Definition: Passive aggressive behavior can occur when someone is angry at another person, but is restrained for some reason from openly expressing that anger. The anger is expressed in some hidden way, such as sabotaging the other person’s work. Dealing with passive aggressive people can be crazy making. You feel dismissed, shut down or ignored, but in a subtle enough way that you don’t know how to react. At some point, you explode. Over time, this can turn into a vicious cycle: passive aggressive behavior begets anger and finger-pointing, which in turn begets more passive-aggressive behavior. Among the causes of passive aggressive behavior is fear of conflict. The more your partner sees you as a formidable opponent, the more they’ll tend to take what feels to them like the cautious approach – the passive aggressive approach. You, in turn, feel increasingly irritated; you act in ways that they perceive as increasingly formidable. And so on. Creating a climate of safe and open communication with a couple can go a long way toward changing the pattern of passive aggression, on the one hand, and anger and blame on the other hand.
Comment: Probably most people who use passive-aggressive techniques to defend themselves are not conscious that they behave in this way. It is a technique to use one’s power to attack another person, but on the surface it appears that the person is not attacking. These kinds of people appear to be reasonable, they are not provoking anybody with their words. At the surface they seem cool, calm and collected. Because this is an unconscious behavior, then probably these people are at a loss to understand why people close to them, are responding back to what appears to them in a strong way, when it seems like they didn’t do anything to ‘deserve it.’ Then because of this kind of response, the tendency of the person is to come back stronger and stronger, never seeing the cause that one is creating this in one’s surrounding.
The way to detect this behavior is to look behind decisions, actions, words and behaviors of the individual. If you look close you will notice that the expression of the person is calm, but there is an obvious threat behind it. This can be a hard thing to detect in dialog but if you are calm and look close you can detect it when it happens. If you find yourself in such a situation, then the creative challenge is to try to stay centered and not react to the threats behind. This is challenging to do, but if you keep trying eventually you will succeed and learn a great skill along the way, another possible benefit is that they won’t find a target thereby not receiving any more fuel to go on and maybe this might be the first step to defuse the heated situation.
This behavior is easiest to see in the actions (or non-actions) of another person, to look behind and see if their decisions or actions are attacking you. Another reason to suspect this kind of behavior might be if you find yourself repeatedly reacting to the other in a strong way, but not realizing yourself why you are doing it. What could be happening is that you are responding to the threat behind the posture, even you might not be aware it is there at the time. Or you might be aware of it and are not willing or are not able to hold your energy back to not react in kind to the unspoken attack.
This defensive posture of the personality is useful to the one who is wielding it, because it allows oneself to be aggressive yet hide it, instead painting the other as the aggressor and keeping your own nose clean. Simply because people respond to the underlying threat not even being aware that they were attacked, then they appear as the guilty ones looking like angry aggressors attacking ‘poor mild mannered Kent…’
What can be said in general is that all forms of aggression are being used by the personality for the purpose to defend one’s self-image. At some point in the past – or it could be an accumulating ‘resentment’ – this person felt that another person harmed them or is continuing to harm them. Of course all these ‘viewpoint’s’ we are holding about another person are not only ‘past’ but also ‘personal’ and don’t usually include the other’s point of view, this is why we can hold onto these kinds of things for so long. I think at some level we like holding resentments, so that we can have something to keep us busy turning around ourselves. To forgive would mean we would have to drop the past, and personalities don’t like to do this, they need something to keep them energized in all their strong emotions…
I think oftentimes, people are not aware that inside of themselves they might be harboring a strong resentment towards another person or might be in a state of not being able to forgive a person for a past action. The person might feel that the other person hurt them in such a way that they will never be able to forgive it… I think this is the main reason that relationships break down, because parties aren’t willing to forgive each other for past ‘perceived’ wrongs. Hardly ever is there the willingness to forgive, forget, talk and get on with the present.
In regards to passive-aggressive defenses, this is probably coming from someone who has a self-image that values ‘high moral standards’ and ‘responsible behavior’. They choose this way to attack for exactly that reason, as they are able to attack yet still look like they are moral, that they are responsible, etc. People with ‘high moral standards’ might have multiple reasons why they feel that a great injustice was done to them or to another (such as feeling a person attacked a ‘weakling’ or an ‘underdog’), or perhaps they felt that the other person hurt them in a way which was irresponsible or humiliating. Either way when someone is not able to forgive somebody and accept them for how they are right now and to let go of the past, then you can know that inside they are fuming, angry and hating the other person, while turning around the perceived ‘injustice’ or ‘resentment’ of the past.
This kind of inner anger can’t be hidden simply because it is being held, then the body will reflect it outwards in some way, no matter how much the person might believe they can hide it, in fact they can’t – it is visible. If you are advanced in your meditation practice you can get very quiet and read the thoughts of another person… I suppose passive-aggressive postures are used by those who are the most clever among us, because with their outward passive posture then can very subtly and in a tricky way attack the other, maintaining their own elevated status of ‘being the good guy’. As most people don’t know about these kinds of things, people using this kind of defense can also easily get others behind them to make them even stronger, convincing whomever that they are the ‘good guys’ and the others the ‘bad guys’. Other techniques that go hand and hand with this kind of defense of the personality is to attack from behind including: withholding information, planning, strategizing, taking control in subtle ways, plotting revenge, not talking, sneaking around, talking behind others backs, provoking in one’s actions, getting support for one’s views, etc. Of course the benefit to attack predominately serves to protect one’s own self-image of how one’s sees oneself, making the attacker look like they haven’t done anything wrong, it’s all the fault of the other. Whew! It is incredible what lengths a personality will go to in order to prove it’s existence, but on the positive side once we see it in ourselves, then that can be our first step to be able to go beyond it.