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Getting Away With Anger: The “Art” of Passive Aggression

Here's what happens when you try to suppress anger, but it slips out sideways.

Key points

  • If your parents modeled passive aggression toward each other—or toward you—then, unawares, they would have “coached” you in developing it.
  • So many people can succumb to the temptation to air out a gripe or grievance passive-aggressively, because it seems safer than doing so directly.
  • Expressing annoyance or irritation deviously can alleviate your anxiety about directly confronting another, and so safeguard your vulnerability.
  • If it’s discovered, passive-aggressive behavior—related to your verbalization or tone of voice—can ultimately come back to haunt you.
Mikhail Nilov / Pexels
Source: Mikhail Nilov / Pexels

The Many Facets of Passive Aggression

The literature on passive aggression is full of definitions for this all-too-common phenomenon. It also delineates various forms of this covertly hostile communication, as well as multiple examples of it. But what’s generally missing is an exploration of its origins.

This post, therefore, will attempt to suggest why so many people (including you?) from time to time succumb to the temptation of airing out a gripe or grievance passive-aggressively. Such concealment can seem a lot safer in helping you safeguard your vulnerability than expressing your irritation more directly.

However, such passive-aggressive communication, whether in your verbalization or tone of voice, can come back to haunt you. Ultimately self-sabotaging, dishonest, and defensive, it can damage you—not just relationally, but also personally and professionally.

Yet momentarily, it allows you to be one-up in a situation you find challenging. And frankly, it feels justified and self-vindicating. Which is why it can be experienced as almost irresistible.

Additionally, although this passive type of aggression may appear less aggressive than its active form, it still can convey as much—possibly even more—hostility or antagonism as its more straightforward manifestation. That is, indirectly acted-out aggression can be every bit as pronounced and intense as its free-spoken correlate.

It’s just sneakier. And inasmuch as the psychic wounds it inflicts are easier to deny, it can be more powerful than its direct counterpart.

After all, what’s being said is innocent enough. Sarcastic and deceptive as it perversely is, its recipient may be at a loss about how effectively to counter or confront it. Nor can they be absolutely sure that the painful sting they received was deliberately intended. And this is why passive-aggressive expression can be an uncannily clever way of hiding vengeful feelings while stealthily letting them out.

The Origins and Hidden Dynamics of Passive Aggression

To sum up the above, passive-aggressive behavior has it both ways. It helps a person discharge their anger even while shamelessly disowning it. Literally, it conveys anything but anger, so it’s difficult to recognize and refute.

Even when it’s recognized, it can be tricky to address successfully. Admittedly, any negative assessment that might be made is interpretive, and the passive-aggressive individual—conveniently assuming the role of an innocent victim—can react as though the other’s negative evaluation is arbitrary, illegitimate, or unfair. For “factually,” at least, they didn’t really say what the other person claims they heard. In short, passive aggression is sarcasm in its most secretive, subtlest, and nimblest form.

To go deeper into what’s beneath this passive-aggressive communicative modality, let’s explore its dynamics as they explain some seminal aspects of humanity's rather fragile psyche.

  • Since your initial relationship was with your parents, the first thing to consider is what behaviors they modeled for you. Were you witness to their frequent arguments? If one or both of them dealt with their frustrations by routinely losing their temper, did they offer you the same latitude to vent your own frustrations?

Or did they hold you to a double standard? If so, when you got angry with them, how did they punish you—perhaps by subjecting you to the single, most abusive passive-aggressive reaction of the (dreaded) silent treatment?

In that case, when you were still very young and extremely dependent on them, you would have discovered that the only safe way you could release your anger (i.e., besides turning it against yourself) was indirect.

Then, with the “innate survival wisdom” of a child, you could avoid their angrily acting out against you. This would be critical since, absent any felt bond with them, you’d experience intolerable feelings of disconnection and abandonment.

Complementing this possibility, might your parents actually have modeled passive aggression toward each other—or toward you? For then, unawares, you would have been methodically “coached” into developing this deceitful behavior.

It’s crucial to add that in either instance, you would have absorbed their unintended anger lessons unconsciously. That’s the main reason most people who inflict others with such hurtful behavior are only dimly aware (if at all) that they’re doing it.

  • If you were routinely mistreated by your parents, as I’ve illustrated, you’d likely end up with chronic feelings of insecurity. And that insecurity intimately correlates with anxiety—basically feeling relationally unsafe and so needing to develop defenses against a heightened sense of vulnerability.

And if, though unconsciously, you learned you could temporarily escape this so unpleasant, out-of-control feeling through anger and aggression, you could easily “default” to this falsely empowering emotion.

Still, if you experienced your anger as making you that much more susceptible to another’s retaliatory anger (cf., again, your earliest relationship with your parents), you’d need to painstakingly hide it—even as you acted it out.

Enter passive aggression, which permits you to alleviate discomfiting feelings of anxiety by resorting to anger covertly—a far less vulnerable way of getting it out. And if confronted, such calculated sarcasm is much easier to refute than had you expressed your anger openly.

  • If the child in you doubts your competence, but you can’t admit this to others, you might at first agree to do something requested of you. But then, because of deep-seated fears you’d then be divulging your personal inadequacy, you’d somehow contrive never to get around to completing it—or even starting it.

As a qualifier, it’s also possible that you could act passive-aggressively by posturing incompetence to get out of something you could do just fine but simply don’t want to. One author, Zawn Villines, refers wittily to this passive-aggressive, avoidant technique as “weaponized incompetence,” which is:

When a person pretends to be incompetent as a way of either avoiding an unpleasant task or punishing another person. For example, a spouse might pretend not to know how to clean the bathroom or do an objectively inferior job styling a child’s hair so that they do not have to keep doing it.

If you regularly felt defeated by another in situations of conflict (and this, too, might hark back to your family-of-origin), you could avoid such discord by consenting to something and then “defeating” the other person by not following through on it—or maybe “forgetting” it.

However endangering to your relationship, this duplicity, or irresponsibility, would nonetheless enable you to experience more power and control over it.

  • If you felt vengeful toward another but feared that acting it out vindictively could harm you, you might have acted on it passive-aggressively. That way you could handily deny anyone’s accusations—say, of your being condemning or contemptuous of them—by “politely” telling them they’d badly misunderstood your intentions.

And, indeed, your action (or reaction) was—at least on the surface—sufficiently ambiguous that they couldn’t easily substantiate their claim of your being hostile toward them.

The above examples of actions driven by someone’s passive-aggressive tendencies should increase your awareness of what in various situations to be suspicious of.

© 2022 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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