WHO'S DOING YOUR DIRTY WORK?
Deconstructing Passive Aggression
BY SHARI SCHREIBER, M.A.
Have you ever . . . been with a lover who suddenly withdrew attention or affection, and responded to you very differently than he/she did before? Started feeling confused in a relationship, not knowing where you stood with the other person? Painfully wondered why someone you've felt close with isn't calling anymore, or returning your calls? Driven yourself crazy trying to figure out what you might have done or said to make him/her distance from you, and wished they'd just tell you what's going on, so you could try and repair it or move on? Well, you're not alone!
Frankly, this has probably happened to each of us at one time or other, and whether it's occurred in a romantic relationship or a friendship, we've been wounded by it. The loss of connection with someone we've valued/cherished is hard enough to manage--but feeling underestimated by them adds insult to injury! If we've acquired the capacity to handle confrontation and resolve conflicts, and someone exits the relationship emotionally and/or physically instead of discussing their concerns, it's a betrayal of the trust and affection we've shared. When this happens, it leaves us feeling diminished and angry, because here's what they're passively expressing: "I don't regard you as capable of resolving this issue with me," or "I'm uncomfortable sharing my real feelings with you," or "You and your feelings don't matter here," and "It's easier (on me) to forfeit this connection and disappear, than to muster the courage I need to repair it." I'm not sure if this is any consolation, but they're showing you how they were treated and abandoned growing up, and unresolved childhood issues are always repeated in adulthood.
Passive aggression is typically only a symptom of deeper issues; poor self-worth, personality disorder features (Borderline, Avoidant, Narcissistic, Anti-Social, etc.), and general fear of confrontation.
WHO'S AFRAID OF THE BIG BAD WOLF?
If you haven't resolved/healed hurtful childhood experiences that made you feel emotionally unsafe, anyone who interacts with you in ways that trigger similar sensations, will likely prompt your retreat. Someone's personality could be naturally more direct or confrontive than yours; they might have traits that seem very matter-of-fact, controlling or harsh, but they may be unaware that these aspects intimidate or frighten others. Strong personality traits can make them seem volatile and threatening, making you want to avoid them whenever possible. The best way for you to deal with this type of person, is to tell them how their behavior affects you, which may go something like this: "I'm feeling (angry, defensive, frustrated, etc.), and my instinct is to shut down/distance myself" or, "Your manner feels (dangerous, scary, unsafe) to me, and makes me want to protect myself and avoid you." This mirrors/reflects back to them how they're being perceived or coming across to you, and should alert them to your need for a different approach.
You may also set limits/boundaries on how someone speaks to you, which can be especially helpful in work environments, 'cause there's no excuse for abuse! Do this in any way that feels congruent with your communication style and ability, but here's an example: "I'm sorry, but your tone feels abusive, and that's unacceptable to me. When you feel you can approach me in a calmer/more respectful manner, I'll be happy to hear what you have to say, and will respond/comply to the best of my ability" and then separate yourself from this person. You're not being insolent or difficult--you're only asking them to communicate with you in a manner, which enables you to be responsive to their needs. The outcome they're seeking may not always be achievable, but at least you've let them know what you're needing to give it your best shot--and you've taken better care of yourself in the process!
If you've experienced emotional cut-off and/or any type of abusive behavior in your relationship, and you've repeatedly felt beaten-down or controlled by this individual, it's possible you're with a Borderline or Narcissist. It's crucial you learn more about personality disorders, so you can differentiate between normal relational conflicts, and abnormal patterns of behavior.
"TO TELL THE TRUTH, I'M JUST TOO SCARED!"
