The Passive Aggression in Me
A loved one has unintentionally said something that hurt your feelings. In response, you:
A. confront him about it.
B. say something hurtful in return.
C. keep icy silence until he figures out what he did wrong.
Your roommate is borrowing your computer without your permission and it’s bugging you. In response, you:
A. politely ask her to stop.
B. get over it because you know she needs to work on her resume.
C. password protect the computer without telling her.
You’ve been feeling neglected by your friends. When they finally ask you to hang out with them, you:
A. enthusiastically agree.
B. tell them yes and explain how you’ve been missing them and feeling lonely.
C. wait for them to call you when you don’t show up to make sure they “really” want you there.
If “C” sounds familiar to you in one or more of these cases, then you are probably acquainted with the tactic that is passive aggression. Passive aggression can take on a lot of forms, including resentment, hostility, procrastination and a negative attitude. It’s one of my biggest pet peeves — not only in others, but also in myself.
For some reason, passive aggression comes naturally to me. It’s where my brain first turns after I’ve been hurt. I think it’s because I don’t like conflict. I don’t want to threaten the relationship, so I say nothing or I let my feelings show in the hopes that the other person will notice and begin the discussion so I don’t have to.
Owning the Hurt
I don’t like admitting when I am hurt; it makes me feel weak because I am putting the power in the other person’s hands. They have the choice to validate the way I am feeling or not. At times I’m overcome with the fear that they won’t.
The willingness to communicate honestly, even when candid discussion opens the floodgates to uncomfortable emotions, is the hallmark of a healthy relationship. Sharing those damaged feelings and getting through an argument together can actually strengthen the bond. Because we’re in relationships with other fallible human beings, there’s always the chance we might get hurt and an argument might not end with rainbows and butterflies. But building a relationship on a solid foundation of honest communication is worth the risk.
In my experience, passive aggression sometimes stems from feeling inadequate and uncertain about ourselves. We want proof that people like us, and we dig around for the validation in subtle ways or choose to wallow in self-pity. We may give someone the cold shoulder or shut down meaningful conversation to show our displeasure. Or we might attempt a power play where we’re the hero who points out a flaw and comes in to solve a problem at the last minute.
Love Before Politeness
The destructive thing about passive aggressive behavior is that it appears to take the responsibility off our shoulders and makes it look like we have the other person’s best interest in mind. But it’s actually self-centered. When someone asks, “Why didn’t you just talk to me if you’re feeling lonely?” and I respond with, “I didn’t want to be a bother,” I place the responsibility for my feelings on someone else’s shoulders — and that’s not fair, or honest. It drives a wedge between me and others, rather than promoting unity.
David has a poetic way of describing something that sounds suspiciously like passive aggression in Psalm 55 — “His speech was smooth as butter, yet war was in his heart; his words were softer than oil, yet they were drawn swords” (v. 21). We live in a culture where we’re trained to be agreeable and polite, and where disagreement and conflict are to be avoided at all cost. Passive aggression can flourish because we draw our “swords” with politeness in order to escape the disruptive nature of an argument. Fear lies at the heart of the issue, and the more often we confront it, the easier it gets to communicate our feelings and needs with those we love. Just as God invites us to be brave and honest with Him about our feelings, we can strengthen our relationships with others when we are honest with them.
About the Author
Hailing from the cold reaches of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Allison is the general manager of Geekdom House, executive editor of Area of Effect magazine, co-host of the Infinity +1 podcast, and staff writer for Christ and Pop Culture. When she’s not writing, designing, or editing, she is usually preoccupied in Hyrule, Middle-earth, or a galaxy far, far away.