How Passive-Aggressive Behavior Destroys

All of us have at one time or another known someone who has behaved in a way that psychologists identify as passive-aggressive. We may have even been that person.

For those who may be blissfully unaware of this syndrome, I would like very much to join you on whatever planet you live on. For the rest of us, passive-aggressive behavior taints — and often ruins — relationships, goals, and everything else it touches.

Here’s why.

Behaving as though everything is all right when it isn’t, and then, at a later, circumstantially inappropriate time, behaving aggressively (or maliciously or vengefully) is an elemental form of lying.passive-aggressive liars Passive-aggressive people are liars, both to everyone they interact with and perhaps also themselves. Although most of us are taught from a young age that dishonesty is a foul and ugly quality, passive-aggressive folks somehow delude themselves into believing that avoiding conflict, remaining polite, minimizing friction, obsessing about how others judge them, and, above all, fleeing from emotions and impulses that aren’t sunny and sweet, somehow excuses and justifies the ostensibly lesser evil of being untruthful.

The only milieu in which passive-aggressive behavior is useful, and even potentially constructive, is the poker table, where check-raising is permitted and encouraged. (“I check [pass] since I have nothing good and do not like my hand. Oh, you bet? Well, then! Not only will I call your bet, I’ll raise your ass! Now how do you like your hand?)  Good liars do well at the game. Interestingly, some “friendly” private games do not allow this tactic; it’s too mean.

Away from the felt, though, passive-aggressive behavior is destructive — and not only because it makes everyone involved feel bad. It kills relationships because no one likes to be lied to. When the inevitable retribution moment comes in a passive person’s life –“Sure I’m attacking you, but don’t forget that you did this, this, and that several hours/days/weeks/months/years/decades ago!” — the recipient of his wrath, stunned and initially uncomprehending, eventually reviews all that has transpired between the alleged slight and the delayed revenge. And when he does, he realizes that all the time he thought things were OK, they were, in fact, not OK, that all the reassuring signals he was receiving were actually smokescreens and mirages. Fictions.

The alternative (being straight with people, telling it like it is) can often be unpleasant. But only because we’re collectively more concerned about keeping feathers unruffled than being honest human beings.

Passive-Aggressive dinerCertain communities and cultures breed passive-aggressive monsters. So important is the concept of “face” that folks raised in this fashion are conditioned to view straight-shooters as rude and uncouth, boorish oafs whose artlessness in social charades must be a sign of rampant egotism, of obliviousness to the feelings of others. Indeed, in many cultures it is considered rude to behave rudely; but it is considered even ruder to have the audacity to call someone on their rude behavior.

If you were not raised in this fashion, if your conditioning leads you to bluntness and clarity instead of obfuscation and double-speak, then you are statistically more likely to inspire passive-aggressive behavior. Those prone to the syndrome actually need catalysts, bold actors who can trigger a response. Direct and honest folks who “push the action” (to extend the poker metaphor) force the passive-aggressive ones to make a choice: shall I be honest now, or later?

We’ve all learned that the more someone answers that question with “later,” the worse everybody feels, and the more disgusted everyone is with himself.

The time for honesty is now. The time for living is now.

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2 Responses

  1. reza says:

    YES. I like this.

  2. Peter crone says:

    There was a woman I never knew who was passive aggressive, like the eagles song, take it to the limit implied. She was an expert poker player as we’re all the ex crims I knew. Textbook stuff. They are usually exhibiting borderline personality disorder.