When we act-out our feelings by retreating or vanishing rather than telling someone what's up with us, it's an avoidance tactic that's based in fear. Most of us dread confrontation, 'cause it makes us feel uncomfortable--but no matter how much we'd like to think we're "walking our talk," if we neglect to say what we mean, and mean what we say, we're not! Whether we're trying to get fired from a job or a relationship, not facing a situation head-on and speaking our truth, usually gets us in deeper trouble than we started with, and diminishes personal integrity. Avoidance of direct communication inhibits opportunities for clarity and resolution; this can actually be unfair to another, because it lets him/her maintain their denial or ignorance about an issue, and keeps them from growing! Our most commonly used excuses for avoidance are; "I'm swamped at work" or "I've just been so busy!" We may routinely use "busy" to get ourselves off the hook for doing what we know is respectful and right behavior, but it's the least acceptable (or believable) excuse for avoiding someone.
If you don't give someone feedback on how their actions have affected you, you're depriving them of evolution and expansion. When somebody steps on your toes, you've gotta say "ouch!" or how will they know they've hurt you? If you persistently expect your relative, lover or friend to intuit your feelings and needs, you may have Borderline Personality Disorder traits.
Frankly, I view passive-aggressive people as untrustworthy. If I cannot trust someone to be honest with me, they've undermined my sense of safety with them, and maintaining our relationship is no longer a viable option.
IN THE BEGINNING . . .
Avoidant personalities were formed in childhood, when many of us found it impossible to have an attentive/receptive audience with the person we needed most to hear, understand and respond to our feelings and needs. As we grew, our parents may have felt defensive about their shortcomings or mistakes, and made these issues seem like our fault! Much later on, they may have deflected our confrontations on important matters, by getting very emotional (crying or yelling) when we got too close to a sensitive nerve or difficult truth. Parents with narcissistic and/or borderline waif traits may play the hurt, martyr card;"I've always tried so hard to be a good mother...!" and here's where we've abandoned our own concerns or needs, and ended up comforting/reassuring them! When we're made to feel guilty or scared about triggering another's strong emotions, our most natural reflex is to back-off--but the minute this occurs, any chance for meaningful exchange is thwarted.
When focus gets diverted from our feelings to theirs, it's a defense against taking any responsibility for their hurtful behavior, or being responsive to our needs. Our parents may still use this defective strategy, to avoid confrontation and keep themselves off the 'hot seat.' They could start to cry, or attempt to divert our focus by telling us about their aches, pains or personal struggles. These tactics almost always elicit sympathy, which diffuses anger--and have you ever noticed, it's nearly impossible to be mad at someone, while you're feeling sorry for them? Borderline disordered people often resort to this kind of behavior--the precise term for which, is deflection.
The trouble with all this, is each time this sort of 'emotional ricochet' has occurred, we've become programmed to expect that sharing our feelings will be frustrating, painful or scary--and we've projected these concerns onto each relationship we've had ever since! We may not even try communicating openly as adults, because it's easier to stuff our feelings (with food), numb them with other substances/behaviors, or just disappear. Having learned as children that saying how we felt meant punishment and pain, we now do our best to avoid it--even at the expense of tarnishing our character.
Unwillingness to speak about what we're feeling prompts destructive, passive-aggressive behavior. When it comes to slowing the pace of an intimate involvement or wanting to leave, our passivity drives certain actions that are far more injurious to another, than if we stated our concerns and/or needs! In addition, when we harshly judge our ambivalence about a relationship or issue because we think we "should be" more decisive, this inhibits sharing a sense of uncertainty that's very natural within most contexts, and intimacy is derailed at the starting gate! We may judge 'uncertainty' as a vulnerable feeling state, and defend against it by acting-out aggressively. The truth is, we all feel uncertain now and then, and that's to be respected and honored.
For someone who's unable to acknowledge difficult emotions, and for whom experiencing and expressing their needs produces discomfort, even another's minor infractions can become dangerously cumulative, and prompt a variety of somatic responses that may turn into serious health issues, like migraine headaches, intestinal/stomach problems, Anxiety/Panic Disorders, etc. Small annoyances or disappointments are initially glossed over and internalized as trivial or "unimportant," but are noticed just the same. Mounting resentment may occasionally trigger rageful outbursts--but is more often acted-out in a passive/non-direct fashion, which might include infidelities, emotional or sexual withholding/withdrawal, sarcasm, broken commitments or "forgetting" specific requests made by a spouse/lover--or anyone else for that matter, because how we do anything, is how we do everything.
