Photo of passive-aggressive orange seller

Don’t pee on my leg and tell me it’s raining!

Photo of passive aggressive restaurant patron

Are you dealing with Passive-Aggressives? These people fall through on their promises and responsibilities and then blame everyone and everything but themselves. They also have the charming tendency to blame you or bring up grievances when you call them on their non-performance. What is going on with these people?

Passive Aggression was once seen as a mental illness or personality disorder, but further research showed that we all use passive aggression when we’re faced with unpleasant tasks or authoritarian structures. Sometimes, it’s not possible to be assertive; sometimes, you gotta perform a little passive resistance.

However, there are people among us who take passive resistance to new heights; they tend to use it as a life strategy rather than a momentary choice.

Wikipedia has a good description of the behavior:

Passive–aggressive behavior, a personality trait, is passive, sometimes obstructionist resistance to following through with expectations in interpersonal or occupational situations. It is a personality trait marked by a pervasive pattern of negative attitudes and passive, usually disavowed resistance in interpersonal or occupational situations.

It can manifest itself as learned helplessness, procrastination, stubbornness, resentment, sullenness, or deliberate/repeated failure to accomplish requested tasks for which one is (often explicitly) responsible. also has a good article on passive aggression:

Passive Aggressive behavior is a form of covert abuse. When someone hits you or yells at you, you know that you’ve been abused. It is obvious and easily identified. Covert abuse is subtle and veiled or disguised by actions that appear to be normal, at times loving and caring. The passive aggressive person is a master at covert abuse.

Passive aggressive behavior stems from an inability to express anger in a healthy way. A person’s feelings may be so repressed that they don’t even realize they are angry or feeling resentment. A passive aggressive can drive people around him/her crazy and seem sincerely dismayed when confronted with their behavior. Due to their own lack of insight into their feelings the passive aggressive often feels that others misunderstand them or, are holding them to unreasonable standards if they are confronted about their behavior.

My mother referred to this behavior as “The tyranny of the weak.” Great saying, Ma! But it’s also emotionally revealing, because a passive aggressive person is someone whose relationship to anger is twisted (which is why they’re weak), and sadly, that problem means that the rest of their emotions will be twisted as well (and here comes the tyranny!).

Photo of passive-aggressive orange seller

In The Language of Emotions, I placed anger at the very front of the line (see The Gifts of Anger), not just because it’s a primary emotion, but because it’s the emotion that sets the tone for all of your other emotions. Anger sets boundaries for you, it helps you identify your place in the world, and it helps you protect your sense of self. If you work well with with your anger, you’ll tend to work well with the rest of your emotions too.

Let’s start with shame (see The Gifts of Shame): If you’ve got a good relationship with your anger, you’ll also have a good relationship with your shame, because they’re sort of mirror images of one another.

Anger faces outward and protects you from anything untoward coming in, while shame faces inward and protects the world from anything untoward coming from you. If you’re working well with your anger and shame, your behavior will be appropriate, assertive, considerate, and reliable. Fascinatingly, if you’re working well with your own anger and shame, people tend not to mess with you — not because you frighten them, but because you don’t have any cracks in your armor, and there’s nothing in you that invites abuse. If people behave improperly around you, you’ll be able to raise an eyebrow, laugh compassionately, or take them aside and check in with them, and they won’t do it again.

So, let’s look at the opposite situation, where you don’t have a good relationship with your anger. Immediately, your shame will fall into disarray as well — because they’re linked abilities — so you’ll not only be unsafe from attacks to your self-image and self-esteem, but people around you will be unsafe as well. Without your anger, you won’t be able to set firm and appropriate boundaries, which means that everything will get to you, and you’ll take it personally. Even if people around you are behaving normally and appropriately, your lack of boundaries will leave you exposed and hypersensitive. A sideways look, a bad joke, a cranky colleague, or a set of rules that seem pointless will loom up and threaten to crush you. And sadly, you’ll lash out.

