Are You Passive-Aggressive and Want to Change?by Monica A. Frank, Ph.D.
Most of us are passive-aggressive (PA) at times. Although much of the communication literature tells us we should be direct and assertive, I've always told my clients there is a time and place for different communication styles. For instance, if you've had your car in to a repair shop several times for the same problem and they want to charge you for fixing it again, being verbally aggressive might accomplish your agenda. Or, if you are confronted by an irrational angry person, a self-protective passive response of walking away may be best.
I've always taught that the communication style you choose should be based on the outcome you want. For instance, with the mechanic you might not care about your long-term relationship—you just want your car fixed, so an aggressive stance may work. But aggression is not a good choice in a relationship you care about.
The same is true of PA communication. It is generally not a good choice for relationships that are important to you. Notice that I'm referring to “choice.” Most people act without thinking. They have long-standing behavior patterns and may not even be aware of their own PA behavior. But it is a choice to continue to engage in these patterns of behavior.
Although most people readily acknowledge they don't like being on the receiving end of PA behavior because it is so frustrating and unpleasant, many people are slow to label their own PA behavior. Instead they often justify their actions by focusing completely on the other person's behavior. Yet, sometimes when people read about others' PA behavior, they begin to recognize their own behavior.
If communication problems are interfering with your relationships, it might be a good idea to examine whether you have PA behavior. By recognizing when you are PA you can change your pattern and develop better relationships. The following can help you more thoroughly examine your behavior and create a plan to change. Many PA behaviors are unintentional but they are still hurtful to the relationship. Other PA behaviors may be deliberately calculated to hurt the other person.
Those who are PA and want to change are usually unintentionally PA. In other words, they are not trying to maliciously cause problems for others and/or don't care about how they hurt others. Sometimes they may even have good intentions such as not wanting to hurt someone's feelings or cause a problem. But instead of direct communication about problems they engage in PA behavior. So the following focuses mainly on the unintentional type of passive-aggressiveness.
Usually unintentional PA behavior is either self-protective in some way or it is learned behavior. Such PA behavior can occur for a number of reasons:
1) Learned communication patterns. Unless we deliberately seek out new methods of communication, we tend to use the ones that we learned when we were children. So if someone grows up in a family where PA behavior is the primary communication method they are likely to use the same method. They may not have learned direct communication and lack problem-solving skills. When faced with potential conflict situations they resort to the PA behavior because it is all they know.
2) Fear of rejection. Some people are afraid that if they are direct, the other person may reject their request or even reject them. As such, PA behavior allows the person to deny responsibility if confronted perhaps even placing the blame on the other person: “I didn't mean that—you misunderstood.”
3) Fear of anger. Some people are fearful of anger. Some may be afraid of others' anger because they have been hurt in the past. Others may be afraid of their own anger because they don't want to hurt others. Either way it results in avoidance by using PA behavior instead of directly expressing anger.
The hallmark of PA behavior is the communication of anger in an indirect or passive manner. When anger is not expressed directly, it is difficult to solve problems. The indirect expression of anger means that the recipient may pick up on non-verbal behavior cues indicating there is a problem but if they try to address it they are roadblocked by the following types of behavior. The PA person may be a combination of these types but usually has a preferred style.
1) Silent type. Instead of responding when someone confronts you, you remain silent. People who are silent when angry often are trying to avoid conflict. However, their silence indicates that a problem exists. Such behavior causes the other person to be frustrated and angry when they are trying to solve the problem.
Question: Any time I want to calmly discuss a situation that is bothering me in our relationship, my husband's reply is always "I don't want to fight about this!" Although I tell him that I'm not trying to fight, I just want to talk about it, he never has the discussion with me and the problems are always left unresolved.
2) Hinting type. This type drops hints if they are angry or want something. If the other person doesn't get their hints, they pout or become angry. Hints may seem obvious to the person doing the hinting but they are not a clear method of communicating. The problem occurs when the person believes that their hints are perfectly understandable. I've often had clients who said that they clearly told their spouse what they wanted but when I asked for the exact wording I would classify it as a hint. It is certainly not fair to the other person when you hint but think that you are communicating clearly because then the tendency is to believe the other person is deliberately ignoring you.
