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Passive-Aggressive Example
Mother's "Helpful" Criticism

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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

Question: Mother upon seeing outfit daughter was wearing to work: You know why Hillary Clinton wears pants? Because she has those cankles, right? She is smart. (pause) You shouldn't wear your skirts that short either. You can't help it if you are built like your grandmother but you should wear your skirts longer to cover more of your legs. I am only trying to HELP you since you look very nice but you would look better if you wore your dresses longer...

Daughter: Are you saying I have cankles MA??

Mother: NO! Where do you get this stuff? I was only pointing out that you have legs like your grandmother and you can't help it if they are sorta bowed..


Mother: No one said you did - where do you get this? You are constantly over-reacting! I was only pointing out that you look better in longer length skirts!

Response: This is a classic passive-aggressive (PA) example because it shows the escalation, blame, and denial. As I indicated in the “Crazy-Makers” article, the purpose of PA behavior is to attack without having to be responsible. In fact, this example uses the all-too-common “I am only trying to help” which is not only denying responsibility but attempting to appear benevolent which sets the daughter up for the final attack of “you are over-reacting.” In other words, the guilt-inducing message is “All I'm doing is trying to help you and you are just unreasonable.”

So we have the sequence of events starting with criticism disguised as help, denial when confronted regarding the criticism, an escalation of emotions by the victim of the attack, and finally, blaming the victim. This type of PA attacker is very skilled so that any confrontation can be deflected back and blamed on the victim.

Therefore, it is important for the daughter to remain calm. As soon as she starts to respond to the criticism and argue back, the mother has achieved her purpose which is to criticize but not have to be responsible for being hurtful. Once the daughter becomes emotional, the mother can place the blame for the conflict on her.

In addition, the daughter needs to keep in mind that she can't change her mother's behavior but that she has control of her own. The only way her mother doesn't win this conflict is if the daughter doesn't get emotionally involved. However, that doesn't mean she can't express her emotions. It just means that it needs to be done in a way that places the responsibility with her mother.

For example:
Daughter: It hurts my feelings when you criticize my outfit.

Mother: I'm just trying to help!

Daughter: I'm letting you know that the way you are trying to help hurts my feelings.

Mother: You are just over-reacting!

Daughter: I may be over-reacting but I'm letting you know that you are hurting me. So if you continue, I will assume that is your intention.

If the mother still doesn't stop, the daughter can set a consequence. For example, she can refuse to continue to talking about it (but do this calmly): “I will not discuss this any further.”

If this is done calmly and repeatedly whenever the mother makes such comments, it is likely to reduce the comments because it confronts the mother in a way that doesn't allow her to retreat as easily behind denial and blame.

Notice that I'm using several techniques in this response. One technique is ignoring the bait and not becoming emotional. The second technique is using a broken record of repetition “You are hurting me.” The third technique is agreeing rather than arguing: “I may be over-reacting.” This last technique is particularly useful when the PA person wants to start an argument and then blame the victim. So the technique is to agree so as not to become distracted from your point: “You are hurting me.”

By the way, direct confrontation of the behavior such as telling the PA person that they are PA will only escalate the conflict which the PA person is almost always sure to win. It is best to take an approach as described above and be consistent.

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