But here’s the kicker: If you’re anger-impaired and dealing with severe boundary loss, which means you feel unsafe at all times, you won’t be able to lash out in ways that are direct or honest. You won’t be able to question the sideways look or the bad joke, and you won’t have the resilience you need to tolerate a cranky colleague or pointless rules. Everything will feel like a direct attack, not only on your self-esteem, but on your survival as an individual.

And now, sadness (see The Gifts of Sadness) will come forward because you’re losing something important (your sense of self), and fear (which you feel when there are threats to your physical survival and health) will come forward to help save your life. Doh!

And because your healthy sense of shame has been toppled by your troubled relationship with anger, you won’t have any brakes on your behavior. Your fear will tell you to lash out and protect yourself — as if your physical life is in actual danger — but you won’t have the sense of ethics that shame and anger bring you, so, oops, you’ll hurt people. Your fear will give you great instincts about the weaknesses of others, and you’ll exploit them because you feel endangered. Your sadness will also help you let go of things, but without your anger to set boundaries, you’ll let go of things like your sense of responsibility to others, your capacity to love and connect to people, and your contentment, which arises when you feel proud of yourself (you won’t have the peace of mind that leads to healthy pride if you’re continually defending yourself from attack!).

This is why I place so much emphasis on anger. If it’s broken, a domino effect will topple everything around it; problems with anger will knock out your shame, your fear, your sadness, and your contentment. Happiness and joy are unlikely, you’ll probably wrestle with jealousy and envy, you’ll kick your depression into high gear, and yow! What a mess!

Comic of passive-aggressive ninja

Dealing with Passive Aggression in Yourself

Okay, this is easy. Get back in touch with your anger and shame! Read the book, get all your emotions back into their correct relationships, burn your contracts with old behaviors (passive aggression is learned in childhood, usually in chaotic or abusive families, so the five empathic skills in the book will be lifesavers), and voila! You can go out and play nice!

Dealing with Passive Aggression in Others

This one is not so easy, because passive-aggressive people are so boundary-impaired that anything you do directly will feel like an attack, and they will exact their revenge! Luckily, because we’re all empathic, you can work in an emotionally intelligent way that may (I say may, because we can’t control others) help the passive-aggressive person feel safe enough to behave honorably.

  1. Model good boundaries as often as you can, and make a point to be careful around the physical boundary of the afflicted person. Our brains map an area around our bodies, and this gives us a sense of personal space at a distance of about 30 inches around ourselves, front and back, left and right, above and below. Passive-aggressive people do not have this sense of safety around themselves, so you can help them by behaving as if they do.
  2. Model your own healthy relationship with anger. It is soooo easy to strike out at a passive-aggressive person, because their behavior is infuriating. However, it’s a trap! If you strike back at a person who is so obviously boundary-impaired, you’re behaving like a lout, which will just feed into the passive-aggressive fairy tale of constant drama and danger. It is hard to do at first, but if you can see the passive-aggressive person as someone in a kind of living nightmare, you can use your anger to strengthen yourself and set compassionate boundaries in gentle ways.
  3. Ask questions rather than give orders. Passive-aggressive people have trouble with authority … their own and yours. Knowing this, you can give them a sense of control by asking questions rather than giving orders. If there is work that they must complete, ask them how they will do it, rather than trying to set boundaries and schedules for them. If they can think through the task and create their own way, they may learn to set boundaries for themselves.
  4. Tell them you trust their instincts. Hah!  That will surprise the hell out of them, because passive aggressive people don’t feel strong enough to be trustworthy.  However, with all that fear jumping around inside them, they do have instincts.
  5. Always, a little patience. When people don’t have access to their healthy anger and shame, social life can feel like a nightmare. If you can see a passive-aggressive person as basically an open wound, you can understand why they’re so intensely reactive to everything around them. You can also begin to understand that when they let you down and misbehave, they’re actually trying to gain strength by doing what they want, no matter what. If you can see their poor behavior as a tragic bid for independence, you won’t need to take it personally.