3) Denying type. This type denies feelings of anger while slamming doors or other nonverbal behaviors that show anger. However, when someone accuses you of being angry or upset, you deny it: “Nothing's wrong.” A great deal of communication is facial expressions and other nonverbal behaviors. So it can be very frustrating to the other person when you deny your obvious anger. Once again, it prevents problem resolution.
4) Pleasing type. When angry, this type ignores their own needs and tries to please others. However, people who are pleasers frequently become resentful when others don't focus on their needs: “I'm always taking care of everyone else. How come I don't ever get anything in return?” The answer to this question is usually that other people aren't aware of the pleaser's needs or anger because the people-pleaser doesn't share that information.
5) Avoiding type. Instead of addressing a problem or dealing with a difficult person this type pretends there isn't a problem. Although this type is similar to the denying type, a major difference is that the denying type shows behavior indicating anger whereas the avoiding type doesn't provide any indication of anger. In fact, the topics may be avoided so completely that the avoider doesn't even know the degree of anger they feel.
6) Sarcastic type. Sarcasm is another type of denial. This type makes their feelings known through sarcasm but denies it if someone takes them seriously. Sarcasm is another way of avoiding a direct expression of emotions and taking responsibility for those feelings.
7) Anxious type. Some people with anxiety want others to behave in certain ways because of their own anxiety but instead of being direct they use indirect communication such as guilting to control them.
8) Accusing type. Instead of saying when they are angry or don't want to do something this type accuses the other person indirectly and with a tone: “I will take care of it just like I always do.”
9) Nice type. This type wants to control others' decisions without appearing to control. For instance, a woman who is frustrated because her husband won't take care of his health sweetly asks, “Honey, are you sure that is what is best for you? Have you thought this through?” If confronted they are likely to deny control and indicate they are just concerned.
These are some of the unintentional ways that people can be PA. As you see, most are due to people having certain desires but instead of expressing them directly, they use indirect communication.
The above descriptions are not to diagnose someone else but to understand yourself. The problem with diagnosing someone else is that we don't always know what their underlying intention is. And PA behavior always has to do with intention: it is the indirect expression of anger. So, for instance, just because someone is procrastinating and it causes you frustration, it doesn't mean they are passive-aggressively trying to cause you frustration—they could just be procrastinating. In other words, it is not the effect on the recipient that determines passive-aggressive behavior, it is the intent of the behavior that determines it.
1) Choice. First, recognize that PA behavior is your choice. Just because it is how you have always behaved doesn't mean you have to continue. By looking at your communication and the consequences you can determine if PA behavior is involved. If PA behavior is causing problems or a deterioration of your relationships, you can choose to learn a more direct communication method.
2) Learn communication skills. Primarily, you want to learn how to communicate directly when you are angry, frustrated, resentful and need to solve an interpersonal problem. There are plenty of opportunities to learn these skills including books, seminars/classes, or even individual therapy. Excel At Life provides some articles on conflict resolution that can help you get started.
3) Practice. Determine some situations in which you are typically PA. Then, using what you learned about communication develop some ways of acting that are more direct and assertive. You might even write down example responses so you are more likely to remember them. It is easiest to start with situations that occur frequently because you can prepare in advance and practice (in your head or in front of a mirror) before they occur. By practicing the common situations, you will become more prepared for the less common ones.
4) Let others know. Tell your close friends and family that you recognize you can be PA and you are trying to work on it. However, it is a strong behavior pattern and you are not always aware of it. They can be helpful by gently letting you know when your behavior is hurtful. This step can be particularly difficult because PA people do not like being told when they are hurting someone. However, it is important to your recovery from this behavior to take responsibility for it.
5) Don't give up! Changing behavior takes effort. One of the more difficult aspects is that other people may still respond to you as if you are being PA. For instance, if a sarcastic person is trying to be genuine, they may still be accused of being sarcastic. Or, if a controlling person is expressing a feeling without an expectation of trying to control, that expression may still be seen by others as attempts at control. Recognize that even when you are making an effort it can be a while before you see the results of improved relationships.