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Learning how to cope with inner resistance, disappointment, and conflict is part of the human experience.
As toddlers, we handle it boldly, directly, and honestly: we have full-on tantrums. As we grow, however, we learn how to handle negative life situations with more finesse. We are taught starting in preschool to learn to play well with others. We learn we must be nice to our friends.
Part of learning to play with others is to quell the inner storms long enough to listen to everyone’s point of view. Another important part is learning to speak your own point of view. If either of these aspects malfunction, we end up with results that can be characterized as passive aggressive behavior.
For example: all of us have had moments of being resentful, withdrawing in sullen protest, or talking about a situation behind a friend’s back.
By the time we are adults, we are expected to have figured out how to manage anger, how to listen, and how to clearly communicate and negotiate. So why are some adults routinely become passive aggressive?
If you think about it, our society doesn’t have a lot of tolerance for aggression, which is essentially anger. Anger is a taboo emotion. While many people are encouraged into sports as an indirect tool for anger management, we don’t necessarily have overt methods of dealing with anger (that are not laced with shame).
Because anger is linked with violence, men are often feared when they express their anger. This leads many peaceable men to be afraid of their own anger and stuff it. Women also have trouble with anger. Many women have been domesticated to believe that expressing anger is not being a ‘lady.’
Combine the discomfort of anger with a fear of conflict, and you’ve got passive aggressiveness. You want to be heard, but you do NOT want to create conflict nor do you want to admit you feel angry…even though you do! So you’ve learned some other strategies for getting what you want (results may vary).
Here’s a short list to let you know if you have passive aggressive behavior, and what you can do about it.
1) You play the silent game while secretly stabbing a voodoo doll.
The silent game is a familiar strategy in passive aggressive behavior. The intent is to punish the other person with silence while pretending to not care about them. Taking a break from a situation and creating distance for reflection is very different than the silent game.
The silent game is only silent in that there is NO conversation happening between you and the person with whom you are angry. It is actually very loud inside your own mind: replaying the perceived injustice, feeling worse and worse about what happened, building the inner anger and resentment, and sending highly negative vibes to the other person.
The silent game gets you more and more deeply entrenched in your own point of view and expands your suffering.
If you’re ensnared by the silent game, the way to start untangling from it is to apologize. Speak your truth and release. A first step is a virtual conversation. Envision the person in your mind clearly. Accept personal responsibility for the parts of the conflict that were yours by saying you are sorry. Share your thoughts and feelings about what you perceive they said or did that hurt you.
Lastly, release the situation to a higher power. Invite a new perception that will resolve the matter. Repeat this virtual conversation whenever you find your mind embroiled in the debate again. At some point, if you feel ready, you can attempt an actual conversation (see advice under point #3).
2) You have chronic amnesia about that thing you promised to do (but don’t actually want to do).
It’s so frustrating when people keep ‘forgetting’ to do the thing they promised to do, right? What if you’re this person?
Chances are if you look deeply into your forgetful mind, you’ll realize you did NOT really want to take this action. You only said you would do it to make the other person happy in the moment (or to stop a conflict). Perhaps the other person was highly insistent, and so you complied in order to avoid further nagging.
Pleasing others is passive aggressive behavior for getting around conflict, but it also results in a buildup of resentment that does NOT have a healthy outlet. This resentment can make you dig your heels in when the time comes to fulfill that promise. The solution is to NOT make promises you do not want to keep.
Easier said than done, because it risks someone being unhappy with you right now. But as you learn to only make promises you intend to keep, you become a person of your word. Integrity feels awesome.
Run this experiment: for one whole day say ‘No’ every time someone asks you to do something. Don’t explain yourself. Just witness your internal reaction to telling someone ‘No.’ While you are standing in your ‘No’ answer, mentally and emotionally wrap your arms around yourself in a protective manner. You deserve your own support as you stand up for yourself.
3) You talk to everyone that will listen about a problem with your friend, including the grocery bagger (except your friend).
Gossip is one of the most insidious aspects of passive aggressive behavior. It spreads the toxic situation around your circle of friends, your family, and your community, infecting the perceptions of others and reinvigorating your determination to keep the problem going.