Okay, those are my ideas right now! Have you found healthy ways to work with the boundary-impaired and passive-aggressive people in your life?

44 Responses

  1. Karla
    | Reply

    Ooh! I forgot to post a link to this funny blog called Passive Aggressive Notes. There are some wonderfully horrible examples there!

  2. Deborah
    | Reply

    Ah Karla!

    What a marvelous article. Thank you for your frank, direct, non-blaming (of any/either “side”) exploration of an all too familiar day-to-day occurrence. I will definitely recirculate this. I really appreciate your suggestions for ways to handle ourselves when we find ourselves in the presence of someone behaving in an unskilled manner.

    Love the title too! Thanks for fearlessly delivering the message, and bringing your own sweet humor to lighten the lesson.

    Deep gratitude for your work,

    Deborah Ivanoff

  3. Julie D.
    | Reply

    Passive-aggression is a form of bullying. And as my shrink once told me, “sometimes you need to deal with bullies in their own language.”

    And another book, “Work would be great if it weren’t for the people,” the author suggests publicly confronting the passive aggressor. You can do it calmly and politely, but be very clear. No pussy-footing around. The key here is to disregard whatever the aggressor’s excuse is, don’t even bother correcting their excuse, it doesn’t matter what they say, or whether they apologize – as long as you call them on the passive aggressive action – that is, *name exactly what they did*.

    The deal here is that the aggressor hates being publicly outed, and that’s all that matters. Nine times out of ten, their action will stop, and they won’t bother you any more, if only to avoid being humiliated again.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Thanks Deborah and Julie D!

      You know, I think it’s possible that I’d call out a bully publicly (though there are far better ways to deal with bullying), but my shame wouldn’t let me humiliate a passive aggressive person. They often have no clue about themselves or their seething angers, and calling them out publicly is just another way to strip them of self-image and boundaries. They got that growing up, so it just perpetuates their story. And it’s not a good story to repeat.

      I think they’d leave you alone after a public humiliation, but my suspicion is that the behavior would intensify in other areas, and with other people.

  4. JY
    | Reply

    Hi Karla, good post! Passive-aggression must be the most acceptable form of anger expression in places where speaking up just earns a lot of grief, which sometimes seems like most places! I love the humor in these examples, funny!

  5. Deborah
    | Reply

    I’ve recently had some experience with an older man, a neighbor. It took me awhile but I realized that it wasn’t just me he was trying to “get at” by verbally engaging my children. I began to “check in” with other neighbors to discover that each and every one that lived around this man had experienced some form of verbal “unhelpfullness” (yelling, curses, threats, etc, in the dark, over the fence, from his front porch).

    I chose to communicate directly with each neighbor and together we agreed to go get another ne3ighbor right away, if we were experiencing an issue (no more separate and threaten).

    Then I went to this man and his wife (the man left so I finished the conversation with the wife) and I let them know very clearly that none of us would tolerate this kind of behavior, that we were all in communication with one another, sharing information. I was very careful to use the best Nonviolent Communication skills I had. The wife claimed distress and no knowledge that any of this had occurred. Nevertheless, I communicated the group boundaries of the neighborhood and our no tolerance policy for abuse.

    It wasn’t the Hollywood “flash” of “someone getting there’s” (thank goodness, that’s not what I was after at all) because as you say, humiliation, any kind of violence as an attempt to stop violence is doomed.

    But I am glad to say that the neighborhood has been enjoying a collective freedom once we all together decided we were not interested in playing these passive aggressive games and shared the issue in the light.

    On a side note, I again want to thank you for your article because the whole “eye for an eye justice” and “acceleration of anger” that is justified, even romanticized in our culture, makes it so very challenging to behave more skillfully, more compassionately with others.