Avoidant personalities may become pathological liars. They begin by telling little white lies, to help them circumvent awkward/uncomfortable situations or truths. At some point, this pattern can become habituated, making it far easier to side-step the truth in general. Years ago, I dated someone with O.J. Simpson Syndrome (he actually believed his lies). This fellow refused to acknowledge when he'd made an error, and even denied that he'd broken something of mine, when I'd watched it happen! These individuals typically have selective memory of events, and cannot take ownership of past (or present) behavior that seems imperfect or unsavory to them. They may twist the facts and act indignant, making you feel ashamed or a little crazy for even suggesting they made a mistake or caused any harm.
Avoidant behavior is one of the defenses that's associated with narcissism. Narcissistic individuals lack authentic ego strength, and this (core) deficit makes it nearly impossible for them to acknowledge their flaws or failings; they may be quick to point out your shortcomings, but confronting their own invokes intolerable levels of shame and self-loathing. This personality type is usually more comfortable "giving than taking," which spawns codependent dynamics with family, friends and lovers. The notion of receiving challenges their (false) non-needing self, and prompts anxiety about loss of control in relationships. Sensitive, open/honest dialogues involve the willingness and capacity to feel vulnerable; core-damaged people avoid vulnerability, and rely on passive-aggressive tactics to manipulate others into accommodating their needs. Some of these folks become People Pleasers, as they're deeply invested in having others regard them as perfect, or above reproach. By the way, narcissists can be great at coming to your rescue if you have a problem (they need to be needed), but they're highly offended, if you have a problem with them!
Passive-aggressive issues are definitely not gender specific, but men seem especially inclined to act-out their feelings, and force women to do their 'dirty work' when it comes to distancing, or ending relationships. They may withdraw emotionally or physically, behave in ways that are inconsiderate, or act like insensitive jerks--but (ironically) what often drives this acting-out behavior, is fear and guilt about "hurting" someone! Fact: Whenever we fail to express our feelings truthfully, there's a lack of congruency between our words and actions that creates painful/confusing inner torment for someone we supposedly care for! Bottom line; if you have the courage to be honest, you can avoid being cruel.
"YIKES, I THINK I'VE JUST BEEN SHOT!"
Passive aggression may be directed verbally rather than acted on physically, which is a more caustic and damaging way to undermine someone. Perhaps we have a relative, lover or "friend" whose statements often feel like barbs. When we react to the slight or attempt to get clarification on their meaning, they may tell us they're "just kidding," or we're being "too sensitive." This is designed to invalidate our perceptions and deflect the confrontation--but as Ellen DeGeneres always says; 'kidding' is when both people can laugh at the joke. Rather than directly expressing what they really think of us, they choose to deliver their hurtful messages indirectly or 'in code,' to disarm and disable us from responding to their (veiled) attack. These comments usually come at us in a kind of sideways manner, or slightly under the breath as a jab--and they're deeply wounding! This person's definitely trying to convey something, but their message is cloaked, to avoid being held accountable for their words--or our reactions.
I once had a friendship with a woman who relied heavily on this style of self-expression. Her snide, offhand comments felt diminishing and hurtful, causing me to wonder if she secretly resented me, or was jealous. If I didn't strictly adhere to her notion of "right behavior," I was severely reprimanded. It didn't matter how generous/caring I'd been throughout the decades of our friendship; when I did something in a way that didn't perfectly match how she thought it should be done, she chastised me for being a "bad friend." This was painful for me, and as I worked to address and resolve each issue with her, another one surfaced almost immediately! For a time, I walked on eggshells in that relationship, and I'm certain that others have too. Her rigid black or white/borderline traits and narcissism, made it impossible for us to work through difficulties and remain close--and felt too toxic for me to keep trying. After gaining understanding about personality disorders, I've realized that my former friend learned/adopted this style of interaction as a kid, and invariably treats others as she was treated.
"I REALLY, REALLY NEED YOU TO LIKE ME . . . !"
