YOUR DIRTY WORK?
Deconstructing Passive Aggression
By Shari Schreiber,
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
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.
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.
AFRAID OF THE BIG BAD WOLF?
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.
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!
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
It's crucial you learn more about personality
disorders, so you can differentiate between normal relational
conflicts, and abnormal patterns of behavior.
TELL THE TRUTH, I'M JUST TOO SCARED!"
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.
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.
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.
THE BEGINNING . . .
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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!
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.
I THINK I'VE JUST BEEN SHOT!"
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,'
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.
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.
REALLY, REALLY NEED YOU TO LIKE ME . . . !"
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.
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.
one day choose to re-establish contact with someone we acted-out
with 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.
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.
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.
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:
your talk--especially when it's the most difficult
or awkward to do. (If this stuff were easy, everybody'd
be doing it!)
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!
behaving with conscious intent concerning
another's well-being (not just yours), and respecting them
enough to send clear signals--not mixed
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