Bullying and Passive-Aggressive Behavior: How To Deal With It

Passive-aggressive behavior is a defense mechanism that allows people who aren’t comfortable being openly aggressive to get what they want under the guise of still trying to please others. They want their way, but they also want everyone to still like them.
Urban Dictionary

Passive-aggressive behavior is the indirect expression of hostility, such as through procrastination, sarcasm, hostile jokes, stubbornness, resentment, sullenness, or deliberate or repeated failure to accomplish requested tasks for which one is (often explicitly) responsible.

…of or relating to a personality that harbours aggressive emotions while behaving in a calm or detached manner.

Passive aggression is defined as a deliberate and masked way of expressing covert feelings of anger (Long, Long & Whitson, 2008)

Bullying is finally getting the attention it deserves. Who hasn’t heard of the damning texts, Facebook taunts, punching, pinching, mean practical “jokes,” verbal assaults, sarcasm, cruel messages written on school lockers, and even pernicious gossip that abound in schools? Bullying also occurs in adult relationships. At work, with couples, the elderly, and even between parents and children. The difference is it is usually less blatant, and takes the form of more subtle, but no less destructive, passive-aggressive behavior.

By its very definition, passive-aggressive behavior is constructed in such a manipulative way that it leaves an aggressive residue without incurring the perpetrator any obvious negative feedback. That’s the beauty of it. The whole set up insures the person behaving passive-aggressively is beyond criticism. After all, who can blame someone for “forgetting” to get your insulin, everyone forgets things sometimes, don’t they? And, who can blame someone for being late when life intrudes? Only the most insensitive, rigid person would be critical of that. What about someone who insults you and says, “Can’t you take a joke?”

Passive-aggressive behavior creates a double bind for the recipient, and that is where its real power lies. If the target acts angry, or says something, she is suddenly the one with the problem. “I know I promised, but why are you getting so angry with me? I couldn’t help forgetting what time the pharmacy closes.” Suddenly you are the one who is angry or too sensitive. (Who can be too sensitive? You are simply as sensitive as you are.) This insidious way of blaming the victim, is also an example of projection, because the passive-aggresive person is actually angry, and probably highly sensitive, too, but incapable of owning his feelings.

Another hallmark of this behavior is the disconnect between the person’s words and behaviors. They say they want to help you, but don’t follow-up. When you press them for a reason, they will always have a logical, reasonable excuse. If this happens infrequently, it is not a problem. If it happens all the time, it creates a lack of trust and precludes any deeper intimacy.

Passive-aggressive behavior is an excellent strategy for goading someone into actually feeling angry or upset, as the recipient often feels trapped into either responding in an understanding, patient way (which may not reflect their true feelings), or reacting with disappointment, frustration, or anger. Suddenly, they are the one with the problem. So, passive-aggressive behavior is incredibly manipulative, and deflects the perpetrator’s anger onto someone else. It may not be as blatant as other forms of bullying, but it is still bullying.

The person who uses passive-aggressive behavior gets a rush of power from feeling in control. They have trouble being assertive because being assertive requires knowing what you want and asking for it in a non-confrontational way. Since they habitually deny their anger or resentment, they are not in touch enough to be assertive; hence, the use of passive-aggressive strategies.

While you may want to understand how this behavior developed (probably in childhood from an insecure attachment to a primary care-giver), it is best to keep the focus on you. Are you interested in staying with this person even if he never stops behaving this way? If so, there are ways to do this, but the behaviors may continue to annoy you. Even though your partner may not be an alcoholic, many of the methods suggested for dealing with an alcoholic in 12-Step groups, like Al-Anon, can be very helpful. Just bear in mind that employing these techniques, will probably not change the other person’s behavior. So, it is wise to ask yourself if this is the future you want.

Since passive-aggressive behavior is rampant in our society, you are bound to encounter it at work, at the gym, in your family, with romantic partners, etc. Here are a few suggestions for how to deal with it while feeling more in control of your reactions:
Act unfazed, even blasé.

Don’t react with anger. If you do, things will most likely escalate with you feeling more frustrated, hopeless, and furious.

Say something like, “I am disappointed that you forgot my 40th birthday.” Try for a calm, neutral tone. After all, this person has behaved this way ever since you met, so it’s really no surprise he disappointed you again.

Find humor in their attempts to annoy you. That’s genuine humor, and only if you can really access it. Reacting with sarcasm will only up the emotional ante. This type of humor is actually another aspect of compassion. You can see the inner child in their behavior struggling for a way to express himself and having only a few tools in his toolbox.

Be extra friendly, nice, and calm, just the way you would with a psychiatric patient. But resist using a condescending or contemptuous tone.

Be direct. Use “I” sentences to tell the person how you would like him to behave. State it as a preference, not a demand. (“Next time, I would like it if you could pick the kids up on time.” rather than “You should have remembered to pick up the kids on time.”)

Only give an ultimatum if you plan on keeping it. Idle threats typically make these behaviors increase in intensity or frequency.

Remember, it’s not about you, even though it effects you. You didn’t do anything to deserve this; nor, can you change anyone else’s behavior.

Typically, people who employ passive-aggressive behavior have it set pretty deeply in their repertoire. So, expect them to continue using it.

Be aware that the person behaving this way wants you to act out their unexpressed anger. If you rise to the bait, you run the risk of really escalating things. This may entail someone blaming you for “making them angry.” (You can’t make anyone angry, just as you can’t make anyone happy.) Conversely, you may think reacting calmly will also increase the behaviors. It may, but if you don’t react with anger, yelling, or tears he will (consciously or unconsciously) get the message that his behavior is inappropriate.

Dealing with passive-aggressive behavior is generally exhausting. Having a few techniques enables you to feel less triggered, and to remember: It’s not about you.

You may wonder if staying in a love relationship with someone who behaves passive-aggressively is possible. That depends on you. Everyone is different and has different proclivities and tolerances. Some people can separate sufficiently from their partner to know their partner’s behavior is not about them. They can more easily detach from someone else’s annoying ways without catalyzing a cascade of negative emotions.

Because everyone has different levels of sensitivity and tolerance, there is no right way of being, only your way. The key question is: Given how I am and what triggers me, can I skillfully work with these behaviors or will I perpetually get irritated, annoyed, frustrated, angry, and eventually resentful and hateful? This is an opportunity to plumb the depths of who you really are, not whom you would like to be. The more honest you are with yourself, the better decision you will reach. There can be strength in deciding to stay or go.
Copyright: Nicole S. Urdang

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Nicole Urdang

Nicole S. Urdang, M.S., NCC, DHM is a Holistic Psychotherapist in Buffalo, NY. She holds a New York state license in mental health counseling and a doctorate in homeopathic medicine from the British Institute of Homeopathy.