Feeling Our Way

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Passive-Aggression in Psychology

Hurt people while looking nice.

Because contemporary psychologists are so skittish about aggression, you see a lot of passive-aggressive behavior in our field. Passive-aggression is aggression disguised to look like something else, even to the aggressor, in order to escape punishing consequences of disapproval and self-disapproval.

There are a few trainees, and many, many groups of trainees, that I experience as dainty. One recent group of hardy individuals, lamentably lamb-like as a group, told me I insulted them by calling them dainty. I consider this to be the very definition of daintiness. Most groups get over it, realizing you can’t learn anything without correction, but others respond by hurting my feelings, especially by acting as if I am an ogre out of whose clutches they are lucky to escape with their lives.

People can be so skittish about aggression that they equate aggression with interpersonal violence (just as people who are skittish about sex equate sex with rape or sin), but aggression also produces ambition, assertiveness, accomplishment, and standing up for what’s right. When my older son was a baby and needed a shot, the doctor made us wait for a nurse to hold him down. “I’ll hold him,” I said. The doctor said, “You won’t hold him hard enough.” This story exemplifies the necessity of aggression in clinical care (and in parenting, but clinical care often requires a level of aggression that an untrained parent won’t provide).

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Passive-aggression is a way to garner the rewards of aggression without engaging in behavior that looks outwardly aggressive. The rewards of aggression include a feeling of triumph (unfortunately vilified outside of organized sports); feelings of genuine self-esteem (that is, the feeling you have when deploying a skill, not the feeling you have when being complimented); damage to rivals in the form of injury, chagrin, or defeat; and signs of enhanced status. Passive-aggression can operate directly in obtaining these rewards, as when a therapist hurts patients by showing up late or not ending sessions on time (the latter often diminishes patients by defining them as too fragile to leave on time, and it sets them up to feel rejected and hurt when other limits are ultimately observed). Passive-aggression can also operate indirectly as a projective identification of anger in a context where getting angry is viewed as a loss of face or otherwise causes the angry person injury. If two Buddhist monks, proud of mastering themselves, are competing for an emblem of holiness, you can bet that one tries to make the other angry; certainly psychoanalysts do.

Projective identification is a method of managing unwanted feelings by getting other people to feel them—by exporting them. There’s no magic to this. If you are uncomfortable about your own anger, you can drive slow in the left lane and enjoy the irritation it causes when you observe other drivers flashing their lights, honking their horns, and cutting you off. Their anger makes you seem less angry, downright benign by comparison, to other people and to yourself.

When a patient uses projective identification, the therapist becomes aware of an emotion not characteristic of her while she’s doing therapy. This gives her some choices on how to manage the situation (typically, metacommunication, interpretation, or “metabolization”). When you receive a projective identification of anger outside of therapy, you are usually spinning too many other plates to be reflective, and you are likely to respond aggressively. If you do so in a context that is skittish about aggression, you lose.

Passive-aggression is usually motivated by the person’s horror at being perceived as aggressive. I used to have a cottage industry as a college counselor reminding Catholic students that Jesus got angry in the temple (Matthew 21:12) and also withered a fig tree in a fit of pique (Matthew 21:18-22), trying to soften my clients’ self-punitive responses to their own aggression. Don’t get me started on Jesus’s promise to the disciples that if they have enough faith, they can go around destroying stuff too—whoever thought that Grand Theft Auto was Christian?

Because the primary motivation behind passive-aggression is to garner the rewards of aggression without the label, the best response is usually to call it what it is (outside of therapy; within therapy, as noted, there are more therapeutic responses available). “It would seem that you have obliterated my point of view. Are you angry with me?” “Your behavior seems to be damaging the supervision. Are you angry with me?” Unfortunately, I have not been able to come up with these kinds of statements when I am angry. Frankly, they seem passive-aggressive to me, attempts to win while appearing non-aggressive. So I lose most of the contests I get into over who is most like a lamb and least like a human. Oh, well.

Michael Karson, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at the University of Denver.

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