Do you have a partner, boss or co-worker who you would often–operant word, often–describe as crazy-making? Does s/he frequently seem to give with one hand and grab it back with the other?
This can be a description of the emotional and verbal behavior of a passive-aggressive person.
My friend, Brenda, was telling me about her friend, Joy, just yesterday. Brenda told me that Joy offered to come and help her because she is so indisposed as a result of illness just now that the slightest bit of housework seems daunting. Joy asked what help she most wanted. Brenda told her friend that it would be most appreciated if the alarming pile of dishes could be washed, dried and put away. That was a top priority so that she could, at least, eat.
Joy started the dishes. Within ten minutes, Brenda heard this:
“I hate doing dishes. I don’t even have to do dishes at my own home. My husband does them. It sure seems strange that I should come all the way over here and be doing them for you.”
Does that sound at all familiar? Has someone ever asked you what they could do for you, agree to do it, and then start complaining about doing it? This is an example–among many, many, many–of passive-aggressive behavior.[success] My free Passive-Aggressive Checklist will help you clearly identify whether or not the behavior that is crazy-making is, in fact, passive-aggressive.
Take the free IDENTIFYING PASSIVE-AGGRESSIVE BEHAVIOR CHECKLIST. [/success]
How does it become passive-aggressive? The person appeared to want to be helpful. The person asked what task would be helpful. The person agreed to do the task. The person complained about doing the task. In the complaining, the person persistently twists the situation to make the person they say they want to help feel guilty for needing help, for asking for help, or for suggesting what kind of help they most needed. They never take responsibility for their own choices, words and actions.
Perhaps they did not want to help, but thought they should. That might be understandable. It’s not uncommon for folks to do things they don’t like to do to help another person in need. Complaining about it is problematic.
Here’s where things go sideways: The passive-aggressive person–Joy, in this case–cannot and/or will not tell the truth about their preferences, feelings or, even, actions. They never say exactly what they mean, and then they blame you if (a) you misunderstand them, or (b) you question them, or strangely enough, (c) if you count on them. In the case above, Joy, the dishwasher, had two choices: she could do the dishes happily because she wanted to give Brenda the most important help she needed, or, she could have told the truth. If she had really wanted to help Brenda, she would have just done the dishes without comment, in a spirit of friendship. If she couldn’t face the dishes, simply saying, “Anything but dishes. I hate doing dishes.” would have been more honest. They might even have had a laugh over it, and another task would have been chosen.
Passive-aggressive people are reluctant to assert themselves directly, in firm, tactful and, preferably, thoughtful ways. They are afraid of asserting themselves because they think it is aggressive to be honest. Strange, but true! They are often afraid that, if they were honest and assertive in the first place, it might lead to a confrontation. Passive-aggressive people want to avoid conflict , challenge, disagreement or possible attack. That’s why it feels so under-handed when we experience them. They don’t tell the truth up front, then, they find a back door for giving voice to their feelings: “I hate doing dishes.” It is under-handed, because you feel tricked. Passive-aggressive people only appear to be passive. They are very indirectly aggressive, and they often get more skilled with age…especially when no one stops them!
So, if you have a crazy-making partner or co-worker that you recognize in this scenario, AND the behavior is often repeated, you may well be experiencing their passive-aggression. The most important thing to note is that this behavior will continue if you continue to play. The passive-aggressive person needs another person to be the object of his or her hostility. S/he will pick a person whose demands and expectations s’he feels s/he can resist. Then, the stage is set.
What is important here is that you might think that you have a relationship problem. You do in the sense that there are two of you participating, however, the problem will only persist if you allow it to continue. It takes two for passive-aggression to have life. It is not something a person can do alone.
So, what to do?
- Know yourself well.
- Know, express and maintain your boundaries.
- Be willing to consistently communicate.
- State the consequences of the behavior continuing.
So, for my friend, Brenda, I suggested she might try saying this the next time something like this happens:
“Joy, I truly appreciate your offer to help while I am unable to do things for myself. Feeling dependent is not my favorite thing, but having friends pitch in happily takes the sting out of it. I would never ask anyone to do something for me that they resent doing. If you do not want to do the dishes, please do not do them. Could we make an agreement that you will not undertake to do anything for me that you do not want to do? That will make it easier on both of us.”
My friend was quite taken aback by the directness I suggested. She was sorry that it could be necessary. Of course, it would be lovely if passive-aggression did not rear its ugly head, but it does and it will continue to plague us unless we take definitive, assertive action.
So, if you have a crazy-making partner or co-worker, think about the four steps above and how you could consistently apply them. You’ll both be better off in the long run. Remember, we are 100% responsible for teaching people how to treat us.
NOTE: I have written several posts on passive-aggression. If this one interests you, there are more.
Rhoberta Shaler, PhD is The Relationship Help Doctor. She works with individuals, couples, families and workplace teams to help them develop the skills, insights and solutions that lead to better communication, conflict management and collaboration. You can work with her online through Skype® or Google+, by phone, or in-person in her office in Escondido, CA, at The Optimize Center.
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Disclaimer: all advice, insights and suggestions made here are not to be construed as psychological or legal advice. Any actions you undertake as a result of reading any article, book, ebook or blog post from Rhoberta Shaler, PhD, are entirely your own. Having worked with individuals and couples for more than twenty-five years, she offers her opinions for your consideration only.