Why are some people passive aggressive?

As we grow up through childhood, we all learn how to live alongside other people. Our primary drive is to get our needs met. So a newborn baby cries to get fed and cuddled, and keeps crying until someone comes to help. Two year olds need to feel independent and as if they can control things, so they insist on doing things for themselves, making choices, and saying “No!”

All the time through childhood, adults are reacting to the needs of the child, and the child is learning how relationships operate and how to get what they need from others. In a family where relationships are basically healthy, the child’s needs are noticed and heard and are attended to appropriately, but so are the needs of everyone else in the family as well. At times, this can be a tricky balancing act. If Dad has a headache and can’t play games endlessly, he needs to have a quiet rest. If Mum has to get some paperwork finished for a deadline, she needs to be able to concentrate on this. A healthy way to handle different people’s needs requires thoughtfulness and an understanding that everyone in the family has an equal right to express their needs and to be heard.

If a family does not operate in this way, then a passive aggressive stance can creep in. Instead of freely expressing what they need, an individual hides their needs inside, maybe because others will belittle them if they speak out, or ignore them, or react in some other negative way. But it’s vital to get our needs met… so what happens next? This individual will be feeling very angry inside, but won’t show it on the surface, perhaps because it doesn’t feel safe to do that. This is the ‘aggressive’ element. They will strongly try to steer the situation towards getting their unspoken need, but without being direct and open. This is what the ‘passive’ element means. Unfortunately, people around them cannot ‘read’ much on the surface, so they feel manipulated and tricked by the indirect pressure.

How can this way of relating be changed? One thing to try is to be really aware of our underlying needs, the basics without which we can’t manage properly, (I’m not talking about wants, as these are extras rather than essentials). Then we have to be brave and try to spell out what we need in as neutral way as possible. This means avoiding saying blameful things like “You never…” but using this sort of phrasing: “What I’d really like is…” or “I’m feeling very tired so what I need is….” If this doesn’t get heard, we have to keep trying, without getting angry if possible. We also have to learn to say “No” when this is what we secretly mean inside, if saying “Yes” will result in our needs being ignored.

Hopefully we end up actively telling others what we need directly, and calmly with an inner feeling that we deserve to be heard. This is what it feels like to be free of passive aggressive behaviour.

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Sheffield, South Yorkshire, S10 2SE

Written by Virginia Sherborne

Sheffield, South Yorkshire, S10 2SE

I am a qualified counsellor and Accredited member of the BACP, seeing clients at The Practice Rooms near the centre of Sheffield. I have specialist training in bereavement, rape/sexual abuse, trauma and parenting. My clients include young people as well as adults. I can help you to: find a safe...

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