In defense of passive-aggressiveness

All Rights Reserved, the Cartoon BankWhoa… I can feel the heat from here… Before I get too much hate mail, please read further.

Passive-aggressiveness is a behavior trait wherein a person expresses their discontent (to whatever degree) by subtle and manipulative methods.  A great example is when someone walks into a room and their partner perceives that something is wrong, but when asked, the first person says, “Nothing’s wrong.”  That person then goes about slamming around dishes or doors, being generally irritating and pissy.  They don’t admit to or address the issue, instead resorting to non-direct expressions of their own negativity.  There’s also the “double-negative reverse psychology” tactic which is demonstrated in these lovely signs I found doing a quick (and hilarious) search on the webternets.

This is the kind of behavior that is generally considered unacceptable and unlikeable.

We would like very much to just tell people who behave in a passive-aggressive manner to just cut it the f**k out.  I know for me personally that there are few things that will set my temper off faster.  At the same time, I’m all about understanding a problem before demanding a solution since, obviously, if you don’t understand it, you can’t really fix it.

It strikes me that the most obvious issue is that those with the P-A attitude might be responding to the feeling that even if they did speak about their actual problems, they would not be heard.  People normally raise their voices to be heard, which is where yelling comes from in the first place (think about this in your own lives), but sometimes that doesn’t work so well because the sister-reaction to that is, “If you’re going to yell at me, I’m not going to listen even more.”  The P-A person has to then find a different way to express their discontent, and that’s when doors are slammed, dishes get broken, and feelings get hurt.

The “defense” part of this essay is that that P-A person is not going to fix their problem just because you do not want to put up with the dark oppressive cloud of their negativity.  If you demand the behavior change, it will manifest in another way, or worse, it will force those feelings to get shoved down even more, and that’s always a recipe for disaster.  (“Feelings Buried Alive Never Die.”)

The key to fixing the problem, then, is to create an environment where the P-A person feels safe expressing their anger and validated in their feelings.  As the listener, you now have to make a commitment to 1) not judge their feelings, no matter how unreasonable their conclusion sounds, until after they’re done talking and 2) to try to find a compromise, even if it means changing your mind about something you feel is fundamental.

Be warned:  this process can take a while.  Sometimes when the P-A person starts to feel that they’re being listened to, their feelings start pouring out of them in a seeming flood of statements.  DO NOT try to jump in.  Don’t worry about picking up on every little thing that’s said, but certainly listen for the high-points and important topics.  Once the flood is past, address those high-points in as much of a logical order as you can muster.

Some P-A people may take this advice to the listeners as an offense (“If you cared about my feelings, you’d listen to every single word I utter!”), but this is where my advice to them comes in:  You can only be responsible for your own feelings, and this exercise is not to express your factual concerns but rather your feelings.  Whether you mean to or not, you’re going to talk about a LOT of stuff that isn’t really going to be factually pertinent because they’re your feelings.  It’s important to get them out, to let them go, but feelings are not actions.  Feelings are passive, and you have to choose to do something with them.

It takes a lot of work on both sides, and the whole process should probably start with a clear statement that the listener/recipient wants to help the P-A person resolve their behavioral issue, and additionally that the P-A person recognizes that they have a problem and that it needs to be resolved.  It will take time and possibly some false starts, but for the behavior to be corrected efficiently, you’ve both got to keep at it.

In the end, you’re both improved immensely by the behavior.  The former recipient becomes a flexible, compassionate person, and the former P-A person feels confident and secure within themselves and their relationship.  It’s a tough job, but for many people in a variety of relationships (lovers, parents and children, roommates, siblings, etc), it’s got to happen in order for you to feel the love for each other.  Love is what makes the world go round, and we can never have too much of it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *