Passive Aggressive No More

Posted by on Mar 1, 2012 in Uncategorized | 5,257 comments

I’m on a “Let’s-stamp-out-passive-aggressiveness ” kick.    Why can’t we just say what we mean, ask for what we want and be honest when we don’t want something?   Let me be the first to say that I resort to these “avoid the tension” tactics at times.  If you know me, you know that I am verbally more direct than most although I can do the “nice girl” thing with the best of the them.  I’m well trained – I was raised in church.

OK – let’s back up.  What is passive aggressive behavior?  At the risk of over-simplifying the definition, it is appearing to go along with something outwardly, while inwardly resisting.

  • It’s showing up significantly late (or not at all) for a party that I didn’t want to attend in the first place.
  • It’s not being able to “find” that receipt that you have asked me for 10 times…because I think you’re unreasonable in asking for it.
  • It’s smiling and nodding in agreement in spite of inward bells and whistles to the contrary…and then gossiping about you to a mutual friend.
  • It is acting like my feelings aren’t hurt when they really are…and distancing myself from you ever so slightly.

Get the picture?  Passive aggressiveness is the false outward appearance of cooperation designed to keep the peace while inwardly disagreeing and resisting.  We resort to it for one of two reasons:  1.   Because it allows us to appear cooperative, agreeable and helpful.  That is, we want to look good;  or 2. We fear the consequences if disagree.   In other words…..pride or fear.

Sound harsh?   Maybe…….

However, I believe that this kind of avoidance is the cause of a lot of unresolved pain in relationships and has the opposite effect of bringing people together.  Put a bunch of passive aggressive people in a room and everyone will smile and make nice but there’s no way of knowing what everyone REALLY thinks as undefined tension rises in the room.  There can be no true “knowing” because no one’s sharing their real self;  a kind of sharing that is the basis of real intimacy.   Over time, the agreeable feelings fade because beneath all that smiling simmers conflict, tension and distance.

Is it undesirable to resort to Passive Aggressiveness 100% of the time?  I’ve thought about this and my answer is, “yes”.    While “passiveness” (e.g. not responding, or hiding one’s true feelings), may be appropriate, even life-saving at times, it’s the “aggressive” part that becomes problematic.  That’s the part that punishes or pays back in subtle ways (forgetting, distancing, rejecting).   It’s just not OK.  Even though there is a cooperative façade, it’s hostile in nature and it brings division.

The alternative is congruency.  That simply means that what you speak matches what is inside.  It risks revealing your true self.  It understands that a façade of agreement is not the basis for depth in relationship.  It does NOT mean that you speak out whatever enters your mind (that would be stupidity);  It does mean that what you choose to speak is consistent with who you are.

Obviously, this can at times lead to tension even if we graciously seek to minimize the impact.

  • I’m sorry.  I know it’s very important to you, but I won’t be able to make it.
  • Since you asked, I would have to say I don’t completely agree with you, although I respect your perspective.
  • I love spending time with you.  However, I have never been a fan of ______ (Insert activity).  Would you mind if we did something else?
  • I wanted you to know that I value our friendship but I did feel hurt when you __________.  Can we talk about it?

These are expressions of self.  They speak out what is inside.  At moments like this, tension is unavoidable.  However, dealing with differences directly is the only way to resolve things in a way that honors the relationship in the long run. Think of it this way:  Risking short-term tension can lead to long-term depth of friendship.

I guess it depends on what you want.  If you just want absence of conflict in the moment; then I suppose Passive Aggressiveness will serve you well.  You will avoid a moment of tension by saying what others want to hear.  However, in the long run, you will have to sacrifice depth of relationship because you won’t be able to really expose what you think.  In the end, there will be a different kind of tension in the relationship won’t there?

Try congruency instead of passive-aggressiveness.  Take a deep breath.  Take a risk.  Speak out.  And when you do, celebrate your courage.  It’s freeing.


  1. Gabriele,Thanks so much for your thoughts. I have a thorough understanding of this behavior. But, how does one handle living with this? The boundaries behaviors have given me some peace of mind. I know that I can only work on myself and am not responsible for another persons decisions. I still do the “I’m a big girl, remember.” Some days are better than others with this self talk. Can you do a blog on being the recipient of passive aggressiveness? Thanks. Lisa

Submit a Comment