“Lingering, bottled-up anger never reveals the ‘true colors’ of an individual. It, on the contrary, becomes all mixed up, rotten, confused, forms a highly combustible, chemical compound, then explodes as something foreign, something very different, than one’s natural self.”
― Criss Jami, Healology
“Passive aggressive behavior is counterproductive. Communication is key to a healthy personal and work relationship.”
― Izey Victoria Odiase
What Does it Mean to be Passive-Aggressive?
“Being marked by, or displaying, behavior characterized by the expression of negative feelings, resentment, and aggression in an unassertive passive way (as through procrastination and stubbornness)” — Merriam-Webster dictionary
6 Examples of Passive-Aggressive Behaviors
- Showing up late
- Making a joke with a hurtful barb in it
- Forgetting something important
- Canceling a plan
- Behaving irritably while claiming nothing is wrong
All of the events above happen to everyone often, of course. And they are not necessarily examples of passive-aggression unless they are accompanied by, or an expression of, one key factor. Anger.
So now, I ask you to re-read the list above but add the phrase “out of anger, to punish someone” at the end of each one. These common, everyday behaviors now become ideal examples of passive-aggression.
The Role of Childhood Emotional Neglect in Passive-Aggression
We are all born with the emotion of anger wired into us for a reason. It is a feeling that is essential to our survival.
Feelings of anger are nothing more than messages from your body. When you feel angry, your body is saying, “Watch out! Pay attention! Someone or something is threatening or hurting you! You need to protect yourself!”
That’s why anger has a motivational component to it. Anger is an emotion with energy built into it. Think about how anger is often described as fire or passion. It’s an emotion that pushes you to take action.
Legions of children grow up in homes that are intolerant of their anger. Every day, emotionally unaware parents ignore their children’s anger, trump it with their own anger, or send them their children to their rooms for expressing anger. These are all examples of Childhood Emotional Neglect in action.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN): Happens when parents fail to notice, respond or validate their child’s feelings enough.
When you grow up in a home that treats your anger this way, your developing brain and body absorb a powerful and damaging lesson: Your anger is useless, excessive or bad.
As a child, probably without your knowledge, your brain does what is necessary to protect you. It blocks your feelings of anger from reaching your awareness. It virtually walls them off to protect you from this “useless, bad, excessive” force from within you.
What happens then? Several unfortunate things.
- You lose the ability to fully benefit from this energizing, protective force from within.
- You do not learn the anger skills you were meant to learn in your childhood.
- Unprocessed anger does not go away. It sits there, fomenting, on the other side of the wall that your child brain built to block it.
Anger must be felt, understood, listened to and, in many situations, expressed before it goes away. Imagine what happens inside of you when so much fire and energy is left to fester in your body.
The very thing that is meant to empower and protect you instead saps your energy and leaves you more vulnerable. This is not what nature intended.
How Your Unprocessed Anger Can Hurt Others
Unprocessed, walled-off, fomenting anger has a way of finding its way to the surface. This is what puts those who grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect(CEN) at greater risk than others for behaving passive aggressively.
Believing that your anger is irrelevant and that it is wrong to express it, plus not knowing even how to do so even if you chose to do it, leaves you essentially at its mercy.
So what does a CEN adult do when a friend hurts his feelings, when she’s not given a salary raise she deserves, or when he feels targeted or mistreated? What does a CEN adult do when she senses a conflict brewing or walks into a room where one is already happening?
The answer is, avoid. Avoid letting your anger show, avoid saying anything, avoid the person who has hurt you, or avoid by leaving the room.
But, as we know, this does not make your anger go away. It will now leak around the edges of the block and come out in ways you never expected, possibly at people who do not deserve it. Just like the 6 ways described above or an infinite number of others. And, worst of all, you may not even realize that it’s happening. But many, many other people may.
If you see yourself, or someone close to you in this post, do not worry. There are answers. It is possible to become less passive-aggressive!
4 Steps To Stop Being Passive-Aggressive
- Start viewing your anger as a helper instead of a burden. Begin to pay attention to when you feel it. Even if you think you’re never angry, I guarantee you that you do. As strange as it sounds, you only need to relentlessly try to feel it.
- Start learning how to be assertive. Being assertive is expressing your feelings, thoughts and needs to others in a way that they can take it in. Assertiveness is a group of skills that you can learn. And this is a skill that will help you express your anger in moments of hurt, upset and conflict. When you can express yourself, your anger becomes useful instead of leaking around the edges passive-aggressively.
- Start building your tolerance for conflict. You have spent your life feeling unprepared and overwhelmed by potentially conflictual situations. Your tendency has been to avoid or ignore them. As you welcome your anger and build your assertiveness skills, you can begin to go toward conflict instead of away. Redefine these difficult situations as opportunities to practice your skills.
- Start learning all of the other emotion skills too. It’s not just anger. All of your feelings are messages from your body and can help you substantially in your life. Having grown up in a home that ignored or discouraged your emotions (Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN), you have likely been under attending and undervaluing yours for your entire life. Now, as your view of your emotions shifts, you can harness the energy, direction, motivation, and connection that you were always meant to enjoy.
The process of becoming less passive-aggressive is actually a process of healing yourself. It involves looking inward instead of outward and accepting the most deeply personal expression of who you are: your emotions.
This process may sound hard, but you can do it. Just as thousands of people before you have already done, you can take the steps and walk the path. You can honor your feelings, and yourself, in a way that you never knew was possible. You can learn to express how you feel.