Passive aggression as a behavioural pattern is sometimes not quickly picked up on; this is simply because some passive aggressive traits can also be manifested by people who aren’t inherently passive aggressive. Some examples of these traits are procrastination, stubbornness and playing the victim. Passive aggression is a combination of these traits and their manifestation in a repetitive, persistent and intentional manner. The Elephant Journal (2015) describes it as a form of anger/hostility, except that the anger is hidden/unassertive. Some passive aggressive people are not even aware they are passive aggressive and in the same vein, one may for years be on the receiving end of passive aggression and not identify it immediately.
What is worse is that the world sees them in a completely different light, as calm, good-natured and charming, because most times their traits are only exhibited towards people who are close to them – a spouse, close friend, employee/employer. The dictionary defines passive aggression as: “Denoting or pertaining to a personality type or behaviour marked by the expression of negative emotions in passive, indirect ways, as through manipulation or non-cooperation”
Andrea Harrn MA MBACP in her article “what is passive aggressive behaviour” suggests that patterns of unassertive and passive behavior may have been learnt in childhood as a coping strategy in response to not having been able to express your thoughts and feelings freely. It may also be linked to issues of self esteem. Passive aggression in a relationship is deemed a form of emotional abuse because it is unhealthy and damaging. It leaves the receiver in a state of constant confusion, hurt and frustration or how else do you relate with someone who rarely means what they say or say what they mean?
In my experience, for years I blamed my passionate/vocal personality for the problems that kept resurfacing with the person I was dealing with but picking up on repetitive patterns and the sheer indifference shown by the person to the impact their actions had, led me to start thinking otherwise. I started reading and looking for answers.
You may go through this list and think to yourself “but normal people show some of these traits” and yes they do but if you identify a pattern and these traits recur in your relationship, it is most likely passive aggression and you need to be aware of it so as to deal with it.
It can also help identify if you are passive aggressive:
Communication – You’ve had an in-depth conversation about an issue and you’ve both reached an “agreement” or so you think. A few weeks maybe months down the line, they tell you they’ve changed their mind. No notice, no discussion, nothing. You later find out they were never onboard with the idea in the first place and do not care the impact it may have on you. A good number of times they will even completely deny what they said.
Procrastination – Theirs is hinged on blatant stubbornness and intentionally not wanting to fulfil a request or responsibility. It may sometimes be the simplest thing such as returning a fork to its place in the cupboard, to which you may get the response “I’m busy” when the person is right in front of you doing nothing.
Lack of Empathy – Finding it difficult to show genuine concern and sympathy.
Unreliability/ Lack of Accountability – You feel you can’t rely on the person because they never say what they mean; their words are just words, you cannot hold them to it. They never want to be tied to any decision and would hardly commit to anything. In this case, trust is therefore difficult.
Misdirection of Emotions – They are not able to take up the grievances they have with certain people either because those people are in authority over them or they want something from them and want to project a certain image to them. They therefore send their frustrations your way and you’re left to deal with the implications.
Playing the Victim – They are unable to acknowledge their own part in any situation and will turn the tables around to become the victim.
Lying – This trait has one of the farthest reaching implications. Some are compulsive liars, so compulsive that they tell even the most ridiculously unnecessary lies. Sometimes the lie is to disguise their own inadequacies, sometimes it is to get what they want, sometimes it is just to get you off their back, and sometimes it is by way of throwing you under the bus to avoid taking the fall for what was their fault.
Chronic Indecisiveness – When a joint decision has to be made and they have the last say but go round in circles thrashing or finding fault with every suggestion you make.
Selfishness – They mostly think of only themselves and will blame someone else for everything that is wrong with a situation but themselves. They will claim you are the selfish one because you didn’t do what they wanted.
No Apology – No matter how badly they hurt you, most times they do not acknowledge it and will not apologise. An apology stems from accepting your part in a situation and they would not do that.
Excuses – They are full of excuses and there is one for every single thing.
Silent Treatment – They will say to you “I’m not mad, this is just how things are going to be” yet it is very obvious they are but the hostility is hidden.
One can try to overcome passive aggressive behaviour by trying to understand how the person thinks and operates and very calmly explain to them how their actions impact you and your relationship with them. Acknowledging your part in a situation is also important and crucial because the aim is to achieve balance. However, if the behaviour persists and continues to affect you negatively, clear boundaries have to be set and a preferably non-confrontational strategy for how to deal with these traits be devised.
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