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  • Annelisa MacBean

Acting Out

The Origins of Passive-Aggressive Behavior (Post 2 of 3)

Looking More Closely at Passive Aggressive Behavior

When our needs . . . physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual . . . go unattended in infancy and early childhood, we may train ourselves to be unaware of them . . . we repress our knowing of the need rather than feel the hurt and anger that arises when our caretakers deny, shame or abandon our need. That unconscious anger distills and ferments over a lifetime, along with the belief that our parents do not love us enough to prioritize our needs.


For nine months in the womb, at the very least all our basic needs were addressed automatically. How, then, could we not have entered the world with a certain sense of entitlement? Deep inside we rage for that of which we now feel deprived. Although we may have repeatedly received the message that we didn't deserve whatever it was we longed for, somewhere inside us we felt the truth . . . we did, and do deserve to be seen, loved, held and respected.


So how does this unrelenting, unexpressed frustration . . . this inexpressible rage . . . get resolved? As children, how can we safely discharge these powerful feelings at being denied what our infant self feels and knows is its birthright?

Obviously, it's not safe to vent such rage directly. We'd be called selfish, bad, out of control. And we'd likely be yelled at, or even punished physically–another reminder that our bond with our parents was fragile and easily ruptured by any blunt expression of anger. It's only reasonable that we'd be afraid to overtly let our frustrations be known. For it's way too anxiety-producing to take what feels like our survival into our own hands, to offend those on whom we most depend.

And so–and all of this could be unconscious–we're emotionally desperate to find a viable way of letting out our frustrations, our hurt and indignation that our needs have been slighted or dismissed by those responsible for our care. Because it's impossible to annihilate our anger, the felt urgency to release it only gets stronger over time, even as we endeavor to suppress it. Periodically, we must find a way of alleviating this negative emotional build-up without causing serious damage to a relationship already perceived as precarious.

This is where the loss of personal integrity–in a word, lying–enters the picture. And we lie to ourselves, as well as to our parents. In essence, this is what passive-aggression is all about: "acting out" our grievances, behaviorally protesting what is experienced as unfair, while yet contriving to protect the relationship we really can't afford to jeopardize. Surreptitiously, we find ways to sabotage, undermine, deceive, betray. In a way, we retaliate against our caretakers by doing to them much of what we feel they've done to us. We disappoint, withhold, disengage, make up excuses, and blame others for our own mistakes and misbehaviors. In multiple ways we resist cooperating with our parents' directives. We deny what they need--but always with an explanation that (at least partially) gets us off the parental hook. "I just forgot," "I didn't mean to," "I really didn't understand what was asked of me," "I had no idea it'd turn out that way, "it was just an accident," "it really wasn't my fault," and on and on and on.

Beyond this–unless our passive-aggression is a lot more passive than aggressive–we manipulate. Oh, how we manipulate! Like con-artists in training, we look for all the possible ways to address our needs and desires without coming out and requesting them directly. We become masters of indirection and subterfuge. Feeling so powerless in our relationship with our parents, we attempt to "grab" this power passive-aggressively. We might, for instance, sneak money from our father's wallet to buy the school lunch we wanted, tossing into the garbage the dried-out baloney sandwich our mother prepared for us earlier .

At some point we may have to pay a price for our various "accidental" errors and misdeeds. But if we've covered our tracks reasonably well, our parents can't be entirely sure just what happened, or what our actual motives were. So any punishment we receive is likely to be substantially less than if we had been honest in the first place.

In effect, our parents–in their inability, or unwillingness, to adequately take care of our dependency needs–unwittingly taught us to become manipulators and liars. Had we, alternatively, learned from them that being assertive and direct would more effectively address our needs, it's likely we would not have devised such an unhealthy arsenal of devious tactics. Additionally, if our self-interested machinations were clever enough (or unconscious enough), we may end up fooling ourselves just as much as we fooled them. In this case, we never have to acknowledge our vindictive motives of rebellion or retaliation. For having to acknowledge such acting out of our frustrations and resentments might cause us to become more anxious (and possibly guilty as well).



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