Another way to describe passive-aggressive behavior is the covert expression of resentment or antagonism. This can take the form of being obstinate, procrastinating, hostile jokes (think: Don Rickles), and those sarcastic remarks we mutter under our breath after someone perturbs us. In short, we don’t express our negative feelings in a healthy openhanded manner; we express them in an underhanded way. And in extreme cases, there is a disconnection between what is said and what is done.
Paging Dr. Hall-Flavin
According to Mayo Clinic psychiatrist Daniel K. Hall-Flavin, M.D., “specific signs of passive-aggressive behavior include:
• Resentment and opposition to the demands of others
• Procrastination and intentional mistakes in response to others' demands
• Cynical, sullen or hostile attitude
• Frequent complaints about feeling underappreciated or cheated”
Additionally, Dr. Hall-Flavin states, “Although passive-aggressive behavior can be a feature of various mental health conditions, it isn't considered a distinct mental illness. However, passive-aggressive behavior can interfere with relationships and cause difficulties on the job.”
Bully behavior begets passive-aggressive behavior
For those who find themselves in a toxic relationship, being passive-aggressive can be the reaction of choice—especially if you are being bullied—because you don’t want to incur further wrath from the bully by overttly and directly challenging the beast. We learn passive-aggressive behavior at an early age—generally due to past negative experiences; this response can become a life-long malady and cause a negative ripple effect in other aspects of our lives. For instance, we may become resigned to a present fatalistic attitude when confronted by people or situations that remind us of our past negative experiences. That time perspective undermines any sense of self-efficacy, instead of giving in and giving up. In our clinical work, we’ve noted that the more toxic the relationship, the greater the likelihood of passive-aggressive behavior.
The following are examples of passive-aggressive behavior. Some have the makings of becoming toxic relationships while others are full blown—and in a couple of examples, it’s hard to tell who is the bully and who is the victim (hint: it’s a matter of perspective):
Bully behavior: You’ve been nagged for weeks to clean up your room but you don’t feel like it; today your parent threatens not to take you to the movie you have been dying to see until you follow through (present fatalism). You reluctantly say you will clean your room.
Passive-aggressive response: You wait till the last minute (present hedonism) and stuff all of your toys, trash and dirty laundry under your bed because you know your parent will either, a) not check, or b) scold you, then clean your room for you, and c) give in and take you to the movie anyway.
Bully behavior: You can’t remember the last time your teenager has done any of their chores and you are angst-ridden as guests are coming to stay with you (present fatalism). Now your teenager is pestering you non-stop to use the car—with the promise of helping out manana.
Passive-aggressive response: You cave in and let junior use your car. Junior doesn’t follow through and help out so you complain about junior in detail to your house guests, but not directly to the little brat.
Bully behavior: Your mother-in-law made it clear years ago that you weren’t good enough for her child (past negative experience); she has made her thoughts known to anyone who will listen, causing you to feel present fatalistic every time you are around her. You’ve discussed the situation with your spouse, whom you love very much, but nothing said or done seems to correct your mother-in-law’s bullying. And your spouse refuses to confront momma about her abusive behavior.
Passive-aggressive response: You show up late for family gatherings, mutter what you’d like to say out loud behind your mother-in-law’s back and occasionally flip her off when she isn’t looking.
Bully behavior: You have a demanding significant other you constantly give in to; meaning they decide where you go, what you do and how long you’ll do it (present fatalism.)
Passive-aggressive response: You suddenly develop a headache when your significant other wants to have sex.
Bully behavior: Your abusive boss bullies you into making an excessive number of copies of a report—which is not in your job description—that takes an inordinate amount of time, setting you back half a day (present fatalism).
Passive-aggressive response: You say you will make the copies—and you do. But when collating, you occasionally leave out or switch pages.
Preventative measures/healthy ways to respond
Here are some preventative measures you can take to curtail passive-aggressive behavior as well as healthier ways to respond to the above examples (note it’s all about communication.)
