Many people believe they know someone who is passive-aggressive. But, does the average person, without a psychology background, really know what the term, “passive-aggressive” means? Within psychology, there exists a psychological disorder known as passive-aggressive personality disorder, also known as negativistic personality disorder. This disorder has the following characteristics: overall negativism; persistent feelings of being misunderstood; a sullen demeanor; hostile defiance, often followed by a period of contrition; and overall discontentment. Most people who are passive-aggressive are both assertive and cold toward others. People with passive-aggressive tendencies feel hostility toward someone else, however, they cannot express their hostility directly. These individuals channel their aggression in passive ways, such as by being intentionally late, stubbornness, inactivity, and making subtle “digs” intended to anger or frustrate the object of their anger. Actions and inactions, such as not returning phone calls, cancelling plans at the last minute, and spiteful comments are often the hallmark of someone with passive-aggressive disorder. Most of us have experienced these frustrating actions with someone we know at one time or another, but it is important to keep in mind that, for a psychological disorder to be present, these characteristics must be consistent and frequent over time (that is, they cannot be attributed to someone having a “bad day”). This post is intended to educate the reader about what it really means for someone to be passive-aggressive. It’s more than just being a “Debbie downer” or a “negative Nancy” (my apologies to the nice Debbies and Nancys in the world). Being passive-aggressive is a way of life for people who suffer from this disorder. As for me, I prefer to avoid this type of person at all costs!
I struggle in responding to Melissa’s post about this one because I don’t think I’ve ever had the displeasure of dealing with someone who is totally passive aggressive. Instead, my point of reference to someone exhibiting passive aggressive behaviors is my own mother. She was quiet, sweet and kind to everyone to such a degree that others sometimes “stepped on her toes” because she was not assertive in expressing herself, her preferences or wishes. The most frequent culprit was my Dad. He was not mean to her, but he was domineering in many ways. This gave an appearance of insensitivity to her and one way she coped with it was by doing things that were passively aggressive. Her behaviors were frustrating to him in the ways she was frustrated by him. In my observation though, this was a survival mechanism for her – she could not confront him. The things that were at issue were often minor. When he urged her to speed up in preparing breakfast so that they could eat together, for example, I think it only made her move slower. (Of course, he could have adapted and not poured milk on his cereal until she was seated, but he never figured that out!) Another behavior I observed was they she was often not ready to leave for dinner or some event when he wanted her to be ready (even if the event really had no specific time requirements). He was impulsive and frequently frustrated by her actions of trying on an outfit and deciding to switch to a different outfit. The sad reality of this over time was the realization that her and his behaviors were driven, in part, by changes in physical health, and in particular, her dementia. She had to try different outfits to figure out what to wear. He found this frustrating thus this scenario created friction. All of this is very personal of course, and not said to denigrate either of them. Rather it is to demonstrate that, while some people might see her behaviors, and his reactions, as indicators of passive aggressiveness, in such situations, other things may be at play. It was important for Melissa and me to try to get Dad to realize that he needed to lighten up and have some compassion about what was happening to Mom’s mind. His tendency was to be more confrontational with her (“Why don’t you get ready faster?”). I’ve observed this with other aging parents where one (usually the husband) is oblivious to the reality of the changes. Looking beyond the passive aggressive behaviors may reveal an underlying reason for them which goes much deeper than one thought at first blush.
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