Have you been in a situation where you have seen a significant other, a family member, your roommate, or yourself hide their feelings, but you can tell something is wrong? This morning, I told my 10-year old son that he could not eat something else for breakfast because he had not finished what he originally made. He sat around with a half-eaten bowl of oatmeal for the rest of the morning, eventually stomping off angrily to go finish getting ready for school. We spoke briefly, but I could tell I was not getting through. To boot, my demand for respect while he was mad eliminated any chance of him telling me what was really wrong. When I came to work I thought more about how I needed to reach him. I care about wasting food, but not half as much as what kind of person he is going to become. If there is a place for my kids to make mistakes, it’s with me. I don’t want my son to learn to be a passive aggressive person. I want him to manage his emotions honestly with others and express anger in direct ways.

What is passive aggressive behavior?

It is an intentional and concealed way of expressing feelings without saying what is actually wrong. Indirect communication, withdrawal, feigning victimhood are all evidence of behaviors that conceal hostility. Mature emotional expression requires thought, hard-work, and development. Passive aggressive behavior can be frustrating and damaging to self and others.

Why is passive aggression so frustrating, confusing, and damaging?

Passive aggression can be powerful. It is manipulative, exacts revenge, and is controlling. The passive aggressive person has the ability to put others on an emotional roller coaster. By withdrawing from direct communication, passive aggressive people use indirect, inactive, or stalling behavior to retaliate. Not all passive aggressive behavior is because a person is a passive aggressive person. Some people may just avoid emotions in certain situations. But passive aggression is a choice to direct emotion at another person without acknowledging one’s own feelings. Gradually, being in a relationship with a passive aggressive person can become difficult, unsettling, and unsafe.

Two people drinking coffee

What should I do if I tend to be passive aggressive?

The feels happen to all of us, especially when we live our lives in close contact with each other. At our family’s home and our college home (and even more so during a global pandemic) we are with people in large doses and the situation is bound to draw out emotion – especially anger and frustration.

First, don’t dismiss your emotions.
That’s too convenient. Good relationships are hard work. Being emotionally intelligent and mature is hard work. Skillfully, confront your emotions and don’t excuse or dismiss the way you feel. Assertively, not aggressively, tell others how you feel.

Second, confront your fears.
Fear of conflict, being afraid of emotions, of how others may respond to your feelings are barriers to expressing your feelings.

Third, don’t blame others.
A sign of passive aggressiveness is backhandedly blaming others for how you feel. For example, saying, “Thank you for not leaving the dishes in the sink.” expresses frustration without discussing the real emotions.

Finally, be open and listen to others’ perspectives.
Often, passive aggressive people insist that others are misunderstanding them or are being unfair in their characterization of behavior.

Two men sitting at a table and talking

Passive aggressive behavior is just as personally destructive as it is interpersonally damaging. So, tonight I will take my son on a walk. Apologize for not letting him be angry. Let him talk. I don’t want to make passive aggressive people by demanding complete control of emotions. I want my friends, family, and co-workers to assertively and maturely express themselves. The world is full of emotions and we should have the tools to deal with them.

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