Child-parent and parent-teenager relationships (our trick examples)—By setting and reinforcing boundaries at an early age, as well as practicing the art of conversation and active listening, we teach our children how to express themselves in healthy ways rather than how to be passive-aggressive. It's likely our children will be subjected to passive-aggressive and bully behaviors outside the home. How they respond is a reflection of their home life.
It’s never too late to try to establish real communication with your child. It may help to recall your relationship with your parents. If it was ideal, put into practice your parents’ techniques. If those techniques are old fashioned and don’t work, then talk to parents you admire and see what does work. If your relationship with your parents was less than ideal, think about what would have made a difference to you as a child and do it. In our two examples, vow you will work on improving communication. No matter what, spending quality time with your child, actively listening to what they are telling you, and offering non-judgmental responses are good starts. But at time your needs are as important as anyone else's, and must be respected, as you respect theirs.
In-law relationship: We have no control over what other people think, say or do. We only have control over ourselves. In this case, ignore the bully’s behavior and keep contact to a minimum. After all this time, people know you and your mother-in-law and she has likely done the same to others. They are probably tired of her haranguing and see her for what she is—a bully. But if her behavior continues to bug you, you and your spouse must collectively challenge it and put an end to it, or no more socializing with her in your home.
Romantic relationship: Somewhere along the way this relationship became toxic. By developing a pseudo-headache as punishment to your spouse, who wants to have sex swith you, you may also be punishing yourself. Although few people like confrontation, it’s time to have a heart to heart with your loved one and air how you feel: unheard and unimportant. If the relationship is beyond repair, it’s time to move on.
Work: The passive-aggressive response in this instance will probably backfire on you because your boss would eventually find out that the copies were botched. The next time your boss asks you to do something above and beyond, either tell your boss “I’m sorry, it’s not my job” or accept the job and do it right. And consider reporting your bully boss to HR. FYI—our column, Are you bullied at work?, details work place bullying.
Don’t confuse social grace with passive-aggressive behavior
After reading the above, you may be asking yourself if being passive-aggressive is in your repertoire of behaviors—or if you are just “being nice” when you do something that isn’t in your “job description.” We want to be clear that there is a difference between passive-aggressive behavior and being a competent and compassionate parent, employee, supervisor, client or diner. We wholeheartedly encourage you to go the extra mile to help others in their time of need and hope that when you perform these and other random acts of kindness that they come from your heart and you don’t harbor resentment or that you expect something in return (see our column on kindness). When reviewing personal experiences for passive-aggressive behavior, use your discernment; you know what your intentions were and are.
Add to relationships and work towards a brighter future
Past negative experiences can cause us to behave in ways we might not have thought possible—like actually seeking out toxic relationships and being passive-aggressive. When our response is to utter a sarcastic, passive-aggressive remark, or purposefully do something wrong or hurtful—we might temporarily feel better and that we are “getting even”. However, in the final analysis we are stooping as low as, or lower than the bully. So add to, don’t subtract from relationships by being more open to communicating how you feel. If it doesn’t work and you are bound to a toxic relationship, cut contact to a minimum and be as compassionate and authentic—as “real”—as you can. It is always good to be BIG when others are being SMALL. When you do some of the things we are encouraging, then you’ll be on your way to a brighter, more positive future.
Daniel K. Hall-Flavin, M.D., Mayo clinic psychiatrist; http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/passive-aggressive-behavior/AN01563
The Angry Smile, Long, Long, Whitson. We3Books; 2009.
Check out our other Psychology Today blogs to get a fuller appreciation of how to create a more balanced time perspective in your life!
Visit our website, http://www.timecure.com, to view a free 20 minute video—The River of Time; you’ll learn self-soothing techniques as well as how to let go of past negatives, work towards a brighter future, and live in a more compassionate present.
Take the Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory at www.thetimeparadox.com to discover your personal time perspective.
See The Time Cure: Overcoming PTSD with the New Psychology of Time Perspective Therapy (Zimbardo, Sword & Sword, 2012, Wiley Publishing)
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For strategies to reduce stress and improve communication, visit http://www.timecure.com