A Psychological Definition
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | March 2, 2022 (modified January 3, 2023)
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | March 2, 2022 (modified January 3, 2023)
Events and people arouse feeling. Feeling motivates action. Yet, emotion is complex and often uncomfortable. Frustration, sadness and anger overload our system and we react in unhealthy retreat or attack. Some reactions are covert, disguised to protect. Particularly in anger, we may express our upset in secretive and maladaptive ways. One of these methods is through passive aggressive behaviors. Passive aggressive responses exchange open assertive expressions for more subtle and often hurtful behaviors.
Passive aggressive behaviors are a means for expressing anger in a socially tolerated way. The passive aggressive tactic is theorized to express internal frustrations of dependence on someone to fulfill core needs and anger over their failure to satisfy those desires.
Discomfort and frustration are normal responses to impeded efforts to satisfy needs. When blame is placed on our selves or others for roles played in thwarting goal obtainment, we often experience anger.
Anger is frightening. The heightened arousal often motivates damaging behaviors. Passive aggressive behaviors often unconsciously express anger and hostility in a manner that is less direct, designed to protect the relationship.
Les Carter explains in his excellent book on anger that "there are times when openly aggressive anger only creates more problems than it solves." Carter continues, "instead of handling anger constructively or respectfully, however, many of these people manage their anger in a sly, underground way that still indicates low regard toward others. Knowing that loud or obnoxious expression of anger leaves them vulnerable to the rejection of others, they become passive while still engaging adversarially with the person who is the object of their anger" (2009, Kindle Location 325).
Passive Aggressive describes expressions of anger and hostility through less direct means, releasing internal frustrations without openly attacking the object of the anger.
History of Passive Aggressive Personality Disorder
Passive-aggressive personality disorder can be traced back to World War II. The disorder was used in a 1945 U.S. War Department technical bulletin to describe soldiers who eluded duty. expressing opposition to authority figures, not by directly defying orders, but through procrastination and passive obstruction (Laverdière, et al. 2019).
Passive aggressive behavior originally included in Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders aa a personality disorder was later removed. However, the passive aggressive behavior is still widely recognized as a clinical problem (McCann, 1988).
Beyond passive aggressive behavior's inclusion as a personality disorder in early psychiatric nomenclature, it has been included as an immature defense mechanism, a personality trait and a maladaptive coping style.
DSM and Passive Aggressive Personality Disorder
The term was included in the first issue of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM-I) in 1952. Passive aggressive personality disorder was defined by a set of behaviors "capturing indirectly expressed non-compliance, with symptoms such as obstructionism, pouting, procrastination, intentional inefficiency, and stubbornness, presumably reflecting hostility that the individual would not dare express directly" (2019).
Passive-aggressive continued as a personality disorder listed in later DSM editions through the publication of DSM-III-R. Passive Aggressive disorder was noted by practitioners and research committee as the category least supportable for inclusion in DSM-IV (Millon, 1993).
Many of the narrowly defined traits of early definitions of passive-aggressive personality disorders were encompassed in the negativistic personality disorder. Passive aggressive personality disorder was reclassified to appendix-B as not an officially recognized personality disorder, warranting further investigations (Laverdière, et al. 2019).
Passive-aggressive personality disorder was not included in later editions of the DSM.
Passive Aggressive Behaviors as a Defense Mechanism
George Valliant viewed passive-aggression as a defense mechanism, not as a personality disorder (1998). The need for a protective defense is employed to resolve intrapsychic conflicts "between guilt over dependence on others and anger over frustration in not getting needs met." Joseph T. McCann, PsyD. explains that the "angry and hostile feelings are defended against by their expression in passive and indirect ways" (McCann, 1988).
In essence, the passive aggressive behavior defends against anger caused by cognitive dissonance between need for dependence on others to satisfy core desires and guilt over lack of autonomous ability to secure them for one's self.
Internal conflicts, as the theory goes, disrupts homeostatic balance. We operate best when our realities march together. When different aspects of our lives conflict, we seek resolution. We often do this though mechanisms that smooth over the conflict. Passive aggressive behaviors do just that. They behavior allows for the expression if anger without admitting we are angry. Often the heart of the internal friction mobilizing passive aggressive words and behaviors is a basic "conflict over dependency , which is resented, and autonomy, which is feared" (Laverdière, et al. 2019).
"This conflict between expressing resentment and wishing to be accepted and admired leads to angry outbursts and impulsive and manipulative behaviors" (2019).
Passive aggressive behavior is considered an immature defense because it fails to effectively solve conflicts. Passive aggressive behaviors contributes to continued suppression of emotion, avoidance of emotional conflicts, and impaired interpersonal problem solving skills (Schanz, et al. 2021).
Valliant explains that through healthy development "passive aggression is often given up in favor of displacement, reaction formation, and altruism" (1998).
Maladaptive Expressions of Anger
The heightened arousal associated with anger is problematic for many people. Expressing of heightened emotions often cascades into defensive reactions from the object of our anger, as they protect their own ego from perceived attacks. Healthy expressions and skilled interpersonal communication requires emotional intelligence and productive emotional regulation.
Because of painful consequences from communicating anger, some repress feelings of anger, denying their anger altogether. Others fail to develop skills in this key element for successful interpersonal relations and adopt unhealthy patterns of exploding into a heated attack or maneuvering slyly through passive aggressive words and behaviors.
Carter writes, "in general, there are three categories of behavior that typify people who are trapped in nonproductive use of anger: suppression of anger, openly aggressive anger, and passive-aggressive anger" (2009, Kindle Location 300).
Any expression of anger that fails to address the underlying problem is maladaptive. The maladaptive behavior may provide limited release but fall short of creating long term solutions.
