You’ve probably had to deal with passive aggressive people in your life. It is also likely you didn’t fully realize what they were doing. They could’ve been an acquaintance giving you backhanded compliments or a colleague “forgetting” to include you on an email. The problem when learning how to deal with passive-aggressive people is that their behavior is subtle.
Outward aggression can be scary. Someone shouting obscenities in traffic or lashing out at their partner is intimidating. But at least with them, you know where you stand. Passive-aggression, on the other hand, is harder to put a finger on. Masked under a thin veil of politeness and niceties, the aggression is elusive, hard to grasp. On the surface, there might be a rational explanation for their behavior, but somehow, you feel bad after interacting with them.
However, there are ways to know for sure what you’re dealing with. Not unlike a personality disorder, passive-aggressiveness, or covert aggression, comes with some symptoms: not taking responsibility for one’s actions, refusing to state your needs directly, and being purposely inefficient.
It usually stems, like so many of our troubles, from our childhood. A passive-aggressor is probably someone who grew up in a family that avoided direct conflict. They needed to find other, more “creative”, avenues to express their displeasure.
An act of passive-aggression here and there is okay. We’ve all done it. The issue is when it’s chronic and the only way used to express their discontentment.
The first step in dealing with passive-aggressive people is to know what this behavior looks like.
Showing up late to meetings and appointments is a way of saying: “I don’t really value this, nor your time,” but without having to say it.
This is often done with small lies. Lies of omission and distortions. “Oh, you didn’t get my email about today’s meeting? Something must’ve gone wrong,” or “Sorry, I unplugged your phone. I thought it was charged.”
These small actions are especially damaging as they sabotage your relationship at its very foundations.
If they have to clean the dishes, they’ll leave out just a few utensils on the counter. Or if they need to file paperwork, they’ll omit just a couple of folders at the end of the day. Since they’ve done most of the work, you’d feel bad for nitpicking over such tiny details. They forgot, right?
Yet it’s enough to annoy you. If it happens regularly, this might be deliberate.
These are often said with a smile. They look and sound like real compliments, but feel more like a slap on the face.
That’s because they are. When you hear “Your new haircut is so much better than the one you had before,” or “You’re so brave for wearing this bikini with your body type,” do you really want to say “Thank you”?
Always giving vague answers or using silence are ways passive-aggressive people express their disagreement without verbalising it.
They may also lie by omission and withhold important information in an attempt to make things harder for you.
On top of silence, passive-aggressiveness can manifest through indirect insults, judgement, and moody responses.
Comments such as “Sure, you can invite me to that fancy restaurant but are you sure you’ll know how to behave?” comprise all three.
Being on the receiving end of constant passive-aggression can feel maddening. But now that you know how to clearly identify the behavior, you can learn to deal with passive-aggressive people.
The hardest part of dealing with passive-aggressive people is not reacting to their provocation. They are looking for a reaction to confirm they got under your skin.
Getting angry, sighing, or even calling them out on their behavior will only add fuel to the fire they started.
So, take a breath, relax, and ignore their covert acts of aggression. If they see their strategy is ineffective, they might stop.
The passive-aggressive person’s behavior is tailored towards conflict avoidance. When you notice an instance of passive-aggressiveness, address it.
Without raising your voice or getting flustered (remember, that’s the reaction they’re hoping for), tell them how it makes you feel, why you wish they didn’t say what they said, and whether there could be consequences for your relationship. The key is not to assign blame but focus on your feelings and your emotions with “I” statements.
For example: “Hey, I’ve noticed you comment a lot on my parenting skills. It’s nice if you have helpful advice but when you just criticize how I raise my children, it makes me feel bad. If this continues I don’t think I’ll feel comfortable having you around as much.”
Assigning blame and judgement will just draw you into a negative interaction with the other person. The better way is to remove emotions and ask them to come up with a solution.
Let’s say you are planning a get-together but one of your friends keep making snarky remarks about your plans. Instead of getting angry, you could try saying: “You don’t seem very excited by this idea. Is there something else you’d rather do perhaps?”
Or if a colleague says “Yeah, sure, I’ll get that done by Thursday. All my other tasks can wait.” You could respond with something along the lines of “Sorry, I didn’t realize your schedule was so packed. What do you think the deadline should be?”
Sometimes you endure passive-aggressive behavior for a long time with no signs of improvement. There might come a point when you’ve had enough.
For your own sanity, and to avoid messy confrontations, it might be necessary to cut ties with the covert aggressor.
Evaluate how it has affected your mental health and respond accordingly. Do you just need some time apart? A clean break?
Granted, you can’t just stop all interactions with family members and coworkers. But you can keep them to a minimum. Keep the interactions as neutral as possible, and very specific.
If the passive-aggressive person happens to be your partner, this is a hard thing to do. Maybe you are dating the wrong person. In any case, taking the time to evaluate the pros and cons of your relationship will definitely be worthwhile.
Remember, when dealing with passive-aggressive people, that they may not have a complete control over their behavior. It is often instinctive and deep-rooted and cannot always be remedied just because you asked them to.
If you are patient and willing to offer a helping hand to the passive-aggressive person in your life, your relationship with them will benefit tremendously. If you choose not to, that is also your prerogative, as this can be a long, arduous process.
Whatever path you choose, do it with good intentions. If you choose to help them along their journey, do so with love and compassion. If you choose to walk away, do so out of self-love and without holding a grudge or trying to hurt the other person.
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