Monday, October 18, 2010

The Passive Aggressive Person


I've blogged before about various types of persons who can be difficult to deal with, such as perpetual victims, energy sappers, etc. Here's another good one: the passive aggressive person. At its extremes, the passive aggressive person is, of course, suffering from one of the personality disorders, but I’m not talking about that kind of passive aggression. I’m thinking about the passive aggressive person in everyday encounters.

When I was in rehab, one of our workshops was about how to more effectively communicate with others. One area of difficulty for just about everybody--alcoholic or not--is expressing feelings (especially anger!) or stating needs or desires. It’s because doing that makes us vulnerable. And nobody wants to be vulnerable--some people will take advantage of any perceived weakness, or we’re afraid we’ll be made fun of, or we might be misunderstood, or we think that expressing our true feelings will result in our being punished… the list of “reasons” we can’t be direct goes on and on.

But whatever it is we feel we can’t express (especially anger!) doesn’t want to remain stuffed or buried, either. (Some people get pretty good at swallowing it, though, and these are the people who inevitably explode, as in go postal.) Most of us, however, don’t stuff it, so we may wind up using a passive aggressive means to indirectly say how we really feel.

For example, say somebody always helps themselves to coffee at work but never puts money in the “coffee supply” jar that everybody contributes to. Jane Doe is afraid of a confrontation with her cheap-skate supervisor about this, so she’ll express her dissatisfaction, loudly, when her supervisor is within earshot—without directly saying it to him. “Are we out of coffee again? I really don’t think everybody who drinks it is helping to pay for it.” She then shoots her supervisor a pointed look.

He’s stirring Coffee-mate into his cup and doesn’t even notice.

Or, say Don Juan has several girlfriends on his string, all of whom he likes, but he’s not ready to make a commitment to exclusivity with any one of them. He’s not dishonest about dating around, but one of the girlfriends is unhappy with this arrangement. She doesn’t want to appear possessive, though, heaven forbid. So one day, Don Juan and she are trying to set up a date together, and it turns out he is busy for every time she happens to be available. He’s pondering his calendar and she suddenly snaps: “Well, forget this week. Maybe you can crowbar me in next week.” Her tone is vicious.

Don Juan is baffled by her ire.

The thing about passive aggressiveness is that, despite the underlying fuse of anger, it’s cowardly. Since we choose this method of communication out of fear of possible consequences, we always leave ourselves a back door of deniability. If the supervisor actually looked at Jane Doe and asked, “Are you talking about me?” she will probably say, “No, no, I have no idea who it is.” Or if Don Juan says to his girlfriend, “Are you jealous of my seeing other women?” she is likely to say, “Jealous? Me? No.” It’s crazy-making behavior, because the person the passive aggressive statement is being pointed at then has their own inner senses, their own personal “red flag” indicator, called into question. In other words, being passive aggressive is not just dishonest, it’s unfair.

So here’s your real choice: would you rather be honest and direct (and possibly vulnerable), or a cowardly liar stacking the deck in your own favor?

This is why, as a sober person, I have really come to value people who are direct. They may sometimes tell me something I don’t want to hear, but I would much rather hear it, deal with it, and know I’m living in the real world. It’s way better than living in a world of crossed wires, hazy guesses, assumptions, innuendoes, and unspoken expectations. The latter can drive you crazy—or drive you to drink.

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