Written by Dr. Eric Perry, PhD
“Let’s meet at noon at the gym – oh wait, you probably don’t know where that is.” ~ Anonymous
We all have that friend, co-worker or family member who has a special way of saying seemingly harmless words that makes us feel like we have been slapped across the face with a rose only to later find we have been embedded with thorns. These same individuals have the habit of doing or purposely not doing something in order to impede your stride. Procrastination, stalling, last minute cancelations; all of these are done while smiling innocently with no hint of anger. The passive aggressive person is often the nicest person in the room. But the smile and feigned innocence hide bottled up aggression and anger. Having no outlet, this anger will display itself through their words and behaviors.
Although no longer recognized by the American Psychological Association as a formal personality disorder, it is important we recognize what passive aggressive behavior is in order to understand it and deal with it. The DSM-111 described passive-aggressive personality disorder as a “Pervasive pattern of passive resistance to demands for adequate social and occupational performance, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts.” It is a manifestation of anger and other negative emotions that have no expression. It is behavior aimed to get back at a person without recognizing the underlying anger. A passive aggressive individual has learned that expressing anger directly will only make things worse. Often, they grew up in an environment where they learned not to express their feelings. As a child they may have been punished for expressing anger, therefore they have learned to channel their anger and frustration in other ways. Essentially, passive-aggressive behavior is the covert expression of feelings of anger and indirect expressions of hostility.
Passive aggressive individuals often come from an environment where no one expressed what they truly wanted or felt. As a result, they struggle to ask directly for what they want and will resort to manipulative tactics to get their needs met. Instead of asking for help carrying a box upstairs they may complain by saying, “I am probably going to hurt my back carrying this box.” They don’t mind if others feel sorry for them as long as it works to get the box upstairs.
Beneath their outwardly calm and agreeable persona lurks a person who desires to punish those who they feel have hurt them. They will go to great lengths to retaliate against individuals they feel have wronged them. They will do this by indirect means and will avoid doing or expressing any direct anger.
Here are some examples of passive aggressive behaviors.
1. Feigned illness or emergency
“Sorry for the last minute notice! I am not feeling well.” – They will say “Yes” to an invite or task that they have no intention of going to or completing and will use sickness or an emergency to escape the obligation.
2. Denying feelings of anger
“I’m not angry.” – Rather than being honest and upfront about how they feel, they will deny have any negative feelings. They are rarely openly defiant. Beneath the cool, friendly exterior is a whirlpool of anger and resentment.
3. Sulking and withdrawing from arguments
“Fine.” … “Whatever.” – They will shut down emotionally and will not communicate when things are not going there way. They will avoid direct confrontation at all costs and instead will quietly fume and plot revenge.
4. Temporary compliance
“Don’t worry, I will take care of it.” – They will cheerfully agree to do something then fail to complete the chore. For example, a person in customer service will assure you that the problem will be taken care of with no intention of following through.
They will repeatedly procrastinate and not complete a task in order to get out of doing something instead of directly refusing to do the task.
6. Completes the task, but in an unacceptable/inefficient manner
“Whoops! I am so clumsy.” – Because they really do not want to do what they are asked and are angry, they will complete the task in an unacceptable way. For example, a student will hand in illegible homework. When you ask your loved one to help with housework, they may sulk and by mistake cause a bigger mess for you to clean.
They will choose to express their anger by choosing not to share information when it could have prevented a problem. They will claim ignorance and will take pleasure in your discomfort.
8. Backhanded Compliment
They will often disguise an insult in a compliment. Sometimes, it may take us a few hours for the double meaning to register. Here are some examples. Please feel free to include your own in the comments section below:
A) “I didn’t expect you to get the job. Congratulations!”
B) “Congratulations on finishing the marathon! That is amazing for your size and age!”
C) “Wow! You look great for your age!”
D) “I wish I didn’t care about the way I look like you do.”
“I was only joking! Can’t you take a joke?” – Sarcasm is a common way for a passive aggressive person to express hostility out loud but in a socially acceptable indirect way.
10. Indirect hostility
“Why are you getting so upset?” – Passive aggressive people take pleasure in frustrating their targets. They will pretend to be calm and cool while appearing surprised when you express anger after being repeatedly provoked by their indirect hostility. They are masters at getting others to act out their angry feelings and when you do, they will question your supposed overreaction.
“Oh my! I am so absent-minded.” – They will avoid obligations by claiming they forgot. Instead of declining an invitation or task and risk appearing disagreeable, they will claim that it slipped their minds. For example, they may forget to call or to meet you for lunch because they really did not want to go.
12. Work Place
Unfortunately, passive-aggressive behavior is prevalent in the workplace. The examples are numerous and I have listed a few.
A) Abuses sick days. Will take sick days before a big deadline.
B) Ignores emails and notes left by others. Fails to return calls.
C) Arrives late
D) Takes longer breaks
E) Obstructs the efforts of others by failing to do their share of the work
F) Forgets or misplaces important documents
G) Gives you “ASAP” work last minute
H) Works deliberately slow or does a bad job on tasks that they do not really want to do
I) Attacks a person indirectly by starting a vicious rumor about them
This article is not meant to diagnose or to be a guide for self-diagnosis. The sole purpose of this article is strictly for educational purposes. Please feel free to share below in the comment section your own experiences with passive behavior.
The thoughts expressed in this blog post are my own and are not meant to create a therapeutic relationship with the reader. This blog does not replace or substitute the help of a mental health professional. Please note, I am unable to answer your specific mental health questions as I am not fully aware of all of the circumstances.
Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology
M.A. in Clinical Psychology
B.A. in Psychology
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