Common Passive Aggressive Behaviors
We can passively express anger in a number of ways. This is a list of behaviors common to the passive aggressive pattern:
Example of Passive Aggressive Behavior
Passive Aggressive Behavior and Manipulation
Passive aggressive expressions of anger are exploitive, manipulating targets, and disrespectful. Aggression is any behavior intended to cause harm, whether directly or indirectly (Schanz, 2021). The active aggression attacks in openness. Hurtful and destructive.
Passive aggressive attacks is done in the dark, shrouded in enough ambiguousness that reactions to the vicious, quiet attacks of omission or disguised messages are interpreted as inappropriate. Passive aggressiveness is a gaslighting of sorts. The underlying goal is to express hostile aggression without facing any retaliatory consequence.
A sarcastic dig such as "you look wonderful," combined with a mocking voice and rolling eyes directly attacks with impunity, but when objected to, the narrative changes. "Can't I compliment you without being treated like an enemy?"
Carter wrote that, "people who use passive-aggressive forms of anger are perhaps the most controlling of all because they are adept at manipulating circumstances with the least amount of vulnerability" (2009).
Causes of Passive Aggressive Behavior
There is no single cause for the development of behavioral tics. Almost all personality, behavioral, or illnesses spring from multiple causes. Biology and environments intricately intertwine creating observed behaviors. Those behaviors continue to influence environments, that impact functioning in a complex and dynamic way.
We know that biologically we inherit genetic profiles. Behaviors aren't predetermined but vulnerabilities are.
T. Franklin Murphy explains, "our DNA sequences do not unbudgingly create who we are. A gene is subject to external influences that may activate gene expression" (2021).
A landmark study by Meaney and colleagues theorized that "early experience permanently alters behavior and physiology. These effects are, in part, mediated by sustained alterations in gene expression in selected brain regions" (2005).
While we can't deconstruct the causes, identifying every specific condition leading to passive aggressive behaviors, we can identify certain associated conditions that contribute to the dysfunction.
Toxic Childhood Environment
Many childhood homes limit honest communication. Anger is not acceptable because the parent lacks the emotional maturity to process the discomforting emotion themselves. A child with a history of toxic home environment where the child's emotion is rejected, not validated or not attuned to learns that it was not safe to be open about the things that really bothered them. They can't express their anger. The emotion is suppressed in childhood and commonly reappears as passive-aggressiveness (Carter, 2009).
Behavioral Learning from Positive Reinforcement
In harsh environments, expressed anger may be punished. A child (or an adult) may learn that less obvious expressions of anger go unpunished, releasing anger and minimizing vulnerability. These small rewards may condition continued use and expansion of passive-aggressive behaviors.
Carter explains, "once people enter a pattern of using passive anger, they can feel strongly rewarded for their behavior as it becomes clear that their passivity is far more controlling than openly aggressive anger" (Carter, 2009, Kindle location 436).
Fear of Rejection
Fear of rejection often accompanies passive aggressive behaviors. Assertive expressions of anger leaves us vulnerable. Our expression may be rejected, feeling invalidated, and our worth demeaned. Rather than risk the rejection and humiliation, openness is sacrificed for less risky, passive options.
Difficulty Expressing Emotions
Assertively expressing anger in openness is not simple. Aristotle wisely commented, "anybody can become angry — that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way — that is not within everybody's power and is not easy."
Expression emotions requires first we have a granular understanding of what we are feeling first, second we must have clarity of the surrounding context, and third we must have empathy and understanding for the object of our anger.
Only through clarity can we hope to express our feelings in a way that has a high probability of a successful outcome. This takes practice, vulnerability, and cognitive effort. Many choose to by-pass the difficult path and cheat through passive aggressive short cuts.
Reducing Passive Aggressive Behavior
Kendra Cherry offers encouragement. She wrote, "if you feel that passive-aggressive behavior is damaging your relationships, there are steps you can take to change how you relate to others" (2019).
Carter agrees with Cherry. He explains, "once you reach the adult years, it is possible to make a powerful adjustment to your management of anger so that it does not have to result in ongoing pain and tension" (2009, Kindle location 443).
Just as epigenetics applies to learning maladaptive behaviors it can be utilized in adopting new, better habits. We can rewire our brains, learn new skills, and thrive through healthier expressions of anger.
Change requires patience, resources, and willingness to suffer some setbacks.
A Few Final Thoughts on Passive Aggressive Behaviors
An early topic of interest and research here at flourishing life society was personal deceptions. Passive aggressive behavior is a dangerous deception. With passive aggressive behaviors, we not only deceive others, but we deceive ourselves. We miss key information in our environments that is necessary for personal development. Our inability to assess our own emotions, along with the missed opportunities to honestly connect with others leads to broken relationships, habitual feelings of victimization, and repeated traumas.
We can move past this maladaptive defense, adopt better ways to express anger, and enjoy healthier connections.
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Cherry, Kendra (2019). What Is Passive-Aggressive Behavior? Verywellmind. Published 9-18-2019. Accessed 3-1-2022.
Dijk, Sherry Van (2012). Calming the Emotional Storm
Lane, C. (2009). The Surprising History of Passive-Aggressive Personality Disorder. Theory & Psychology, 19(1), 55-70.
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Murphy, T. Franklin (2021). Epigenetics. Flourishing Life Society. Published 11-9-2021. Accessed 3-2-2022
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Regan, Sarah (2021) 11 Passive-Aggressive Behaviors and How to Handle them form the Experts. Published 2-24-2021. Accessed 3-1-2022.
Schanz, C., Equit, M., Schäfer, S., Käfer, M., Mattheus, H., & Michael, T. (2021). Development and Psychometric Properties of the Test of Passive Aggression. Frontiers in Psychology, 12
Valliant, George (1998). Adaptation to Life. Harvard University Press; Reprint edition