The term “passive aggressive” originated in World War II to describe soldiers who passively avoided work or combat by procrastinating, pretending not to know what to do or which way to go, lagging behind and purposely screwing things up. They were originally labeled “stubborn malcontents.” Because you can’t willfully and assertively refuse to do something in the military, its necessary to find other ways to get out of something: i.e. being aggressive in a very passive way. Passive aggressiveness is a way of resisting demands of others without actually confronting that person or the anger at the person with the demands.
After the DSM came into being, passive aggressiveness was actually categorized as a personality disorder. The criteria was: five or more of the following behaviors:
passively resists fulfilling routine social and occupational tasks;
complains of being misunderstood and unappreciated by others;
is sullen and argumentative;
unreasonably criticizes and scorns authority;
expresses envy and resentment toward those apparently more fortunate;
voices exaggerated and persistent complaints of personal misfortune;
alternates between hostile defiance and contrition.
The DSM IV did away with passive aggressiveness as a personality disorder. So it’s not something that is talked about a lot now (PA as a personality disorder) and most people know people who are clinically passive aggressive–who make a life out of this behavior and drive everyone to distraction with their behavior. However most people have been situationally passive-aggressive–acting out when there is not authority to assert oneself (an example would be on a job with a supervisor who is impossible).
Obviously, people who engage in situational passive-aggressiveness are not clinically PA (or what used to be considered a personality disorder). Everyone can probably think of times they were PA because they were powerless in a situation. I am normally an assertive person but have done my fair share of PA behavior when I just wanted to strike back at someone with whom I couldn’t be openly assertive. I’ve done it in a very Muttley kind of way (the dog of Dick Dastardly who was classically and brilliantly PA). I’ve done it and then done the Muttley laugh. Not often, but I’m always aware when I’m doing it. Hence, the Muttley laugh.
However, there are many people who, like people with personality disorders, have passive aggressiveness to the degree where it is relentless and unyielding to any intervention or forms of therapy.
There are also other PA traits in addition to those that used to be listed in the DSM, such as cheerfully agreeing to do something and then doing everything to undermine what you’ve agreed to, or doing something that sends a message without confronting anyone. There is a wide range of passive aggressive behaviors that just scream undermining or refusing to confront while sending a very clear message.
One of the maddening traits of passive aggressive people is obstructing progress without openly obstructing progress. Like the soldiers, they do what you want but very slowly or very badly or just leaving things undone.
Passive aggressive people minimize what they’ve done to obstruct or impede progress…they’ve “only” forgotten or they’re sorry they were late or they are only human…and you are a big meanie for getting on their case about their “all too human” traits. Do you want a machine? A robot? DO YOU???? They upset the apple cart and then lick their wounds when you’re angry about the apples all over the place. They didn’t mean it..it was an accident…this stuff happens to everyone…you don’t understand… Passive aggressive people are good at walking away acting like the wounded party and sulking as if they are the one who was wronged.
Passive-aggressive people, for as obstructing as they can be, often cast themselves as a misunderstood person who just wants to help and is being brow beaten by controlling people with impossible demands (that would be YOU, you bad person you).
Passive aggressive people can selectively forget things. Usually the things you want them to remember. After all, you can’t really blame someone for forgetting things now and again, now can you?
Passive aggressive people are crazy making. They get under your skin. You know something is driving you to distraction but many times you can’t really put your finger on it OR you do put your finger on it and they have little or no response to make the situation any better. They do these undermining things that they try to explain away or excuse away but you know, YOU JUST KNOW, it’s not that. They’re NOT really cooperating and you know it, but the defiance is so passive, it’s almost impossible to really get a handle on it to say to them “LOOK, THIS IS WHAT YOU’RE DOING AND YOU KNOW YOU’RE DOING IT AND IT HAS TO STOP.” PA’s practice artful willful defiance without vocalizing it. The most difficult thing to do with them is the thing that needs to be done: confrontation.
The passive aggressive person acts as they do to avoid confrontation. It’s what they don’t want and they have all the excuses and reasons lined up in case they are ever challenged. Confronting a PA person is like trying to herd cats, but it’s really the only solution to the problem and often that goes nowhere.
