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Passive-Aggressive Example
Living with Blaming and Guilting Mother (Part 4)

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The following is an example from website readers of passive-aggressive encounters they have experienced. The suggested responses are not personal advice as a full evaluation of the situation is not available. Also, the suggestions may not work in every situation but are to give you an idea of possible ways to respond. For more, read: Crazy-Makers: Passive-Aggressive People and 7 Rules and 8 Methods for Responding to Passive-aggressive People

I will examine and discuss the previous question in parts (for the full situation go to "Previous").

Question: My partner's mum is staying with us and she's quite PA and I'd love to know better ways of dealing with some of what she does...

She has a lot of esteem wrapped up in having been an amazing mother and homemaker. If I choose to do a home-based task differently from how she would have, she will nitpick and point out the many flaws with doing it that way. She'll also say I did it that way because I "don't really CARE" and "that's a lazy way" to do that. Anything that's done her way is just "the way it SHOULD be done" and "why would anyone NOT do it that way!" Despite this she claims she doesn't get ANYTHING done her way although every room in the house is layed out how she wanted and most home things are done her way. When she returns from holidays she spends the next week pointing out things I've missed or supposedly done wrong: "I see it was too hot to mow the lawn!" (I'd mowed three days earlier). "I see no one could be BOTHERED to buy a new salt shaker! You guys!" Shakes her head. Salt shaker is still 3/4's full.
Response: This piece of information provides us with a clue as to how this couple may be able to change the situation. When we can understand why a person acts in the way they do, then we can manipulate the person to change. I'm using the word "manipulate" deliberately here because most people are reactive to a situation rather than proactive. Manipulation has often gotten a bad reputation because people think of it when it is used in a negative way. However, manipulation can also be used to change things in a positive way. For instance, when we use behavior modification of rewarding a child intermittently (i.e. not every time) for cleaning his/her room, we are manipulating that child to value cleaning the room. We can do the same thing with adults when we understand what underlies their behavior. In other words, when we know what motivates a person it allows us to use that motivator for rewarding desired behavior.

What we know about this mother is that her self-concept involves being a good mother and what that seems to mean to her is that she teaches her children how to behave in the "correct" way. However, she is no longer in that role because her children are grown up. Yet, she doesn't know how to show that she cares except by doing or telling others what to do. Obviously, this couple should not reward her by behaving in the way that she desires but they can teach her other ways to feel helpful and important rather than feeling like an old discarded shoe. I understand that it would be nice if you could just tell people directly that they should change their behavior, but that doesn't work with some people. It especially doesn't work with people who are in denial about their behavior. This mother probably doesn't believe she is being mean (because that would go against her self-concept of being a good mother) but genuinely believes she is trying to be helpful and others are just not appreciative of her.

However, as I said, this provides us with an important piece of information that can be used to change her behavior. I mentioned in the first post that when this mother does or says something that they like, then they can reward her because reward increases desired behavior. A reward for adults can simply be a positive statement or compliment: "Oh, that is a great idea! It's wonderful having someone with your years of experience to guide us!" Or, a reward can be asking for advice about something. Or, it can be saying something nice about her to others when she is present: "Mum is always trying to be helpful."

However, they need to be careful and combine this with the assertive limit-setting when her behavior is inappropriate. Otherwise, they might just increase her overall "helpful" behavior which would include more criticism. Rather, they want to reward desirable behavior and punish undesirable behavior. Punishment in this case means not only not getting her way but also being confronted with the broken record, the closed door, the refusal to engage as discussed previously. Over time, she will learn at a subconscious level that she can "catch more flies with honey, than with vinegar."

I'm not saying they will be able to change her behavior but I've seen it happen more times than not when people take this type of approach with someone whose self-esteem is externally based. For more info, read:THE PILLARS OF THE SELF-CONCEPT: SELF-ESTEEM AND SELF-EFFICACY.

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