How to identify passive-aggressive behaviour
Passive-aggressive behavior might be a feature of some mental health disorders, but it isn’t considered a recognisable mental health condition.
However, passive-aggressive behavior can interfere with your relationships and create difficulties at work, for both you and those around you.
Have you ever come across or been the recipient of passive-aggressive behaviour? The chances are that you have but perhaps not realised it at the time.
Have you ever, or do you display passive-aggressive behaviour? Again, the chances are that you have and maybe you weren’t aware of it.
Remember that time your best friend got a promotion only a fortnight after blagging that amazing new job? What about when you told hubby not to bother with Valentine’s Day, and he didn’t? Maybe you sulked a wee bit, and the next day your best friend or partner asked how you were. You smiled “Fine!”
I think most of us know that whenever someone tells you that everything is “fine,” it generally means the opposite.
What is passive-aggressive behaviour?
In The Angry Smile: The Psychology of Passive Aggressive Behavior in Families, Schools, and Workplaces, “passive aggression” is defined as a deliberate and masked way of expressing covert feelings of anger (Long, Long & Whitson, 2008).
It involves a range of behaviors designed to get back at another person without them recognising the underlying anger.
So, passive-aggressive behaviour is when somebody expresses resentment or animosity indirectly. Rather than showing hubby your resentment and explaining why he’s such an arse, you’ll behave in ways that distress or frustrate him. You didn’t receive a card or flowers, so now you’ll let that special Valentine’s Day steak dinner dry up!
Rather than telling your friend you’re a little jealous about her fab new job and pay rise, you’ll not contact her for the rest of the week. Perhaps you didn’t want to deliberately upset hubby or your friend, but that behaviour in itself can be really upsetting!
People with passive-aggressive behavior express their negative feelings, often subtly, through their actions instead of openly addressing them. This creates a disconnect between what the passive-aggressive person says and what they actually do.
Passive-aggressive behaviour in the workplace
For example, I’d propose that our Charge Nurses take the lead on planning the nursing rota. Curtis, with his passive-aggressive behaviour opposed the plan, but instead of voicing his opinion, he’d agree to it.
Since he was actually against the plan, however, he resisted following it through. He’d purposely miss deadlines, leaving staff nurses not knowing their shifts for the coming week.
There’s always that someone at work who tests your patience to the max, right? And while you probably can’t tell them
to f*ck off how you really feel, there are some subtle ways to get back at them. I know, cos I’ve used them against or received them from narcissistic bullying bosses!
“Morning Tessa, nice to see you.” Cue big smile to the b*tch who interviewed me for the third time and still refused to offer me the job. I’d only been acting up in this job for two years and we’d won three awards for Excellence.
I’d say “Thanks for your feedback Tessa! I’ll keep it in mind!” I could do my job with my hands tied, wearing a blindfold so Tessa’s negative feedback was unfounded.
“I’ll go through the Trust Policy and get back to you!” I beamed when Kate, my Modern Matron, told me to get all staff holiday plans a whole year in advance. Of course, I knew the policy was that staff could request any holiday leave as and when.
Curtis always used passive-aggressive responses like “Okay, if that’s what you want.” Then he’d continue to type everything in capitals and say “Ah, I forgot. Anyway, I think it looks okay!” when I explicitly said to type in lower case – because typing in capitals is called shouting and it’s considered rude.
Passive-aggressive doesn’t mean you’re bad
Being passive-aggressive doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. Often it’s “a strategy we use when we think we don’t deserve to speak our minds or we’re afraid to be honest and open.” says psychotherapist Tina Gilbertson, LPC, author of Constructive Wallowing: How to Beat Bad Feelings.
It’s not always a bad thing either. Passive-aggressive behaviour might be a way to retaliate if you’re at the wrong end of a power dynamic. Like me and Tessa. Although she was my boss, she felt threatened by my twenty years of HR management experience, so had to publicly undermine me.
Or me and Curtis. Upset because I was sent in as Acting Ward Manager, the job he’d expected to get, he was deliberately passive-aggressive. Sadly, rather than telling Tessa to “stuff her job” or yelling at Curtis to “grow a pair”, I retaliated with passive-aggressive behaviour of my own!
If you’ve encountered acts of passive-aggression then you’ll know just how frustrating, overwhelming and exhausting it can be. And if like me, you’ve been guilty of it, stop! It’s not very adult-like and it’s not the best way to resolve things.
The following post will explore more signs of, causes and ways to change passive-aggressive behaviour, particularly in relationships.
Over to you
Have you used passive-aggressive behaviours or have you been on the receiving end of them? How did you handle them, or not? What are the best passive-aggressive phrases you’ve used to get back at someone? I look forward to any witty one-liners I could pinch, any comments or questions.