Patrick McCurry Counsellor Eastbourne Canary Wharf

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What is passive aggression and how do you deal with it?

 13 May 2024

Do you have someone in your life who is passive aggressive, or is it something you yourself express in your relationships?

 Firstly, what is passive aggression? It’s a way that some people express aggression or anger in an indirect way. This could include ‘forgetting’ that they’ve agreed to do something or forgetting important events such as birthdays. Or arriving late when they’re meeting up with you.

Another example is if you challenge someone on their behaviour and their response is to become excessively self-blaming so that you end up almost having to comfot them - you were annoyed with something they did but then because they go to a 'victim' place you don't feel able to challenge them, which is even more annoying!

 Passive aggresion can have a corrosive effect on relationships, such as in couples, friendships or at work. When someone behaves in a passive aggressive way towards us we find them annoying and it is difficult for us to relate to them in an authentic way.

 It’s important to remember that often when someone is being passive aggressive they don’t realise they’re doing it - it’s unconscious behaviour. For some reason the individual does not feel comfortable expressing annoyance or anger to the person concerned, so instead manages to communicate their anger through their behaviour. This behaviour usually has the effect of leaving the other person feeling irritated or annoyed. So, in other words, the angry individual is managing to evoke anger in the other person.

 Disguised aggression

 So, the thing about passive aggression is that it is disguised aggression used by people who feel uncomfortable being more open with their feelings.

 Anger or aggression are normal human emotions and behaviours. When someone hurts us, disrespects us or we feel mistreated we may feel angry with that person. But some of us have grown up finding it hard to express, or sometimes even to acknowledge to ourselves, that we feel angry.

 So, why might it be difficult for some people to express anger?

How we were brought up - some families have a taboo on certain emotions, such as anger. The child may get the message that there is something ‘wrong’ in getting annoyed. They then learn, unconsciously, to suppress angry feelings and before long they no longer feel them. 

An angry parent - we may have had one or both parents who could be angry and agressive, perhaps even verbally or physically abusive. Some children in such environments grew up associating annoyance or anger with being abusive. They may even promise themselves that when they are adults they will be the opposite of their parents and never get angry or annoyed.

Spiritual beliefs - people who are brought up in very religious families, or who develop a strong spiritual practice as an adult, may suppress feelings of anger or annoyance because they are taught that it is wrong to be angry and they should instead feel kindness and forgiveness. That is why passive aggression can be a real problem in religious communities. When people are denied an appropriate expression of such feelings they will end up expressing them in more indirect, shadowy ways.

Cultural expectations - in some cultures the expression of anger is discouraged and a greater value is placed on harmony. Similarly, many girls in Western countries are brought up to believe that expressing annoyance or anger is not attractive and that they should instead strive for connection and kindness. 

 One of the problems with passive aggression is that, as stated above, anger is a natural human emotion. That is not to say that we should always express it. There will be times when we choose to hold it in, to reflect on it, to talk to others about how we are feeling.  At work, in particular, it may sometimes be inappropriate to express these feelings. Nevertheless, if we habitually suppress (consciously or unconsciously) feelings of annoyance or anger it may have an effect on our emotional health. 

 In such cases the anger that is suppressed towards others may become self-directed, in the form of self-criticism or self-judgment. That, in turn, can lead to depression, anxiety or low mood. 

 Another reason why passive aggression is a problem is because it negatively affects our relationships. People can be suspicious of us if we try to come across as being ‘nice’, but then irritate them with passive aggressive behaviour.

 How can we stop being passive aggressive?

 The first step is becoming more aware of when we are feeling annoyed or angry. For those of us who have been brought up to avoid those feelings it may be challenging to connect with them when they are present. Therapy can help people get more in touch with such ‘forbidden’ or discouraged feelings. It can also help people understand the messages they may have received as children about different emotions and how these early messages continue to influence our adult behaviour.

 As well as becoming more in touch with our emotions, another thing we can do is begin to notice what we do with any feelings of anger or irritration. We may notice a tendency to play them down, to blame ourselves for them or to tell ourselves it’s best if we try and forget about it and move on.

 The messages we may tell ourselves in such situations include, ‘What’s the point in saying something, it won’t change things?.’ Or, ‘I mustn’t say anything about how I feel because if I do the other person won’t like me any more.’ 

 In response to these beliefs I’d say that expressing anger or annoyance is not necessarily about changing the other person but, rather, about valuing yourself and your emotions. It can also serve as a way of establishing appropriate boundaries with other people and communicating to them what is important to you. 

 Regarding the fear that the other person won’t like you any more, there will be times when that is a risk but it may depend on how you express the anger. It is better to express it in a way that does not condemn the other person.

 Ultimately, it’s not so much about expressing or not expressing these feelings but, rather, stepping out of a habitual, unconscious way of behaving and questioning our assumptions about the world and about relationships. It’s about increasing our self-awareness and giving ourselves the option of expressing annoyance or anger, rather than behaving in an automatic way.