Often it is futile to attempt to engage the passive aggressive person because they will often deny and/or play victim. It can be completely crazymaking. You begin to feel like you’re losing your mind. Is it me or them? It’s pretty much them but you’re the one who feels crazy and may be pushed to ACT crazy just so that someone is ACTING. PAs can be the passive person in the passive/active dance.
When one person underreacts, the other person will typically overreact. So in response to PAs, people often act a little crazy trying to get a response and then they are cast as the person who is crazy. PAs are very very good at making others look and sound crazy. It’s their job.
If you choose to deal with it (because you can’t seem to rid your life of this person), the only way to deal with it is to call someone one their stuff, using “I” language and the message that I’m not buying this behavior. Some passive aggressive people will change their behavior in response to that but for the most part, they won’t. They’ll just know you have their number and avoid confrontation with you.
I remember one afternoon when I was a kid and my mother was under the sink with a large pipe wrench. My mother was a small women who did all the carpentry, electric work and plumbing in the house and did it well. My father worked 3 jobs and wasn’t very helpful around the house. My mother was struggling under the sink with the wrench and my father was sitting at the kitchen table smoking a cigarette.
For lack of a better word, my father was “nattering” at her. He was saying, turn it to the right, to the left, try a bit more. This from someone who did not do a lick of physical work around the house. My mother was struggling with the wrench and getting frustrated. You could see the beads of sweat forming on her forehead and, as he spoke softly in his his non-helpful way, her teeth were starting to clench. He never moved to help her, but sat there giving some “helpful” direction. Finally my mother sat up from under the sink and whipped the large wrench right at my father’s head.
Of course we all thought my mother was crazy. She damn near killed him. And this kind of thing went on all the time. My father would be so passive aggressive until my mother would just lose her freaking mind and throw things at him….many things….including once I saw her get angry and throw an entire urn of hot coffee and miss him by inches.
While I can’t imagine, in a million years, my mother having the following conversation with my father, it may have helped the situation: “Look, I’m trying hard to fix this plumbing problem. When I’m trying to fix a problem, I would appreciate it that if you have some ‘tips,’ you help me with the project and not just give ‘advice’ from across the room. If you can’t do that, please don’t talk to me when I’m working at these problems.” And if she did this every time he did this (which was all the time despite the fact that she damn near took his head off (literally) every time), eventually he may have stopped it. (or not)
Some people are almost professionally passive aggressive or passive aggression seems to live in their DNA. I know of a man who continually uses his passive aggressiveness to make his grown children completely crazy. He’s always the drama in the family and bounces from one to the other after kicking up a duststorm and leaving “misunderstood and abused.” They collectively bash their heads against the wall. Some have just stopped talking to him which has led to fractured and tense family holidays and gatherings.
There is a lot of force and strength in passive aggressiveness. The GPYP concept of “observation, preparation and cultivation” really helps here because it is a behavior that makes you want to take someone’s head off and a crazy behavior that makes YOU feel like the crazy person. If you take a step back and are able to define PA for what it is, you might feel less crazy.
1. Observe. Learn to observe and listen to passive aggressive people. Watch their behavior. What are they saying and doing? What are the consequences? How often does this happen.
2. Journal about the instances you observe. Think about “calling them out” on their behavior. Think of saying, in “I” language, how it is unacceptable to you.
3. Continue to let this person know, calmly and rationally, you are on to them and they are no longer getting away with it. Avoid anger and exploding at them. This is the under-react/over-react dance you get sucked into with a PA. Walk away but don’t freak out at them. That is the point at which they “win.”
You may not ever change a passive aggressive person but at least you will let them know you are not the person to play their games with. You might have to block them, end the relationship, or decide to ignore them if they are a family member you can’t completely cut out of your life, but you can let them know that you are not the crazy person and will not stand for it any more. Sometimes it works and most times it doesn’t.
It could be that PA still belongs in the personality disorder pages of the DSM, but in the meantime, take care of you in whatever way you need to.