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  • Annelisa MacBean

Hurt and Angry

The Origins of Passive-Aggressive Behavior (Post 1 of 3)

How Unresolved Fear and Anger Can Lead to Passive-Aggression.


At one pole of communication stands passivity: not speaking out for fear of adverse consequences. At the other end stands aggressiveness: voicing negative sentiments without restraint or regard for their effect on others. In between passivity and aggression lies the golden mean: asserting one's thoughts and feelings, wants and needs, while at the same time showing appreciation and respect for another's viewpoint.

Assertiveness, the ideal compromise between the extremes of passivity and aggression, is a "Reichian right" – one of our natural endowments as human beings. First coming into the world, and even before becoming verbal, humans can articulate what's going on inside. We possess the rudimentary ability to communicate. Innately, we know how and when to smile, to yawn, to express surprise, anger or trepidation. We convey a broad variety of emotional distress through crying – even wailing (as many a parent can woefully testify). We're not yet able to employ language to identify our particular hurts and resulting frustrations, or consider the likely reactions of our caretakers, but we're unconstrained in letting our feelings be known.

The Problem


Passive-aggressive behavior is a manipulation, and no one likes it when it's happening, but people often have trouble perceiving that they are on the receiving end of rage, as the nature of PASSIVE rage is that it is PASSIVE; difficult to see or touch; difficult to point at as it is not an overt action; rather it is quite often a lack of action - the passive aggressive person is withdrawing, withholding, gas-lighting; saying they are going to do something and then not doing it, not communicating about it. Setting up a dependency so they can be undependable, like their parents were.


The challenge is to sense into the fact that we are upset, hurt, fuming—and find enough safety or self-trust to speak to the feelings of hurt and frustration, instead of acting out.


If we grew up in a family that couldn't, or wouldn't, attach much value to our basic needs and wants, our natural impulse to assert ourselves became suppressed. If when we talked directly to our parents about our desires, we were derided as selfish, shamed for thinking only of ourselves, we learned that it simply wasn't acceptable to want what we wanted, need what we needed. Similarly, when we repeatedly received the message that we were a burden (or "just another mouth to feed"), we learned that if we voiced our wishes we were endangering a parental bond already experienced as tenuous.

The same was true when we received the message that we were an inconvenience, or too demanding, or didn't deserve whatever it was we were requesting. And if our parents were outright angry with us, yelling at us when we straightforwardly expressed our wants, the very thought of continuing to voice them may have filled us with anxiety. Moreover, if we communicated our anger at their denial and their reaction to such assertiveness was scary or punishing, we would have learned to keep our anger strongly bolted inside, afraid to express that which would surely come back to haunt us.

We therefore may have felt required to cultivate a certain attitude of passivity and acquiesce to whatever lesser role our caretakers chose to assign us. After all, as children we all struggle in one way or another to experience our bond with our parents as secure. Any behavior felt to threaten this bond would need to be eradicated somehow. Of necessity, then, we'd have to renounce many of our basic wants and needs. How could this not be the case when we felt criticized, attacked, maybe even rejected almost every time we asserted ourselves? It would likely have seemed that we had no choice but to give up what we wanted–or maybe even teach ourselves not to want whatever regularly led to our parents' denial or disapproval.

But, of course, fundamental needs and wants–whether for comforting, encouragement, support, or some material item that might at least symbolize our importance to our parents–never really disappear. They simply go into hiding. Fearing the repercussions of making our needs known, we keep them tucked away, secret from those who might be disgruntled by our asserting them. While feeling compelled to censor their expression, however, we may nonetheless feel this deprivation keenly. But at least as frequently, we go from suppressing the expression of these needs to repressing them entirely.


Because experiencing these wants and needs can itself get connected in our minds with parental disapproval or rejection, we may well feel obliged to obliterate even the awareness that they exist. Passivity–or non-expressiveness–is the inevitable result. Tragically, we may forfeit all consciousness of our most basic needs just to avoid the anxiety linked to them. After all, when we're young, asserting anything that might threaten our dependency on our parents would, almost literally, feel hazardous to our survival. And as children we intuitively grasp our profound inability, independent of our caretakers, to care for ourselves. On our own, we would surely die. So we have no choice, if we are to secure this most vital connection, but to adapt to their preferences–and repress our own.


Yet our needs–however unattended to, and however unaware we may train ourselves to be of them–persist. And somewhere inside us there is anger that our parents do not love us enough to make these needs the priority they clearly are for us. 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, and still feel the truth . . . we did, and do deserve to be seen, loved, held and respected.


The passive aggressive person is furious about the need for compromise and self-betrayal on which their early survival depended. This tender soul needs support to update the obsolete belief that denial of the self is required in adult relationships.






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