One of the things I hear in my counseling sessions most often is a story of interaction between two people, the statement of emotion from the teller on how the interaction created emotion within them, followed immediately by the questions, “I mean, what do you think? Am I crazy or was it wrong?”
If you find yourself often seeking external validation for feelings following dealings with a specific person in your life, chances are you’re interacting with someone who is well-versed in the art of passive aggression.
It’s easy to spot someone when they’re being plain old aggressive. Yelling, smashing things, or telling you how much you suck as a human are solid indicators of aggression. Passive aggression is different. We leave passive aggression feeling a bit off or weird, maybe uncomfortable, but we can’t quite figure out why immediately. When we do pin it down and try to explain it we may feel that we’re being too sensitive or that we’re complaining over a tiny thing and seek validation that our interpretation of the situation isn’t entirely off the mark.
Passive aggression is just like it sounds, subtle, implied, indirect, and therefore hard to put a finger on. The source is the same as typical aggression - anger, perceived slight, or jealousy. The bearer feels these negative feelings and the saying “misery loves company” begins to apply. They want you to feel as badly as they do. An aggressive person may threaten you, throw something, etc. A passive aggressive person will perform more subtle things to irk you. A sullen attitude, sideways commentary, and the silent treatment are hallmarks of passive aggression. Withholding praise, tardiness, and withholding physical affection (in intimate relationships), are also ways that passive aggression may present itself.
You buy a new purse and your friend comments how pretty it is and then tacks on how expensive it must’ve been. It sounded like a compliment on your nice new bag, but it’s really a comment on how they perceive your spending habits.
You bake a treat for coworkers that took several hours but then one of them is upset you forgot a video you were all planning to watch. Then they mention it repeatedly for a couple of weeks after.
The cake you bring to Christmas is complimented with, “It sure is good, but do you remember the one your cousin brought last year - it was amazing!”
Maybe someone says, “I love you so much even though….”
“My daughter’s anniversary is today and I’m so happy for her even though she was a hard kid to raise…”
If you’ve attended an appreciation event at work but were met with only “areas of growth”, could be that you’re dealing with a passive aggressive boss.
The silent treatment is a bit different. It’s aggressive in a silent way. Perhaps you start noticing you’re the last to find out about things in your workplace; your boss has put you in the no-no chair mentally by cutting off the flow of information. The effect is often a feeling of exclusion and isolation.
Sullen attitude may be even harder to pin down. No matter how kind, polite, cordial, inquisitive, or friendly you are this person finds fault with your positivity and spends time frowning, grousing, complaining, or just being very chilly in your presence, with short responses and clipped words.
So, now that you’ve read all of that it’s probably obvious that you interact with at least one person who displays some of these behaviors.
How to deal? That’s a tough call.
Everyone has moments of passive aggressive behavior. Everyone. If you think you don’t, just think back to the last time that you smiled and nodded when you were really wanting to say no or get up and walk away. Think about the last time you told your kids, “We won’t tell your dad about this,” or “Don’t tell mom we got burgers on the way home.”
In some cases PA is intentional. The aggressor wants you to blow your top first and thus pokes at you in gentle ways until you do. Sometimes people have no idea they’re doing it. PA people may naturally gravitate towards people who are less likely to have sound boundaries and call them out on the passive aggressive behavior, so it perpetuates itself.
Remember that PA is aggression and aggression is aggression. If we label it for what it is its easier to muster up the guts to deal with it.
Recognize that your boundaries may be promoting passive aggressive interactions and start firming some of those limits up. If a friend cancels plans often and you feel it may be due to passive aggressive behavior, nip it, by calmly and clearly telling your friend the next time it happens that you don’t appreciate the many canceled plans. Stop making plans that hinge on this person.
Be very specific about the issue when you talk with a passive aggressive pal. Don’t broadly sweep through the issues and avoid words like “never” and “always”. Address what is happening just in this moment.
Be clear with your communication but not confrontational. Join with the person in addressing the issue by being respectful while discussing the issue.
All of that said, there are many times open and honest conversation doesn’t work with passive aggressives. They aren’t likely to admit they were doing any such thing and when they deny it you may find yourself cast as the bad guy defending yourself for being hurt by something they said or did. Then they’ve picked the argument they may have intended all along.
Bottom line, boundaries, clear communication, and more boundaries.