The term “passive aggressive” seems to be used more often than it’s clearly understood. One way to think about someone being passive aggressive is when the other may appear to be polite and non-confrontational, but they at the same time somehow provoke us and push our buttons and we find ourselves getting very angry. With passive aggressive people, it often turns out that when there are being yelled at they appear calm, and even somewhat gratified. So what’s up with that? And worse yet, does it remind you of your kid sometimes?
I have noticed that passive aggressive folks tend to feel disempowered, and also they tend to be very uncomfortable directly expressing anger or risking conflict. Simmering under the surface, residual anger builds up. This contributes to manipulative or seemingly unconscious behaviors that irk and irritate others. For example, a person who you ask repeatedly not to take your office supplies, but they just keep doing it; or someone who promises to take care of something and then somehow repeatedly “forgets” and even acts apologetic, but never actually gets around to the task. Eventually the person can take it no longer and blows up, not realizing that they are quite possibly expressing the repressed rage of the person at whom they are angry.
Given that the hallmarks of passive aggressive behavior stem from people who feel afraid to directly challenge others or own their anger, it is quite possible that children, who have a differential level of power with their parents, may assert their power by doing things like not getting ready in the morning, not doing chores, not picking up after themselves and “not listening.” The point here is not to vilify kids (or others) for being passive aggressive, but rather to deepen understanding so that we might handle such situations with more grace and self-restraint, as well as helping empower the disempowered (particularly our kids) as this is consistent with the enlightened self-interest of being less annoyed.
A few things to keep in mind: newborns are not passive aggressive. They are wired to cry and rage and they need all the comfort and indulgence we can muster to create a safe base, and thus enhance confidence and curiosity about the world. Even kids who might indeed be passive aggressive at times need to be compassionately understood as feeling powerless and angry. Perhaps the child feels stressed by conflict in the household, perhaps there are mixed messages about what’s okay and what’s not (i.e. making a mess with all the pillows is fine on Tuesday when we’re in a good mood and gets a scolding on Thursday when we’re in a rotten mood).
One of the key things to do with passive aggressive others is to NOT lose our temper. For one, it gratifies and reinforces the pattern. To the extent kids learn how to “push our buttons,” they tend to enjoy pushing them again and again; it feels powerful to push the button and make the giant angry (i.e. us) and it’s also kind of fun, especially as they acclimate to our volume and feel less startled by it. It’s almost as if we are ventriloquist puppets shouting the other’s vitriol; thus it is actually more powerful to not give the other the satisfaction. When it comes to our kids, we are not trying to win against them in a power struggle, rather we are trying to give voice to the anger and frustration that they may feel, and this helps them become more fully self-expressed, rather than repressed and thus passive aggressive.
Another thing to keep in mind is that since one aspect of depression can be “anger turned inward,” the passive aggressive person may also be depressed. Depression has a lot of anger in it, and when a depressed person (especially our child) turns into a help-rejecting complainer—asking for us to do something and then shooting down every suggestion and doing little to help themselves, we can find ourselves losing our patience and growing angry. Losing it never helps; realizing that we are being asked to hold our kid’s unwanted feelings can allow the influx of negative energy to be better understood, contained and even slowly re-integrated into our kid who ultimately needs access to all her feelings in order to be complete and authentic.
Of course, if we happen to be someone who finds ourselves yelled at with some frequency, and/or if we find ourselves perplexed about why certain others are always so exasperated with us, it makes sense to check in with our own selves and ponder if we might be angry about a few things that we hadn’t paid much attention to, or even admitted to ourselves. Maybe even journaling about our anger and thus putting it somewhere while at the same time validating and recognizing our formerly unwanted or denied feelings might mysteriously lead to others treating us with more gentleness and patience.
So, let’s dedicate today to being more conscious about what we feel, and more mindful, compassionate and restrained when dealing with the passive aggressive anger in others, particularly our children—and let’s do this in honor of all our collective children.