The American Psychological Association defines passive-aggressive personality disorder “a personality disorder of long standing in which ambivalence toward the self and others is expressed by such means as procrastination, dawdling, stubbornness, intentional inefficiency, ‘forgetting’ appointments, or misplacing important materials.”
This can apply to your friend who wore white to your wedding rather than telling you she didn’t want to come or to your coworker who regularly emails you saying, “not sure if you last my last email.”
Preston Ni, author of “How to Successfully Handle Passive-Aggressive People,” wrote for Psychology Today that passive-aggressive individuals will be “unreasonable to deal with,” be “uncomfortable to experience,” “rarely express their hostility directly,” and “repeat their subterfuge behaviour over time.”
Backhanded compliments, avoiding conflict, guilt-tripping, and feigning ignorance are all signs of passive-aggressive behaviour that serve to convey hostility or signal resentment in a veiled and/or roundabout way.
Here are ways to successfully deal with passive-aggressive people.
Pay attention to passive-aggressive behaviour.
Preston Ni wrote for Psychology Today that “it’s easy to overlook or dismiss signs of passive-aggression in a relatively new relationship…. we may feel inclined to excuse the behaviour as the exception rather than the norm, and hope that it will not happen again.”
We may want to give the benefit of the doubt, but if these behaviours are bothersome, start figuring out if they’re isolated incidents or a pattern. Are there other incidents you overlooked? Is the behaviour targeted towards everyone this person interacts with? Notice the signs early.
Call out the specific behaviour.
Vijayraj Kamat, TEDx speaker and author of “Stop Lying, Start Moving,” told HuffPost, “There are no passive-aggressive people. There is passive-aggressive behaviour. So passive-aggressive people are not bad. Passive-aggressive behaviour causes some undesirable consequences.” This is a way of looking at the problem that makes it less personal and more manageable.
Judith Orloff, M.D., who deals with “emotional vampires,” or people who drain you, suggested focusing on just one behaviour at a time so as not to attack or overwhelm the aggressor.
She proposes that if a passive-aggressive friend is constantly late (possibly signalling their resentment towards the location, the time, or having to meet with you), tell them you’d appreciate their being on time so that they don’t waste your time. Best case scenario, they may apologise and be open to changing their behaviour once the implications of their actions are made clear to them.
Orloff warned, however, “If she is evasive or makes excuses, request clarification about how to solve the problem. If you can’t get a straight answer, confront that too. Being specific pins down passive-aggressive people.” Keep in mind, however, that even if you confront them with kindness and respect, they still may act defensively.
Although the behaviour might be part of a larger pattern, don’t bring up past incidents.
“If you’re calling someone out on their behaviour, chances are this isn’t the first time they have acted this way. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to bring out the laundry list of past offenses or make sweeping generalizations,” Scott Wetzler, Ph.D., author of “Living With the Passive-Aggressive Man,” told Greatist. If your aunt tells you that she likes your new haircut because it makes your face look slimmer, rather than accusing her of criticising you constantly, explain why that remark is hurtful to you.
Be open and inclusive to communication.
Passive-aggressive people are already so averse to communication that you need to make sure you are never shutting it down.
Human behaviour expert and business performance coach, Melody Wilding, LMSW, suggested to Psych Central adopting “an open-door policy,” especially if you’re at work.
“Influence positive change [by] welcoming feedback and dialogue … Encouraging two-way communication helps head off passive-aggressive patterns before they start,” said Wilding.
Recognise your own passive-aggression.
Kendra Cherry, M.S., at VeryWell suggested taking the time to step back and examine your own behaviour to make sure you aren’t just as guilty of some of these behaviours.
“Do you often find yourself sulking when you are unhappy with someone else? Avoid people with whom you are upset? Ever stop talking to people when you are angry at them? Put off doing things as a way to punish others? Sometimes use sarcasm to avoid engaging in meaningful conversations?” she wrote.
If the answer is yes, Cherry suggested dissecting why you may be upset with someone (or yourself) and then giving yourself time to take steps toward change. This will help you learn to focus your emotions in a healthy way.
Remove yourself from the situation the best you can.
For your own mental health, it may be time to put this relationship to rest. If someone in your life is purposely creating difficult obstacles for you or actively trying to make you feel bad about yourself, the relationship is toxic.
Obviously, if the perpetrator is your boss, a close relative, or someone you can’t avoid, you can keep your interactions to a minimum while continuing to identify the behaviour and learning not to internalize it.
Passive-aggressive behaviour can be emotionally draining if you’re experiencing it from someone else or resorting to using it yourself.
Don’t set up a win-lose scenario.
The worst thing you can do when dealing with a passive-aggressive person is to create a power struggle. Chances are they will win and you will end up feeling incredibly frustrated.
Signe Whitson L.S.W. wrote for Psychology Today that the “Passive Aggressive Conflict Cycle,” the endless, repetitive cycles of conflict that occur when a passive-aggressive individual succeeds in getting someone else to act out their anger for them, explains why you can’t put yourself in conflict with a passive-aggressive person.
According to Whitson, engaging in a combative fight with a passive-aggressive people will result in a “major over-reaction.”
Instead, she recommended you use “appropriate words while also sending a clear, unstated message” when talking to a passive-aggressive person.
Ask the passive-aggressive person to confront what they’re angry about.
It turns out, some passive-aggressive people have trouble understanding why they feel the anger that they do.
“In some cases, psychologists say, people unable to recognise or express their annoyance often don’t feel entitled to it; they instinctually let the ‘little things’ pass without taking the time to find out why they are so angry about them,”Benedict Carey wrote in the New York Times.
It might be helpful to ask a passive-aggressive person to confront these “little things” before they become much bigger.
Scott Wetzler, Ph.D. also told HuffPost it’s important to set limits when dealing with a passive-aggressive person.
Setting limits, according to Wetzler, is “also [a way of saying], ‘I’m not going to pay the price for your behaviour.'”
Setting limits could be as simple as telling the person the next time they’re late to a movie will be the last time you invite them.
Remember that passive-aggressive behaviour is never your fault or about you.
Rhoberta Shaler, Ph.D., at Psych Central asserted that remembering this is the key to reducing hurt and having less negatively-charged reactions.
A passive-aggressive person may become extremely difficult to deal with once confronted, so cope by remembering that their behaviour stems from their inability to recognise their own weaknesses and their unhealthy coping mechanism to blame others for their failures.
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