On Passive Aggressive Behavior & Manipulation

Cch! Gawd, what a jerk!I was browsing around my stat reports for my blog – it’s always fun to see what Google search words bring people to my site. I was a little surprised to see a lot of people come across my blog through some variation of key words that involve passive aggressive behavior and manipulation. But then I guess it makes sense because I know I have mentioned passive aggressiveness on my blog before. It is one of my pet peeves, most especially because I, myself, am prone to it and have worked hard to change that about myself. We hate most in others that which we despise in ourselves, right?

Upon seeing how many people find me through those key words, I began to realize it’s probably an issue a lot of people struggle to cope with, most often because they have a loved one who is passive aggressive and they don’t know how to deal with them. I know when I faced this issue, there are a lot of sources online that voice complaints about the behavior, but offer little practical advice on how to cope. So I thought I would put together my own article on passive aggressive behavior.

Why Passive Aggressiveness Sucks:
Passive aggressive behavior is problematic for two reasons. First, it is dishonest. It allows the aggressor to hide instead of confronting problems with courage and integrity. Second, because it is dishonest, it is also impractical. Rather than dealing with problems honestly, it ends up either creating more problems, escalating current problems, or hiding problems until they get too big to handle. Or all of the above. It therefore makes it nearly impossible to resolve issues. Meanwhile bad feelings fester. Fester, fester, fester. Rot, rot, rot. (Ten points for naming what movie that comes from.)

Signs You’re Dealing With Passive Aggressiveness:
So assuming we all prefer not to fester and rot, the next step is to figure out how to identify passive aggressiveness – either in ourselves or in those we love. Because it is by nature passive, it is often disguised as something else, so it can be hard to identify. But once you’re aware of how it operates, it can become pretty easy to spot.

I think there are two principle characteristics that guide passive aggressive behavior. 1) It seeks to deflect attention away from the real issue because the aggressor fears direct confrontation about the real problem, and 2) It seeks to deflect blame away from the aggressor so they can tell themselves it is not their fault.

What does this look like? Passive aggressive manipulation can manifest itself in many ways. Here are some of the most common ones:

Tit for tat scoring: This looks something along the lines of “Look at everything I’ve done for you. You owe me this in return.” Of course people should give equally in love and one should be wary not be taken advantage of. But I’m talking about a particular attitude here. If you approach love in a way where you keep a tally sheet of brownie points and who owes whom what, chances are you’re not approaching love in an honest, open and giving way. This behavior hides the fact that the aggressor does not feel comfortable simply asking for love. Instead they resort to a power dynamic where they give first, so they feel they have the right to make a claim in return. That way, if the other person does not give in, he or she becomes the ungrateful party and the aggressor can feel comfortable in the myth that they have the moral upper hand.

Self-martyrdom: This is the one I’m most prone to doing because I grew up around people who use this a lot. But there came a day when I discovered how toxic it is and I vowed to myself I would try everything I could to not do this. Self-martyrdom is when you don’t want to do something, but go along with it anyway – but you pretend it’s because you’re doing it for the other person. Usually it’s accompanied by a statement like “Whatever you want to do” or “If that’s what you want, fine by me” – except that it’s not fine by you. It deflects attention away from the fact that you are unwilling or unable to simply state what you want, but it absolves you of responsibility because you tell yourself you’re doing it to make the other person happy, you’re being accommodating, you’re not rocking the boat. Meanwhile, you do things to sabotage the situation. You might drag your feet or put up barriers so what the person wanted doesn’t actually happen. Or you might put on an air of suffering to send the other person the message that you’re doing this for them even though you don’t want to, so you try to make them feel guilty for being so selfish. Really, it is the self-martyr who is being selfish, for though they are giving, they are not giving openly and with love. If the giving is genuine, then you genuinely are pleased just to see the other person happy. You do not carry any hard feelings about it.

- Smoke and mirrors: This tactic is a particularly difficult beast to deal with. When this happens, the aggressor actually creates a problem that really isn’t a problem to direct attention away from the true problem. Sounds ridiculous, right? Well, I have a real, true life example to illustrate (names have been changed to protect the not-so-innocent):
Sally’s mother always loved horseback riding and she wanted her daughter to share that love. Ever since Sally was little, her mother got her lessons to ride. But as Sally became a teenager, she decided she didn’t want to ride anymore and she was tired of always being pushed by her mom to ride horses. So one day when Sally was supposed to go to a lesson after school, she went with a friend, Jessica, to play by a creek. She missed her bus home and therefore was too late to catch her lesson. She lied about missing the bus and told her mother the bus had been late. She asked Jessica to confirm the lie. When Jessica got home, she told her own mother the truth, but asked her to lie to Sally’s mom if she called to check with her about Sally’s story.
So you can see, the lies just escalate. Now look at the problem from Sally’s mom’s perspective. Clearly she is facing a problem with her daughter where she wants her daughter to do something, but Sally doesn’t want to do it. But the problem is, she has no idea that this is the real problem. She just is upset her daughter missed a costly lesson. Even if she discovers the lie, then she is going to be focused on the fact that her daughter is lying to her, but she won’t know why. In truth, Sally simply lacks the courage to honestly tell her mother how she feels. So she creates a different problem—showing up too late to go to her riding lesson: a problem that she may find less daunting to confront so that she doesn’t have to face the real issue—that she doesn’t share the dream her mother has for her, something she probably feels both angry and guilty about. But what is the result? Total confusion. Not problem solved.

