Passive-aggressive means that a person finds ways to express himself indirectly so that he doesn’t have to admit how he really feels or thinks. Typically, the term is associated with feelings of bottled up anger, but more broadly, it refers to being untruthful about any emotion or desire (passivity) and retaliating against the frustrations arising from being unable to be honest (aggression). Professionals think that, for the most part, acting this way is a coping mechanism that an individual learns over time. With a lack of honesty potentially leading to problems such as relationship conflicts and insecurity, it is usually to a person’s benefit to try to stop the behavior in some way, such as by practicing “I” language.
Symptoms and Examples
What a person does when he is passive-aggressive can vary quite a bit, because the relationships involved determine to some degree what type of retaliation an individual feels will work best. Even so, some common symptoms psychologists and psychiatrists recognize are blaming others, being late a lot, avoiding or ignoring, procrastinating, failing to communicate and being ambiguous during speech or in writing. These signs indicate that an individual isn’t happy, even if he doesn’t come right out and admit it.
As an example, an employee might be assigned work he doesn’t want to do, or that he thinks is unfair. Rather than tell his boss he’d rather not do the assignment, he might agree to it enthusiastically to save face with the company. Afterward, he might fail to turn in paperwork by an assigned due date, show up late to project meetings or pretend he didn’t get messages.
In a more domestic setting, a partner who hates folding laundry might agree to do it if his significant other asks for help. He might wait until the clothes are cold and wrinkled to do so, however, or he might put them away in the wrong spots. Here, the partner doesn’t want to say no because he doesn’t want to cause tension in the relationship, but he’ll perform the task below standard so that he doesn’t get asked to do it again.
When someone shows this type of behavior, the person he manipulates might end up feeling frustrated, angry, sad or betrayed. Tension often develops in the relationship, which can lead to conflicts. If the manipulated person says harsh words or ends the friendship, the passive-aggressive individual might feel that his fears about loss or having to hide his real heart are well founded, creating a cycle. The real problems behind the behavior might never be solved.
Origin and Causes
Psychiatrists, psychologists and others who study human behavior generally believe that the ability to assert oneself is somewhat innate. A baby, for example, cries by instinct to be held, changed or fed. Over time, though, people essentially can be trained not to express themselves truthfully. A child might learn not to ask for anything, for instance, if her parents routinely respond to her requests by saying she’s selfish. The problem is that this doesn’t stop a person from having particular needs or desires — it simply makes it hard to be honest.
Role as a Coping or Defense Mechanism
Although some experts claim that a passive-aggressive person truly enjoys frustrating other people, given how the behavior is thought to develop, other professionals say it is better to see this type of action as a basic defense mechanism. Under this view, an individual might act this way because he is honestly afraid of what will happen if he asserts himself the way he really wants to. He might not like being indirect, but he is anyway because he thinks he’ll lose something valuable — for example, a relationship — if he speaks his mind.
The behavior of soldiers during World War II supports the defense or coping mechanism theory. People in the armed forces shirked their duties, but they did so in ways that were not openly disobedient. In general, they saw what they were doing as a simple way to avoid being killed during combat, but leaders knew that safety depended on discipline and the trust that soldiers would follow their orders. They sent a bulletin to the soldiers to address their actions — it was in this document that the term “passive-aggressive” supposedly first appeared.
Inclusion as a Mental Disorder
The American Psychiatric Association does not formally recognize passive-aggressiveness as a personality disorder. In its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, APA identifies it instead as needing further study. It is not yet clear what environmental or genetic factors, if any, play a role in its development. With the exact cause still somewhat under debate as of 2013, professionals generally do not use medication to address the problem, although they sometimes prescribe substances for the symptoms it can cause, such as depression or anxiety.
Fixing the Problem
The view of many contemporary psychiatrists and psychologists is that, because passive-aggressive behavior might be a bad habit that is learned, a person also might be able to learn how to stop acting this way. This is not simple to do, however, because generally, strong emotions are motivating the dishonesty. To be expressive and start telling the truth typically requires that someone directly admit to and address whatever has led him to feel restricted. Doing this can be quite painful and time consuming for some people. In some instances, professional therapy helps overcome the underlying personal problems.
One of the simplest yet strongest ways for an individual to stop being passive-aggressive is to practice using “I” language. He might say, “I feel that…” or “I think…” during his conversations, for example. This type of speech forces a person to own his thoughts and emotions, admitting and expressing them instead of keeping them inside.
Another technique that sometimes works is to ask friends and family to watch for the behavior and to say something when it shows up. Sometimes, the passive-aggressive person has to be very specific about what to look for, because he might manipulate differently in each relationship. Those who are pointing out instances of the problem generally should approach their task with tact, because the individual they’re helping still might be sensitive about his tendency to manipulate.
Other ways someone can address and change how he is acting include writing in a journal, being insistent in small ways such as wanting a menu alteration at a restaurant and role playing to practice conflict resolution and compromise. Individuals also might consider videotaping themselves or using digital voice recorders to become more conscious of their physical and verbal language. They can resolve to say only what they really mean and not use sarcasm, as well.