Abandonment and attachment issues from childhood lay the groundwork for passive-aggressive behavior, but it's still sometimes hard to discern why we keep engaging in ineffectual/unhealthy patterns with people who matter to us! Are we afraid they'll think less of us, if we're honest with them? Do we fear losing someone's love, if we're responsive to our own feelings? Did we have to lie as kids, to keep peace at home or avoid getting punished? Did our parents maintain aspects of a relationship, without regard for another's feelings or needs? All these issues could have contributed to our not being truthful in relationships, but we pay a heavy price, 'cause it undermines our self-respect, and leaves little room for others to respect us either.
THE BOOMERANG EFFECT
Avoidance of direct communication is an insidious type of control issue that makes others feel emotionally unsafe, and undermines their trust in us. In the midst of trying to cope with the painful feelings this invokes, they might react in ways that are aggressive or hurtful in return. At this juncture, either they terminate the relationship, or we get to feel justified in leaving--but do we ever take ownership/responsibility for having maneuvered them into this position in the first place? If you've ever neglected to let someone know where they stood with you, and made them do your dirty work, you've earned a dishonorable discharge from that relationship.
We might one day choose to re-establish contact with someone we acted-outwith months or years earlier--or we may by chance, run into this person. If we've neglected to be forthright during that relationship, we shouldn't be too surprised if they're unreceptive to our efforts to re-engage them. Unless you're willing to take ownership of your hurtful behavior and offer a heartfelt apology, it's pretty unlikely this person will desire more contact. When trust has been breached, so has respect--and second chances can be very few and far between. Whether you've chosen to step away from a new relationship or a long-established one, how you orchestrate that ending is crucial, because it's typically what someone remembers most about you.
RE-FRAMING AND REBUILDING
When you think about approaching a difficult conversation with somebody, the most critical thing to remember, is that feelings are like the layers of an onion. The first layer is crackly and tough to cut through. Think of this outer layer just like the first layer of emotions that come up (fear, awkwardness, discomfort, etc.), as you contemplate your approach--and mention that first! This will sound like; "I have a very difficult conversation I'm needing to have with you, and it makes me feel (fearful, ashamed, anxious, uncomfortable, etc.)." Now, you've definitely got their attention as well as some sympathy, because how many people are really at ease with confrontation?! Believe it or not, this sets up the whole dialogue, and lets you proceed with the issue at hand. Just expressing your initial feelings, makes the rest flow much easier.
My main purpose here, is to help you learn that 'confrontation' simply means telling someone what's true for you, so how can that be a bad thing? This interaction doesn't have to be uncaring or unkind--it just has to come from an honest place inside you! Sharing our 'real-self' always invokes awkward, anxious feelings, because vulnerability isn't designed to be easy! When we finally accept this, we can begin welcoming opportunities to practice these skills, and get better at them. You cannot predict or control how someone will handle a confrontation, but you can commit to the action--and that's the most important part of this exercise.
You can only become as healthy/whole as your psychotherapist--but a solid therapeutic endeavor helps you learn how to confront difficult topics in an effective manner, freeing up lots of energy in the process. You should gain the ability to consider another's feelings, while staying with yours. You can begin to trust, respect and act on these feelings, as opposed to submerging them, or taking 'better care' of everyone else's. But most importantly, you'll be able to let go of passive-aggressive behavior that's destroyed your past relationships, while building verbal skills and intimacy that will enhance your future ones! If you think you'd like to give this a shot, the payoffs can be enormous--and you could even start to enjoy raising your Integrity Quotient. Meanwhile, try and do your own dirty work by keeping in mind this acronym:
Integrity means walking your talk--especially when it's the most difficult or awkward to do. (If this stuff were easy, everybody'd be doing it!)
Courage means knowing yourself well enough to accept/embrace your insecurities and shortcomings as well as your strengths--and risking that someone who could really matter to you, will too!
Emotional responsibility means behaving with conscious intent concerning another's well-being (not just yours), and respecting them enough to send clear signals--not mixed ones.
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