    Thank you for helping us. I think your work is the next wave of human evolution. How can we grow until we learn to use our emotions as a skillset?


  6. Michael
    | Reply

    Hi,Karla Have a question;I was reading a article at Shambhala Sun titled:Love Without Fear:Building Fearless Relationships.The question has to do with Love &Fear in the human condition & in relationships of all kinds;where in your teachings The Language of Emotions do you speak of the contrast of these two human traits,I may of missed your thoughts on this,your help would be greatly appreciated. Peace Be Upon You,LaughingStumpf-Mike

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hi Michael,

      I see love and fear very differently than most people do. I don’t see love as an emotion at all, and I don’t see fear as a problem; in fact, fear is our intuition and instincts, and we’d be dead without it!

      In The Language of Emotions, the chapter on love (The Steadfast Promise) is on page 123, and the chapter on fear (Intuition and Action) is on 235.


  7. Karla
    | Reply

    Deborah, thanks for your post!

    Wouldn’t it be great if empathy and emotional awareness and understanding were the next wave of human evolution? Yow! What an excellent world we could create if people just knew what the heck to do with their emotions!


  8. Katrina
    | Reply

    I grew up in a verbally abusive home (the verbal abuse was not directed at me, but at my mother … but it still had a lot of long-lasting effects on me); as a result, I ended up being passive-aggressive for many years, because I didn’t have anyone in my life to teach me how to be angry in safe, appropriate ways.

    I remember how much I hated being passive-aggressive … but I didn’t know what else to do; I realize now that it was the only way I knew to draw boundaries around myself.

    But over the course of the last eleven years, I’ve had a number of books and audio series and people and life experiences come into my life that have helped me to heal and grow. I now have good boundaries and a healthy relationship with my emotions (though I occasionally have to work on the latter if something triggers an old memory or touches an old scar). I know how to stand up for myself in ways that are respectful of myself and of others.

    I also tend to “pick my battles” — when is something worth standing up for? And when is it better simply to sigh, shake my head, and walk away, rather than expend any additional energy?

    I definitely won’t say that I have things completely figured out … but I’m also not stuck in the passive-aggressive mode anymore, either!

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Katrina, thank you so much for sharing your story. It really does feel awful not to be able to set boundaries, and I thank you for speaking from inside the situation.

      I have a question: If you think back to your most boundary-impaired days, how would you like to have been approached about something you did wrong? Would there be any way at all to approach you without your feeling really crappy about yourself? I feel so much empathy for boundary-impaired people that it’s possible that I imagine them feeling more pain than they do. I wonder?


  9. Deborah
    | Reply

    I’ll see that with you (emotional skill as the next wave of human evolution). D.

  10. Deborah
    | Reply

    P.S. Love what you said about Love and Fear.

  11. Katrina
    | Reply

    Karla, I’ve had some really wonderful, brilliant teachers over the course of my life — and not just in academia; the riding instructor who let me work for my lessons for three years while I was in junior high school, my acting coach (whom I’ve been studying with for more than four years now), and a small handful of friends.

    They — and some things I’ve read over the years — have taught me a few things that one can do when providing criticism:

    1. Make a “criticism” sandwich — start and end with praise: “This is the start of a beautiful painting, Amy. I think the composition might look a little more balanced if you add one more tree over here. But I really love your use of color, and the lake looks so realistic.”

    2. Criticize the work, not the person. Not “Geez, Phil, you’d be such a better actor if you’d work on your physical awareness,” but “Phil, I’m seeing some tension in your shoulders; it might be getting in the way of letting your body really sink into this role. Have you tried doing some warm-ups and stretches to help release that tension?”

    3. Offer criticism as a way to improve the work, not as a tearing-down of the work. Not, “Gina, your piece is rife with typos; you had three run-on sentences; and you misused the word ‘construe,'” but “Gina, I see your passion in this essay you’ve written. I think it could be really powerful and effective; it just needs a little polishing. May I make a few suggestions?”

