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How to Deal With Passive Aggressive People

As far as mundane things go, few obstacles I encounter infuriate me as much as passive aggressive people. Common as weeds, but far more annoying, figuring out how to handle passive aggressive people constructively has been necessary for my own sanity, not to mention happiness.

I’m actually kind of surprised we don’t talk about this more? Passive aggressive people are *everywhere* just, sort of silently gumming up the works of constructive functioning, but this coping mechanism is such an accepted part of society that our main way of dealing with it seems to just be to tolerate it? Which, is really too bad; passive aggression is absolutely devastating to relationships, both romantic and platonic.

To get started; just what is the definition of passive aggression?

They key is to break apart the two words; let’s start with aggression. What is aggression? According to Google-dictionary, aggression is “hostile or violent behavior or attitudes toward another; readiness to attack or confront.”

Or, as I think of it more simply, aggressive behavior is behavior that is intended to hurt another person.

Moving on, what does it mean if something is passive? Again, asking Google, apparently something is passive if it acts without response or resistance to forces put upon it.

So, putting two together, what is passive aggression? Essentially, passive aggression is behavior that is designed to hurt someone else, but that is enacted in ways that are not designed to confront or respond to the “normal” flow of things. The silent treatment, for example, is classic passive aggressive behavior because the intent of the silent treatment is generally to hurt another person, but the giver is not being confrontational. In fact, they’re not even *doing* anything, they’re hurting someone by *not doing* something they’d normally do.

This stands in contrast to more standard aggressive behavior, where someone may shout or fight with someone — yet, the underlying motivations are the same. The goal of both standard aggression and passive aggression is to cause pain to another human; the secondary goal of passive aggression is to not get called out for being aggressive. Fundamentally, someone who behaves passive aggressively does so because they have hostility toward their target but they don’t want to get “in trouble” for “being mean,” so they do small things designed to hurt that fit into the flow of normal society.

Most of us are passive aggressive from time to time, so I don’t want to demonize people who exhibit this behavior, but it’s unfortunately not very functional. The reason is, aggression — passive or otherwise — is generally caused by an underlying hostility. If you’re acting out this hostility in passive aggressive ways, the other person is never going to know what’s wrong so you’re unlikely to be able to ever remedy the situation. However, at least when you are the passive aggressive person, you have agency to change the behavior.

How should you behave when you are on the receiving end of passive aggressive behavior?

Obviously, the answer to this will be complex or nuanced depending on the situation (and, by the way, it is possible for passive aggression to escalate to the point of abuse which is out of the scope of this article, but I would encourage anyone dealing with extreme passive aggression to seek out treatment for verbal or emotional abuse.)

However. There is one fundamental trait that unifies passive aggressive behavior, and that is it is someone’s intent to cause harm, so if this person witnesses that they’ve caused you harm, they will feel satisfied.

I think, some people may not like to think about this because it involves getting into some of the yuckier parts of human behavior, but the simple fact is, for most people, if they’re mad at someone it feels good to cause pain to the object of anger. If you are not capable of causing pain to the object of anger, this can be frustrating or upsetting — regardless, it doesn’t feel good.

So, fundamentally, how you respond to passive aggression will change whether the behavior feels good to the passive aggressive person, or whether the behavior feels bad in some way. For instance, if you get angry, or yell, or similar this will be very satisfying to someone behaving passive aggressively toward you, because it means they succeeded in putting you in pain. However, (and, this is probably too hard to do in practice, but hypothetically) if you don’t really care what the passive aggressive person is doing to you, eventually they’ll probably stop because it’s not satisfying for them.

The main obstacle is, people are usually very good at reading each other emotionally, and so you can’t just pretend to not be annoyed by passive aggressive behavior. And…

Oh my god. I got to be honest. Writing this is very boring. I like, made a youtube-video, and said I’d make a post on passive aggressiveness, but writing about something I’ve already explored mentally is very dull.

Where I wanted to go next on this, is to give a few examples of how you can respond to passive aggressive behavior in ways that deny people the emotionally satisfying payout, but it’s too boring to continue so I’m just going to link to my video for anyone who cares. It starts around 10:20, if I failed to link the location correctly:

Moving forward, I probably won’t post the same topic on both youtube and in my blog in close succession if I haven’t made a jump in my developmental understanding of it, because the enjoyment I get out of creation is — effectively — discovery. As I write/make videos, I discover new nuances and details that help me solidify life experience I’ve had to date.

For me, my understanding of passive aggression was deepened over the previous two years from dealing with several highly passive aggressive situations:

  1. Dealing with a highly passive aggressive (now ex) boyfriend
  2. Dealing with passive aggressive people at work
  3. Dealing with passive aggressive behavior in my friend group

But, since making this video, I’ve had no new encounters to help with my understanding, and I already sort of made all the nuanced connections I normally get from writing in the video itself. So, sorry! I ran out of steam.

When my energy level was higher on this topic, I did make a little workbook on it I sell in my Etsy store (here) but most of the concepts I covered in my video/beginning of this blog, so there’s not really a reason to buy it unless you like journaling, or you’re like, feeling nice lol.

The only additional things I did add, for anyone curious who doesn’t want to buy my little printout:

  1. I encouraged you to identify the (expected) emotional payout of the passive aggressive person. Why are they doing it? What about it feels good to them?
  2. I asked, how you responded to this behavior and if you believe your response felt satisfying or unsatisfying to the passive aggressive person.
  3. I then ask you to list out at least 3–5 alternative behaviors you could take, identify which ones are the least likely to feel satisfying for the passive aggressive person. Then, of the least satisfying ones, I encouraged you to pick the easiest behavior to implement.

So, that’s it! I think this is an important topic, but real talk, I’m burned out on it a bit. I’ll come back to it later, if something else comes up.

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Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/protectingthecrushed/ — Twitter: https://twitter.com/SassyDotLove

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Emma Lindsay

Emma Lindsay

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/protectingthecrushed/ — Twitter: https://twitter.com/SassyDotLove

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