Be honest with yourself about your own feelings and limitations so that you can be honest with other people.
Be honest and COMMUNICATE AS SOON AS POSSIBLE, no matter what you fear the cost will be, if you don't know how long something will take/you're slow/you’re going to be late/they’re going to be disappointed in some way/you can't do something anymore.
The cost of not doing so is always guaranteed to be your reputation and peace of mind, and that is GUARANTEED TOO HIGH.
It's so easy to get caught up in your ideal scenario, the disease to please, or even (subconsciously) getting your nose into the tent to slowly manipulate things into the way you want them to be...but this is the way to create huge cracks in the foundations of your personal security from the massive withdrawls in your relationship bank accounts (as Stephen Covey calls them).
If integrity and your reputation and your relational and career health ("luck") matter to you, you MUST close on what you agreed to, as you agreed to it. If you can’t or won’t, integrity dictates that you be clear about your new intentions as soon as possible with anyone else involved. Even if it’s as simple as not picking up your clothes off the floor, replacing the toilet paper roll, or putting your glass in the dishwasher. Everyone should know your true intentions, most of all YOU.
Because know that your passive-aggressive ACTIONS "sound" just as bad to people as your up-front words. You already know they have similar repercussions in the real world. So this is a great time to be your own accountability buddy by speaking only what you intend to follow through on. You always have the right to opt out, and you need to accept that others have the right to opt out on you. Life is an at-will employer and it’s often the build-up of these “little things” that become the big “deal breaker” that leaves massive emotional collateral damage.
I had agreed to do some copywriting for someone and it was very exciting because I was writing about something I was passionate and knowledgeable about; they seemed very nice; it was a way to increase my skills; and I had set the goal of becoming a copywriter and getting a client and I had accomplished it (I kept a promise to myself, which felt amazing).
This person was interested in doing something I was also interested in and it was even more delightful because there was the possibility of making an ally and growing together. They explained what they needed, I created an outline, we talked on the phone, I created a schedule, wrote a sample that they said they loved...Everything was perfect
Except I didn’t always feel like writing when I was supposed to.
Except I rarely needed anything by a certain date and so time urgency was not important to me and therefore I assumed the “schedule” to be more of a suggestion.
Except I assumed that this client could read my mind when my internet went down or when I had something come up, and I didn’t bother to text them. They had always been so accommodating and only diplomatically hinted at being concerned that it was easy to obliviously turn the agreement I made into a broken one (a lie) since they weren’t “holding my feet to the fire”, playing the authority role I always knew (the Incorrigible Nagger, Unbridled Scold, or the “‘Gotcha!’ Police”).
Being an adult who follows through because they are responsible, accountable, and honest without an overbearing micromanager making non-stop threatening demands seemed like a foreign idea at the moment, so I took some majority liberties...
Except I was in denial about feeling jealous that this work would be making someone else possibly profitable in the field I wanted to be in and that I wanted to keep it for myself--but didn’t feel good about cancelling on them either because I didn’t want to be an outright a$$hole. So even though I had been working on myself and improving my emotional intelligence...I STILL fell back into my old programming because I didn’t take a minute to face myself, what I was really thinking, and what I was really feeling so I could make the best (most honorable) choice from there.
Instead, I blithely, sporadically continued on to let the chips fall where they may (although I was so in love with and grandiose about my own abilities that I was sure the finished product would more than make up for any inconvenience).
Want to guess where the chips fell? The client cancelled the contract with an incredibly polite text that somehow didn’t entirely hide their frustration.
I felt wretched and for a moment, I wasn’t sure why. It wasn’t the loss of the money. I was actually incredibly glad to get to keep the writing for myself because I had poured myself into it and I loved it. I was glad not to have it hanging over my head anymore. I felt like I had really “won”. So why feel so *awful*? A few minutes of internal searching and I realized what that awful feeling was: I felt like I had played dirty. I had made myself look bad; I had, essentially, lied, I had wasted someone’s time and they felt unpleasant towards me. I had been unprofessional, almost obliviously so, and acted beneath my abilities and dignity.
And I was reminded that in spite of all the rapport we had, or how excellent of a job I thought I had done, or just by virtue of being me, I was not “too good for” or “above” being consistent, respectful, or communicative. That I was not above being passed over for a mature adult who would “close”.
