Anger comes in many flavors. Sometimes it is unambiguous, featuring yelling, colorful language, hurling of objects, slamming of doors. Sometimes it is expressed in measured words. Sometimes, though, anger remains hidden, simmering quietly and finding an indirect way out. This is passive-aggressive territory, the domain of gracious words and composed facial expressions, while some form of quiet sabotage is taking place. If this is the native language of a friend or loved one, finding peace can be tricky. Sound familiar?
Passive-aggressive people express their anger or resentment indirectly. The chaos they create is meant to look unintended, while they appear friendly. You know these people: the friend who forgets to return your cellphone, again; the partner who is late for a special dinner, because he loses track of time; the supervisor who can never seem to find your vacation request. (You sent that email three times.) In the world of passive-aggressive people, stuff just happens. It’s never their fault.
For some people, expressing anger directly is difficult, and even feeling it may seem risky and hard to accept. Passive-aggressive people deal with their hostile feelings by concealing them in ambiguous words, like backhanded compliments. She really looks great for her age. Your point of view is interesting, for a sophomore. I admire overachievers.
It’s hard to point out the problem, when hostility wears a smile. It’s hard to defend yourself, when an attack is vague and deniable. That’s the point. When communication is blocked, relationships suffer.
Passive-aggressive people do not accept responsibility for hurting you. If you think there’s a problem with their comment or behavior, they will assure you, indignantly, that you are mistaken. You’re not as understanding as they thought; you’re hypersensitive; you’re unreasonable. It’s you.
Passive-aggressive people send mixed signals, to keep you on call without making commitments. Your brother says he wants to catch up, but the family is crazy busy, and it might be a week or two. It’s now been a year and a half. They may use manipulation to be in control of relationships, sulking or disappearing when challenged. They may gossip behind your back, while being friendly to your face. Instead of asking directly for what they want, they use martyrdom and guilt: I’m so depressed about my lost cellphone, I wish I had someone who cared about me enough to take me to dinner tonight. They never ask what you need.
This is crazy-making behavior. How do you protect yourself, and nurture these relationships?
1) Where there is vagueness, bring clarity. If you are hurt by a comment, say so. It may not be received well, but at least you are making an opportunity for healing to happen. Speak about your own feelings, and the specific hurtful comment. Resist retaliating with negative talk. Stay on high ground.
2) Observe their actions, when their words don’t match. In the case of inconsistency, most people trust actions more than words, to demonstrate how a person really feels. Let your friend know what you have observed. Refrain from judgment.
3) Do not reward manipulation by caving to unreasonable requests. I’m so sorry that I can’t babysit your kids today; I have another commitment after work. Do not argue. Do not defend yourself. Just repeat, calmly.
4) Let them know that you are willing to receive constructive criticism, and can tolerate their anger if they express it respectfully. Anger is not the end of relationships. Stonewalling might be.
5) When your friend shows consideration, go out of your way to recognize it. Like everyone else, passive-aggressive people are vulnerable and greatly in need of praise.
Be aware that people with passive-aggressive traits change very slowly, and find it difficult to apologize. Be realistic about how much close contact you can handle. But know that it really isn’t about you. It’s challenging to be empathetic when you feel routinely wounded by someone you care for; but you can stop feeling victimized. You don’t have to accept that role, even if asked nicely.