Life Would Be Easy… If It Weren’t for PASSIVE-AGGRESSIVE People

UPDATED: February 1, 2008
PUBLISHED: February 1, 2008

I bet there is someone in your life right now who deserves to be taught a lesson. Someone who said something snide about you? Someone who is making your life difficult? Are you already planning what you can do to pay them back and even the score?

The Passive-Aggressive Personality—Getting Even

If the answer is yes to any of the above, you are almost certainly going to need a lesson from the passive-aggressive’s handbook. Before you do that though, let me warn you, it is not likely to turn out the way you want it to. There is a good reason why novels cast the revenge-seeking character as the villain and never the hero.

It seems like a contradiction in terms because it is! We think of aggressive people as forceful and confrontational and passive people as laid-back and nonconfrontational. A passive-aggressive person manages to do both.

Passive-aggressive is about paying someone back for a real or perceived injustice. Passive-aggressives justify their revenge tactics because they believe they have been victimized and have the right to get even.

Recognize passive-aggressives

It is often difficult to identify a passive-aggressive person because they are sneaky and devious. Passive-aggressives act one way to your face and another behind your back. They often go unnoticed as we focus our attention on the more obvious aggressives in our lives. At some point, our intuition takes over and we begin to have a suspicious feeling that someone is not quite who they appear to be. As we become more observant, the subtle and not-so-subtle signs begin to appear.

Although they do not want a face-to-face confrontation, they usually cannot resist dropping clues that indicate their dissatisfaction with us, such as heaving long, heavy sighs, rolling their eyes or shaking their head in mock frustration. They are usually small clues—in fact, so small that we often feel stupid or petty even addressing them. “It must be my imagination,” we think.

When someone is obviously upset, the natural question for us to ask them is, “What’s wrong?” Passive-aggressives love this question. They wait to hear it because it means they did not drop those subtle clues in vain. The object of their revenge took the bait. Now they can give their pat answer: “Oh, nothing’s wrong.” They do not want to fix the problem; they want revenge.

Giving someone the silent treatment is a technique of the passive-aggressive. Gossip and tattling are also common forms of passive-aggressive behavior. In every case, someone is being taught a lesson by the passive-aggressive; however, because the other person is not even aware there is a problem, the lesson is lost and nothing changes!

Never underestimate its power.

Passive-aggressive behavior can sneak into a relationship whenever someone feels angry, betrayed, jealous, threatened, intimidated, or maybe when they are being competitive and want to be in control. It is the communication style most likely to destroy a relationship. It is hard to forgive and forget someone who intentionally tries to get their needs met at our expense and does it in such a sneaky way that we do not even know what hit us. We are left feeling used and betrayed.

Unfortunately, passive-aggressives are rarely sorry for their behavior. In fact, the passive-aggressive usually feels totally justified using revenge tactics. They believe they have been mistreated and have a right to get even.

The irony of passive-aggressives is that in their blind passion to get even, not only do they fail to get their needs met, they usually end up hurting themselves. Plus, the issue that made them spiteful and vindictive is never even dealt with and thus, never resolved. That is why this communication style is such a sad waste of time and energy.

Children who fail their classes in order to show their parents they are in control end up spending their summers going to school rather than being with their friends. The spouse who withholds love and affection to teach a lesson misses out on being held and touched. The co-worker who gossips, trying to create a clique of supporters, loses the trust of everyone who hears the gossip.

Resist the temptation to feel yourself wrongly treated. Instead, ask for what you want and then be willing to assertively work toward healthy, respectful relationships.

Take Action!
Identify a relationship where you have used passive-aggressive behavior. What did you do in your attempt to get even or pay them back? Did it work?

Part 2

In any situation where you suspect passive-aggressive behavior, you must begin by taking a close look at yourself and your communication style. This is not to excuse the passive-aggressive person in any way, because their behavior is definitely unhealthy, nonproductive and sometimes even hurtful.

Dealing with the Passive-Aggressive Person

Realize that we do play an integral part in how people treat us. We can only change ourselves, not others. So the first step is to evaluate our own behavior to see if we are contributing to an environment that allows passive-aggressiveness to grow and thrive.

In order for someone to be motivated to seek revenge, they must identify an injustice done to them—real or not. We did not necessarily do them any wrong, but they perceive and believe our behavior to be inappropriate, unacceptable, unfair or unjust. Sometimes they are right.

Nevertheless, their covert, devious reaction is still not excused. But now we have a place to start when trying to diffuse the passive-aggressive.

What can I do to stop it?

Passive-aggressives are often people who believe their lives are controlled by others; but they lack the skill, knowledge, desire and/or confidence necessary to be assertive. To minimize their attacks, be as assertive as possible. Most passive-aggressives find it no fun to deal with someone who will openly and honestly call them out about their behavior. Be aware that passive-aggressive behavior almost always produces a passive-aggressive reaction.

We are responsible for our actions. We must make a conscious decision to not simply react or behave in a way that just feels good for the moment. We need to weigh the choices so both our actions and our communication serve to enhance our relationships rather than destroy them.

The only time it is beneficial to ignore negative behavior is when you are dealing with someone who is giving you the silent treatment. The same technique works on children, friends and co-workers. First, tell them you are totally aware of their attempts to get even with you for some “injustice.” Then go about your business and just let them sulk until they decide to deal with the problem in a more mature, assertive way. You will be OK.

Tell them what you expect!

Passive-aggressives are not used to being held accountable for their behavior. Challenge them positively! But be ready for the counter-attack. For example, how do you respond when someone who is behaving inappropriately disagrees with you in a public forum? This is one of the hardest—and most critical—times to be assertive and not give in or up.

The best assertive response to a passive-aggressive person who openly disagrees with you is, “Thank you. I appreciate your willingness to tell me how you feel face-to-face.” We might as well hear what they are thinking about us to our face because they are saying it behind our back anyway.

Never doubt that passive-aggressives are at war with us. Unless we know how they feel, we will never be able to plan a successful strategy to improve the relationship.

As with our children, the more a person understands what is expected of them and taught why those rules and expectations are relevant to their future well-being, the less likely they are to engage in passive-aggressive behavior. And they must know what the consequences will be if those expectations are not met. The more the person is involved in the process, the more they will understand about accountability and responsibility for one’s actions.

There is never a winner with passive-aggressive behavior, only losers. Do not ignore passive-aggressive behavior or it will get worse. Remember that we train difficult people! Just as with other communication styles, assertive is the only way to effectively deal with the passive-aggressive. Be prepared though, because they will surely test your assertive limits. If you can deal with them and their manipulations, your life will be much easier.

Take Action!
Is there someone in your life who deserves to be taught a lesson? Are you tempted to get even by using passive-aggressive behavior? If so, how could you communicate your feelings more assertively?

Watch for passive-aggressive behavior in your relationships at work and home. Notice how destructive it is. Think about ways you could improve communication.

Do you have someone in your life who is being passive-aggressive to you? Do you know why? Think about how you could begin to communicate more assertively and productively with them. Have you let them know you are aware of their behavior?

Connie Podesta is a board-certified therapist, licensed professional counselor, comedian and author of several books, including the popular series, Life Would Be Easy If It Weren't For Other People. Podesta is a well-known speaker providing positive and inspiring messages to hundreds of companies and more than 2 million people.