A colleague who runs a clinic recently attended a management seminar.  She described one point about passive-aggressiveness in the work place, and the workshop leader’s instructions were to ask the employee five different ways why that person was behaving in a passive-aggressive manner.  Sounds on the surface like a reasonable plan.

But it’s not.  Here’s why:

Passive-aggressiveness (PA) is an unconscious process.  The PA person is not aware they are being passive aggressive.  Usually, they wonder why the world treats them so harshly, doesn’t cut them any slack, is so rigid.  They don’t think coming late to class is passive aggressive, it’s just that the instructor is rigid.  They don’t think that forgetting to bring money with them to pay for their own dinner is PA towards their friends. “I’m just so spacey.”

How does a person become passive aggressive?

There are probably many roads, but there is one thing in common: it is unsafe to assert oneself.  Because of this, the person needs to see him/herself as a nice person.  “Nice people don’t get angry.”  “Nice people aren’t aggressive.”   Instead, the aggression slips out unconsciously.  Co-workers, partners, friends all feel some of the aggression – sometimes ON BEHALF of the PA person.  In other words, the PA person may not be able to experience their own aggression, but people around him/her certainly do.

Why is it unsafe to assert oneself?

Assertiveness is on the same continuum as aggression.  It takes a certain amount of aggression to stand up for yourself.   In some families, aggression is out of control.  Things feel dangerous.  The PA person has seen how terrifying (and potentially damaging) aggression can be.  In other families, aggression is to be avoided at all costs.  The message, at some level, is the same – aggression is dangerous.

The inability to assert one’s point of view, be heard, feel valued, feel respected can cause a great deal of resentment.  What happens when you have a resentful, angry person who feels it is dangerous to assert him/herself constructively?  You guessed it.  Another part to this, is that people around the PA person become upset.  In a way, this confirms the PA person’s world view:” the world is full of angry/aggressive people.”  The anger is near by.  “Thank goodness I am not like that person, so angry all the time(!)”

What can you do?

That’s actually a pretty hard question.  In some ways, this is one of those situations where the person has to see that things are not working for them.  They may get “written up” at work for perpetual tardiness or low quality work product (“You didn’t tell me you wanted me to bring the food to the table IMMEDIATELY”.  “I removed the spleen, I didn’t realize YOU weren’t going to stitch him up.”

If enough people point out this pattern, perhaps the person will develop some motivation to examine the pattern.  Usually, this is a very slow process.  For the passive-aggressive person, the fear of aggression is pretty strong, and the externalizing defense of projection (“Why are you so mean to me?” ) is a pretty effective one. Unfortunately, for the person with a passive-aggressive style, the world can be a challenging place, filled with “mean” people.

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