- The Hapless Victim: This card is most often played by the incredibly insecure. This is the “I can never do anything right” card. This person is constantly waiting for someone else to do for them what they are too afraid to do for themselves, usually because they fear failure. And yet, they almost invite failure because it provides further evidence they need help. They can point to it and say, “See? I was never capable in the first place. You should never have made me do that.” It gives them an excuse to fall on their sword and it absolves them of responsibility for themselves. But the truth is, they did not put in an honest effort. Meanwhile, you are tempted to do for them because it would be easier, faster, and invite less trouble. But the more you give in to this manipulation, the more you end up feeding their comfort in the insecurity blanket.

So What Do You Do?
If you are dealing with someone who is behaving in a passive aggressive way, there is really only one thing you can do: refuse to be manipulated. If they behave in a way that you can tell in your gut is just not honest (and I think our guts are pretty reliable when it comes to these things, especially with repeated offenses), the only thing you can do is to call them out on it. Try really hard not to get angry with them. Most often, the aggressor does not even realize they are acting in a manipulative way. Remember principle #2? They are busy convincing themselves that they are the victim here. They’re not only lying to you; they’re lying to themselves. Just try to calmly point out what they are doing and ask them to tell you what it is they really want. Understanding them can at least help build tolerance. But honestly? You’ll probably be lucky if they can take a step back, reflect, and tell you openly what they want. Still, you can refuse to let them have power over you. You are the captain and steward of your own emotions. Take a step back, take a deep breath, and try to insist on speaking honestly. After enough times of this strategy not working, the aggressor will have to find some other way to behave to get results they want. Hopefully, they’ll come to honesty sooner rather than later.

What if you recognize these tendencies in yourself? Well, for one, congratulations for being willing to be honest with yourself! That is an incredibly difficult thing to do! But as hard as it is to break old habits, having the courage to face your own faults is probably the hardest part. Once you realize what you’re doing, it becomes incredibly easy to spot when you do it again. And you know what? It’s okay if you slip up – as long as you face up to it when you do. It is okay to come back and say, “Wait, I’m sorry, I didn’t say what I wanted to say. This is what I really meant.”

One Last Point:
One of the keyword searches I came across in my stats was asking something to the effect of: can two naturally passive-aggressive people be compatible? Well, yes, they can be compatible. The question is: can they have an honest, open and healthy relationship; one that strengthens and supports, rather than weakens and undermines? The answer there is yes too. It is possible to change your behavior. It is possible to overcome your natural tendencies. But it does require commitment. If you can recognize these symptoms in each other, you can agree to be committed to helping each other move past your fears. You can agree to help each other face problems with courage, knowing you are doing it together. You can commit to helping each other find true happiness. It’s not about acting perfectly wisely all the time. It’s about just being honest, even when you are afraid.

Facing problems in relationships is tough (Oh my god, is it tough). And it gets even more difficult when we become hijacked by fear or pride. But when it does get tough, all you have to do is focus on this one thought: I would rather be happy.

Have you dealt with passive aggressiveness in your life? How did you cope with it?

*Image courtesy of http://www.marieclaire.com/sex-love/advice/tips/giving-a-relationship-ultimatum

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2 thoughts on “On Passive Aggressive Behavior & Manipulation

  1. Ahh. Passive aggressiveness. I know thee well. (I also know that French Kiss is one of my favorite Meg Ryan movies.) We, on occasion, have passive aggressive tendencies. We have both gotten to the point that it can get worse the busier we are, but we have also learned to call each other on it with just a simple "hey, passive aggressivve much?" which usually leads to a knowing smile and an "okay, fine dammit, I'm pissed about ____." But it wasn't easy. Lots of hard work on other aspects throughout our relationship led to this place.

  2. I really love that you actually have a shorthand way to acknowledge it and that works for you! It's really encouraging to hear when people actually commit to working through the hard times and come out stronger and better for it.

    And score! on the French Kiss catch! I LOVE that movie too. I think I've seen it like 15 times. LOL

    Anyway, I hope you're having a FABULOUS Mother's Day and that you're getting pampered like nothing else!