    There may be some people who are so severely boundary-impaired that even these tips might not help … but I have found that following these guidelines seems to work with the vast majority of people I’ve encountered. Myself included.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Oh, what excellent suggestions! I work with singers a lot, and I think I fell into the criticism sandwich tack just by the seat of my pants. Yay!

      One of my favorite acting teachers had a really dry wit. We were in an improv class, and she had some advanced actors do a scene to show the rest of us what was possible. But they didn’t get into the flow of it. After they were finished, she moved toward the stage and said, “Okay, let’s run that scene again, but this time, be better actors.

      Everyone fell out laughing.

      I love that so much! My husband and I apply it to everything: Better cooking, better writing, better driving. It’s so perfect!

  12. Deborah
    | Reply

    Thanks Katrina! Great suggestions. My daughter and I were just taking about this, this morning, about how to speak to other writers, offer them the feedback they asked for without squelching any of the creative flow. Lovely. Thanks. D.

  13. Michael (LaughingStumpf)
    | Reply

    It seems that the difficulty with boundaries/feedback is the learning curve that takes place in the present moment,one reason I respond to Karla’s work/passion is I accept the open opportunity to grow beyond my own upbringing with a manic/depressive father & a generation of I don’t know how to put it(chaotic,drug induced feelings,& all over the place,with great ideals/no practice,&!?*).I have learned that empathy is a skill that is not alone , ThankYou Karla for being so Human & Giving it really helps this male human grow!

  14. michael e. stumpf
    | Reply

    Hi Karla received your newsletter 6/10/2011, about Gossip,this is very relevant to what I seem to be experiencing in the family & workplace. My question is it feels as though gossip & passive-aggression seem to have a link, more than any outward expression. What you think/feel? Peace Upon You,Mike

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hi Michael, Gossip can certainly be a passive way to deal with anger toward someone, but it can also be the only way to share information in a sick system. So it’s not one thing or the other. Sometimes it’s both!

  15. Michael Stumpf
    | Reply

    Thank You for your quick response Karla. I do agree with your clarity of bringing Ethical Action to Empathy, for me it helps with the uncertainty of my interactions with others at chaotic times? Time to Breathe & Flow; Mike

  16. Mark
    | Reply

    You mentioned what I have read in many other articles…that we all practice some passive aggressive traits from time to time. I’m wondering if this has to do with our current age of political correctness. I have noticed that passive aggression is quite prevalent in the workplace (i.e. office environment), so I’m wondering if our current culture is actually promoting passive aggression. We, as a whole, in an office environment do not have many of the avenues of “venting” open to us anymore because so much of our older behaviors are now deemed as “politically incorrect”; hence, how else can we deal with anger in such environments other than through subtle, quiet, and sneaky methods where plausible deniability is immediate?

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello Mark! Oy the workplace — it’s one of the most emotionally troubling areas there is, and for a lot of reasons. It’s not just anger that can’t be worked with openly at work; there are also proscriptions against expressing fear, sadness, grief, anxiety, jealousy, envy, depression, joy, shame, guilt, contentment … and pretty much every emotion besides happiness. The workplace is such an emotional minefield. I study the workplace, and wrote a chapter about the workplace in The Art of Empathy, and I’m being asked to come into companies to talk about empathy and emotional intelligence, but really it’s a Sisyphean task.

      As far as anger goes, it’s one of the most abused emotions there is, and people tend to either express it at others in irresponsible ways, or repress it and get walked all over. Working honorably and skillfully with anger is one of the central ways that people can mature and become functional, but it so rarely happens. And there are a lot of reasons for that.

      In my work, I talk about how to work with anger in ways that aren’t abusive to the self or others, and what’s interesting to me is that when people do this, almost no one can identify that they’re working with anger. When people can learn how to channel their emotions, amazing things can happen.

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