"Passive aggressive" behavior is not an official personality disorder , though it plays a common role in many of our lives: most of us have yelled the term at someone else (or had it yelled at us).
Indeed the oxymoronic phrase "passive aggressive" is more often than not flung around without true knowledge of what "passive aggressive" behavior really is; all we may know is that when someone has it, they can be a nightmare to deal with.
Because of the "unofficial" status of passive aggressiveness in the arena of personality disorders, there are currently no reliable statistics as to the prevalence of the condition. However, experts do agree on symptoms and signs indicating passive aggressiveness, the (however informal) diagnosis of which may help to mitigate our interactions with passive aggressive people. How should you handle a passive aggressive person in your life? Are passive aggressive people a danger to you or themselves? Can a passive aggressive person be "cured"?
What Is Passive Aggressive Behavior?
When it comes down to it, passive aggressive behavior is what it sounds like: in the words of New York University's Dr. Diane Safer, passive aggressive people appear to comply and act "appropriately" on the outside, but in reality behave negatively and resist requests or responsibilities. The causes of passive aggressive behavior are currently unknown, though there is some suspicion that genetics may be involved.
What's the difference between someone who's cranky and someone who's passive aggressive? We've all had mean streaks or foul moods, but passive aggressive behavior generally manifests more significantly.
Symptoms or examples of passive aggressive behavior include
contradictory and inconsistent behavior (for example, someone appears excited to help you buy groceries, then at the last minute is "too busy"). You may often feel they are being "sneaky".
intentional avoidance of responsibility (such as procrastination or deliberately performing duties in an incompetent manner)
expressions of resentment
hostility (particularly towards figures of authority)
resisting other peoples' suggestions
blaming others, and
Unfortunately, as these behavior traits continue, the passive aggressive person becomes even more hostile and angry.
The above list of symptoms for passive aggressive behavior sounds like a nightmare, but if you interact with someone who seems to be passive aggressive, you know that these characteristics can be all too real. While there is no medication available for passive-aggressiveness, counseling may help the patient become aware of the problem and hopefully acknowledge the need to change. In the meantime, how are we supposed to live with passive aggressive people?
We've made a list of 10 common passive aggressive behaviors, along with strategies backed up by recent studies on how to help the passive aggressive person to overcome that behavior.
1. Make Them Stop Venting. If someone you know is passive aggressive, encourage them to "just say no" to venting! Sometimes we just have to get it out, blab for twenty minutes without interruption, to vent - right?
Wrong, in the case of people with passive aggression. To the contrary, Anne Dalebroux with the Department of Psychology at Boston College and colleagues, found from research in 2008 that venting is not the best way to "repair" negative moods such as those arising from passive aggression.
The team specifically looked at how visual art may serve as a method of "mood repair" against negative emotions. After viewing a film that "induced a negatively valenced mood" (unfortunately, the report does not reveal what this film was), participants were asked to either create a drawing that expressed their current mood (venting), draw something happy, or scan a sheet for certain symbols (an activity of distraction, used as an experimental control). Results showed that the mood of participants "became more positive" after all three activities, but that the greatest improvement of mood occurred in those who drew something happy. Thus, the results suggest that "attending to and venting one's negative feelings through art-making is a less effective means of improving mood than is turning away from a negative mood to something more positive."
Next time your passive-aggressive co-worker, friend, or family member begins the tirade of negative comments, try to put a blockade over his or her venting. They don´t necessarily have to draw you a happy picture, but you could redirect the conversation or activity towards something a bit more upbeat (and thereby do both of you a favor).
2. Memory, Passive Aggressiveness, and Eating Light. What's more frustrating than not being able to remember the name of that girl, what was it, it's on the tip of your tongue…no, it's gone? Struggling with memory may bring out the worst in some of us, such as hostility, blaming others, and other symptoms of passive aggressive behavior as listed in the introduction. It may come as no surprise, then, that memory (rather, a malfunctioning thereof) may be connected with passive aggressive behavior, as well as other personality disorders.
In 2011, a large team of researchers from the Johns Hopkins University and the Asan Medical Center at Ulsan University in Seoul, Korea, including Gerald Nestadt with the School of Medicine at the first, observed how memory functioning affects personality disorders. The study used data from 736 people who underwent the International Personality Disorder Examination, and who were asked about "a subjective appraisal of memory." Results showed that "subjective feelings of memory impairment and/or objective memory dysfunction are associated with specific personality disorder dimensions."
Luckily, people all over the internet have though up games to help improve memory. But if you want to take a memory problem more seriously, research from 2009 published in Nature Reviews Neuroscience , shows a more concrete strategy: eat less. The report found that people who ate 30% less calories than usual for three months "ended up with better verbal memory" than they had had before the diet.
So, if your passive aggressive compadre seems to struggle with memory, you may want to consider (tactfully) suggesting that there's no reason to eat a whole sandwich when a half is enough.
3. My Passive Aggressive Acquaintance Procrastinates - But It Might Really Be Fear of Failure. One way of being passive aggressive is to say "yes, yes, I'll do it!" and then…to not do whatever "it" was. And one way of not completing a task or activity is through procrastination, a technique (or, perhaps, hurdle) that most of us remember well from high school. Research hot off the press, from 2012, suggests that procrastination may be more complicated than a fancy word for "laziness" - it may be that we procrastinate because we are afraid to fail at what we are supposed to be doing.
The research was conducted by Mohsen Haghbin with the Department of Psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, and colleagues, who analyzed data from 300 university students. Results showed that the "relation" between fear of failure and procrastination was "positively significant" for students with "low levels of competence," whereas this connection did not appear in students with "high levels of competence."
Perhaps next time you encounter your passive aggressively-procrastinating friend, family member, or co-worker, consider why he or she may be procrastinating. If it's possible that fear of failure is involved, reducing this fair (or encouraging success rather than failure) may be a good way to jump-start this person's activity.
4. Keep An Eye on the Hostility of Your Passive Aggressive Friend: For the Sake of Her Heart!