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What does being passive-aggressive mean?

Passive-aggressive is a term that most of us are familiar with and at times may have found ourselves using it when describing people.  Not many however, seem to be quite clear about what it really says.  The actual term in itself may appear as a paradox, in that our main understanding of aggression is something dynamic, active and of course the term passive represents the exact opposite of that, so how can two seemingly opposite words create one that makes sense?

Let’s start with the first part which is the word passive.  This relates to a person’s tendency not to do anything about their feelings or a situation.  They tend not to express their emotions about a situation or something that another person does, which is for example, hurtful, upsetting, or disappointing to them.  This may well be because they are not aware of it, or they are afraid of saying something or other reasons…the end result is that they do nothing about it and hence their stance is one of being passive.

Now let’s turn our attention to the second part of the word i.e. aggressive.  This refers to a person’s tendency to push their will through i.e. to take control, to determine outcome, to bully…in a nutshell, to get their own way by expressing aggression, whether on verbal or physical level.  The reason it tends to work is because most people are intimidated by an aggressive stance and tend to back off.

I can fully understand if after reading the above definitions, you may be feeling even more confused about how these two words combined, could make any sense…The word passive-aggressive describes a person, who is unable and/or avoids to express what they want and need or how they feel about something or someone in a constructive way. That means they are unable to assert themselves, and instead of taking ownership and responsibility for it, they consciously or subconsciously externalise the blame and see the other person as responsible.  This in turn of course will bring out in them feelings of anger towards this other.  They then express that anger by withholding something that is important to the other person or opposing something the other wants.  This is usually done in a very innocent, often subtle and at times quite rational manner.  Because of this and the fact that the initial problem has been covered up and expressed in a different context, the person that is at the receiving end of this passive-aggressive stance, is unable to ascertain what the real issue is nor are they in a position to deal with it in a constructive way.  As a result of this, unfortunately, this very unhelpful dynamic continues and creates more resentment, anger, unhappiness between two people.

So next time, if you are upset that your partner or friend is not giving you as much attention as you need, just tell them that, instead of waiting until next occasion when they would like to see you and suddenly you either happen to be busy or you cancel on them for no good reason.

 

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Elisabeth Robson
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