How do we know when we’re being passive-aggressive? Because we might see our behavior as justified, innocent or even polite, we often aren’t aware when we’re doing it. After all, passive-aggressive behavior is defined by not doing something.
“Hey, I’m not doing anything!” Yeah, and that’s the problem.
Whether we’re aware of it or not, most of us try to punish others indirectly at times by withholding from them. Tuning in to our motivation can help us to know whether we’re appropriately protecting ourselves by setting boundaries, or whether we’re actually trying to make others feel bad with passive-aggressive behavior.
Motives for Passive-Aggressive Behavior
Passive-aggressive behavior is not doing what others want us to do, in order to make them feel something bad–such as guilt, regret, abandonment, rejection, shame, or fear. We usually do it when we’re angry about how we’ve been treated, and we do it by withholding the material things, communication, action, or moods that they want from us.
The primary motivation for passive-aggressive behavior is to make others feel bad, and only secondarily to make ourselves feel good.
Not all passive behavior is passive-aggressive behavior. Some passive behavior just happens to not conform to what others want, and is motivated primarily by what we want to feel, rather than what we want others to feel.
Bringing awareness to this distinction in motivation will help you to sort out the difference and live more consciously.
Even passive behavior that is meant to “teach” someone something may still be passive-aggressive, because if it were just about teaching them, we’d talk to them directly. As I explored in my previous post, “teaching” is sometimes a justification for punishing others to make them feel bad.
Caveat: Fear of Conflict and Passive Behavior
Before I go on to examples, I want to acknowledge that this distinction between merely passive behavior and passive-aggressive behavior isn’t always so simple. Sometimes we hold back out of a fear of conflict, a fear that if we’re strong, assertive or independent, we’ll lose the approval of people that are important to us.
For instance, Shelia might tell Sharon that she’ll show up to help out at the fund-raiser, but not actually get there. That might not be to make Sharon feel bad, but because she fears losing Sharon’s friendship if she says no directly, and she’s just too exhausted to go there on a Friday night after working five long days.
So I would not call this passive-aggressive.
But if Shelia’s motivation not to go help out was that she wanted to get back at Sharon because Sharon’s daughter hadn’t invited her daughter to a birthday party last month, that would be passive-aggressive.
When is it Passive-Aggressive? Acknowledging Motivation and Gratification
So here are some questions to ask yourself to see if you’re being passive-aggressive:
• Do you want the other person to feel something bad (frustrated, guilty, furious, hurt, rejected, etc.) as a result of your holding back?
• Do you get a little charge, some gratification, out of holding back what others want from you?
• Do you feel righteous in holding back, as if punishing them were a good thing?
Following are some examples of behavior that could be passive-aggressive.
I’ve put in parentheses examples of feelings that you might want the other person to have as a result of your holding back:
Withholding Material Things That People Want From You:
• Not paying debts, dues or alimony. (anxious, defeated, angry)
• Losing, breaking or not returning other people’s things. (powerless)
• Not tipping or giving gifts that you otherwise would have given. (regret, disrespected, chastised)
Withholding Communication or Information:
• Withholding affection, compliments or reassurance. (insecure, abandoned)
• Saying “Fine” or “Whatever” when you really mean the opposite. (defeated)
• Using sarcasm instead of being direct. (blocked, defeated)
• Agreeing to do something you don’t really want to do and then not following through. (regret that they’ve asked too much of you)
• Speaking so softly that people have to strain to hear you. (frustrated, exhausted)
Withholding Actions That People Want You To Take:
• Procrastinating on projects the other needs completed (dependent, blocked, frustrated)
• Not listening. (disregarded)
• Not returning emails, texts, or telephone calls. (you must have done something wrong)
• Withdrawing by walking away or disconnecting (guilt or regret for not appreciating you)
• Not showing up or not following through. (unimportant)
• Not taking out the garbage. (furious, alone, ignored)
• Not getting sober. (hurt, punished, powerless)
• Not completing projects as well as you could. (unimportant, you don’t matter)
• Not arriving on time. (disrespected, less than, foolish)
• Not making decisions. (powerless, frustrated)
• Not sticking to the budget you agreed on. (deprived, defeated)
Withholding a Better Mood When You Know It Affects Others:
• Sulking or pouting. (guilty for not treating you better or being more concerned about you)
• Being sullen, morose or gloomy. (I shouldn’t feel good when you feel so bad.)
• Being grumpy or cranky. (Now I know how bad you feel. I must have been insensitive.)
• Taking a victim stance. (guilty for being mean)
Is It Always Bad to Be Passive-Aggressive?
As I pointed out in a recent post, punishment is sometimes called for in order to teach people what they’ve done wrong, and that they can’t get away with it. And withholding may be a good way to get that person’s attention. But ideally this is done along with direct verbal or written communication. Don’t expect people to read your mind about what they’ve done wrong. There may be another side to the story that you haven’t understood yet.
And there may be times when being passive is the safest and wisest thing to do in order to protect yourself. But ideally it’s done consciously rather than unconsciously, and for self-preservation, rather than for spite.
Let’s not get carried away with this stuff. Once you start noticing it you may start to imagine it everywhere — whether it exists or not. The danger is that you start to take other people’s behavior personally, as if it were passive-aggressive and meant to annoy you, when it really may have nothing to do with you.
There’s a lot of disdain for passive-aggressive behavior, and the disdain only drives it deeper underground. Let’s compassionately acknowledge that we’re all capable of it, use curiosity to understand its source, and try to find better ways of owning our power and autonomy.
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If you live with someone who is obsessive-compulsive, you may find this post helpful: How To Get Along With A Partner Who Has OCPD (Compulsive Personality).
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