It was a lesson the Universe had tried to teach me again and again, through multiple break-ups, getting fired from jobs, self-sabotaging, a dark and unhappy outlook from “bad luck” and never being able to trust happiness or myself, and other lost opportunities.
It was a perfect wake-up call because it made me take a hard look at all the progress I was so cocky about having been making. It was a real-life progress check...a reality check.
I *had* made progress because I was able to realize that *I* had made my “bad luck” and how I had done it...I was at least able to see what I should have done in hindsight this time.
I was able to have more "genuine remorse" than "selfish regret" (as Natasha Adamo has said) this time.
I was able to shift my paradigm from one of “They were nasty, unfair, and unreasonable” to one of “I dropped the ball and it was at least partially, dishonorably, on purpose”.
And I was able to re-route the relationships I still had and the work that I still had to do (that were still riddled with the daily barbs of my contempt that I was in denial about).
I know you will do the same.
Looking back, in 20/20 Hindsight-O-Vision (™), instead of communicating clearly that this would take longer than I thought, my internet connection got interrupted, I was moving (all true) and giving the up-front option to continue to work with me or not, I had disrespected this client by assuming they could read my mind (or would infer there was some interruption and would automatically be okay with it--hubris for my work being "so great" played a role as well).
I had done this in past employment as well, one time even playing with a client’s cat excessively when I was supposed to be taking notes to write their copy (that had lead to me getting fired (although was later re-hired because as long as you live, you get another chance)).
It was embarrassing to look back on so many examples of times when my opt-out-less childhood rebelling had morphed into the lackadaisical “I’m-doing-you-a-favor-so-be-cool-because-it’s-whatever” entitlement mindset of a supposed adult.
Yikes. I’m not saying there is never a place for fun, humanity, or understanding for unexpected catastrophes in life (because of course there is), but there is a line between petulancy-in-action/feet-dragging/avoidance and being responsible and mature in the way you present yourself and the way you communicate your limitations (even and especially if you just learned about them).
If someone does give you a second (or a third, or a fourth, or a fifth…) chance, they run the risk of looking bad themselves because now they are volunteering to be your victim, driving themselves crazy pulling the teeth of your duties out of you (whether in regards to your job or being there for someone you love in the way you know you should be, in ways that are important to them).
The hard truth is that many people in the world are not passive-aggressive, they have standards, and they will not be willing to give or even discuss a second chance. They know Explaining is Draining.
Even if they do give you another chance, or even if you are all too happy to see them go because you secretly hoped they would go...
Passive aggressive victories will always be tainted because we know someone will feel resentment.
Somewhere was the use of dishonesty (including but not limited to omitting certain truths, exaggerating/over-estimating, and outright lying), coercion, guilt/blame/shame, holding something over someone, and other forms of cheap manipulation that never feel good because they aren't in alignment with the person we *know* we can and should be--the one that has value and is worthy of respect because they consistently *give* respect and value.
Remember that you are so free that you *always* have a way to opt out if you want, and you get to choose how you will do that.
Will you continue to self-sabotage using your default auto-pilot sequence?
Or will you take the extra 10 seconds to think of the other person's feelings (and likely reactions) and do the open, human, honorable thing?
And as for the other Passive-Aggressive people in your life? Your boundaries and standards always enforce themselves. When you clean up your own Passive-Aggression, you’ll notice that you will have less time and energy to expend worrying about what they are doing because you will be running with your own kind--the responsible, reliable, communicative, accountable, caring people who are getting things done and consistently demonstrating they care and respect themselves and you (instead of making excuses and setting themselves and you back). Resentment (that used to fester) will be replaced with clearly conveying your feelings and desires, followed with space and indifference because the people who think they have the luxury of taking you for granted will be replaced with someone (even themselves at a vibration that matches your own) who can close and deliver.
It is possible to love from afar (or at least not hate) when you’ve saved all that time of up-close frustration and feeling ignorable.
It’s a process that will take time and conscious, mindful effort, but making the commitment to act on the lust for the life and relationships you have always wanted (instead of always feeling like you’re always in the midst of ruining your life) is a one-step program.
We can always begin today.
All My Love,