The goal of gossip is typically to reinforce your own point of view. Here’s the problem with that strategy: your perception might be faulty. Talking with someone about the situation is helpful if, and only if, you are seeking to understand or resolve it.
When choosing a person with whom to confer, pick someone who will be supportive – but also call you on your part in the situation. If you’re calling the friend who always says you’re right, just realize you’re seeking validation rather than resolution.
Once you understand how you feel, and you claim responsibility for your own perceptions and reactions. You can decide whether you want to work on your relationship with your friend. If the answer is yes, then choose to be vulnerable. Choose to go into the conversation with your heart open.
Share your perspective as clearly as you can without blaming them for how you chose to feel. For example, “When you said this (fact), I thought you meant that (perception), and then I felt this way (reaction). This friendship is important to me. What I would like to happen is this (request).”
Leave expectations at the door and just show up to listen.
4) You self-sabotage with the delusion that hurting yourself will make your perpetrators feel bad.
Sometimes, when we experienced trauma as a child, even being neglected or told ‘children should be seen and not heard,’ can develop some unhealthy self-sabotage.
This particular pattern is caused by the Triangle of Disempowerment: Victim, Rescuer, Perpetrator. Wanting to harm yourself is part of the Victim role, and invites a Perpetrator to complete the picture to give you the justification. The Rescuer saves you and confirms how unjust life is, and how mean the Perpetrator is.
This aspect of passive aggressive behavior is about the need to feel seen, heard, and wanted. It has a huge dependency for someone outside of yourself to complete you, or give you the good feelings you crave so you can keep living (Rescuer). When that person is unwilling to fill your cup, they become the Perpetrator.
This pattern can also include a heavy dose of taking things personally.
When you take things personally, you believe it’s your fault when someone has a negative belief about you. You also take it personally when they like you. To break free, you must realize that NOTHING anyone does is ever actually about you. What other people say or do is about their own beliefs, projections, and experience of life.
The best way to support yourself through this challenge is to nurture yourself deeply. To gain resilience during the turbulence of relationship, you need to be the first person you go to for love and reassurance.
To start, you can close your eyes and turn your attention inward to your heart. Place one hand over your heart and the other over your belly. Breathe in love, breathe out resistance to love.
If this is part of your pattern, seek a practitioner to help you with child healing meditation. The more you heal the inner child, the more integrated and whole you become. Eventually, you will feel self-love and acceptance, and walk away from this pattern for good.
5) You smile as you hand a drink to your nemesis that you have laced with toenail clippings.
I’m sure this title captured your attention! This category of passive aggressive behavior is pretending to be nice while actually attacking. This level crosses the line into nefarious while projecting the image public innocence.
While deep levels of anger might inspire this kind of underhanded attack, it’s best to remember an important Universal principle: what comes around, goes around. In the short term, this type of action might deliver a dark gleefulness. But in the long term, the loss of personal integrity is not worth it.
Underlying this form of passive aggressiveness is a feeling of powerlessness. Secretly acting aggressive is a rebellious attempt at regaining power in the context of the relationship. Unfortunately, acting in this way undermines personal power by robbing you of integrity.
Acts such as these eventually are found out. The truth has a way of finding the light, and suppressing this kind of truth is like lugging a huge suitcase of anxiety and self-judgment everywhere you go and trying to hide it.
If you have the amount of anger and hatred that would inspire this kind of passive aggressive behavior, it’s best to release it in a way that does not harm others. In some Native American traditions, the “wailing hole” was a place to release such grievances.
Dig a hole in the Earth and scream and cry into it. Cover the hole when you’ve released all you can in this moment and trust the Earth will process it for you. As more anger and resentment arise, find ways to let it go so you can be free of it in a way that has integrity.
Don’t Let Passive Aggressive Behavior Rule YOU
Standing in your personal power is the best way to avoid passive aggressive behavior. Give yourself the permission to speak your mind and share your heart. Listen to yourself and honor your feelings. Focus your love and attention on yourself first. Invest in personal healing and development to address places in your life where you felt wounded.
As you deepen your self-respect, you will not allow others to treat you poorly – and you will not allow yourself to treat others poorly. Eventually, you will shift into a vibration of self-love that is no longer dependent on anyone but YOU.