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  • Writer's pictureAnnelisa MacBean

Defenses and Challenges

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

Passive Aggressive Defenses and the Challenges We Face

By way of qualification, I'd like to emphasize that the passive-aggressive behavior I've been describing in this recent blog series is, to some degree, exaggerated. I've wanted to illuminate what I see as a universal personality phenomenon–that is, I think all of us, in various ways, display certain passive-aggressive tendencies. In addition, only rarely are parents so unsupportive and withholding that we end up as adults with full-blown passive-aggressive personality disorders.

Still, I believe it's useful to suggest that many of the barriers that prevent so many of us from taking full responsibility for our behavior, as well as for communicating our needs and wants directly, derive from old (and no longer appropriate) childhood beliefs . . . "survival programs."

If, for instance, we became at some point hyper-sensitive to our parents' negative evaluations, we're likely as adults to want to blame others for problems that may be primarily of our own doing. In this way, we circumvent the criticism we might otherwise receive–and the associated anxiety such blame might re-awaken in us.

Our avoidant tendencies, too, may have originated from our past when we learned to do whatever was necessary to avert conflict. Dependent as we were on our parents, it may have felt too dangerous to risk antagonizing them. So to keep our anxiety manageable, we endeavored to minimize angry confrontations. Given our parents' unreliability in meeting our needs, we probably didn't want to depend on them at all. But since we had to, we also had to restrain ourselves in our dealings with them. And so–again as adults–we may reveal a self-defeating tendency to avoid any problematic discussion that, to us, might become distressingly contentious.

Whatever passive-aggressive traits we may have are strikingly akin to what is known in psychology as hostile dependency–and both terms are similarly oxymoronic. Since we couldn't trust that our parents would respond positively to our needs, now grown up we're still not comfortable being in situations of dependency. But if, nonetheless, we're saddled with unmet dependency needs from the past, we inevitably bring these needs–as well as our ambivalence about these needs–to all our close relationships. So if we give mixed messages to those we're involved with (ultimately leaving them hurt, confused, or even outraged by our hostile-dependent reactions to them), it's because we've never resolved our internal conflict about being dependent in the first place.

It's important to realize that passive-aggression is not necessarily less aggressive simply because it's passive. Essentially, passive-aggression is an indirect form of aggression–not necessarily a milder form of aggression. Consequently, even as our unmet dependency needs from childhood may compel us toward relationships that offer us the hope of being comfortably dependent on another, our un-discharged anger toward our parents (who frustrated these needs initially) may prompt us to dump these still unresolved feelings on anyone who might actually be disposed to care for us. But whether or not we're empathic enough to be aware of it, being late for a date (or breaking it at the last minute) with some lame excuse can still be extremely hurtful to another–as can a sarcastic remark thinly masked as an attempt at humor. In both instances, we might claim innocent intent, but we've nonetheless managed to draw blood. And finally our innocence must be seen as questionable.

Assuming we're willing to take responsibility for whatever predisposition we may have toward passive-aggressive behavior, we need to make peace with whatever we felt deprived of when we were growing up. We need to find ways (with or without professional intervention) to release and resolve old anger and resentment. We need to finally accept that our parents, given their own particular resources and limitations, gave us as much as they could. And we need to recognize that in our lives as adults we can't continue to punish others for what our parents failed to give us.

We need to solicit, and carefully attend to feedback from those who've reached out to us–and, indirectly, been rebuffed in return. And we need to locate, confront and overcome the deep-seated anxiety that created our tremendous ambivalence about close relationships in the first place.

If, finally, we are to evolve into more compassionate human beings, we need to develop for others precisely the empathy and understanding we ourselves never received in growing up.

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