The ‘fifty shades of Passive Aggressive Behaviour’ we need to talk more about…

“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.” ― Aristotle

Anuttama Dasgupta is a part time urban design consultant and a full time mother, who is currently chasing to the finish line the lifelong dream of becoming a published novelist. Here she opines that understanding and responding to anger appropriately is an essential part of being a functional social being.

Anger is part of our everyday reality. It is as much a part of our human experience as breathing. Whether we like it or not, every single day of our lives we run up against people who push our buttons and rouse those difficult emotions that most of us don’t even want to admit we have, let alone deal with in a constructive way. The main reason for our denial is that the people who we feel, most hurt or offended by are the very people we share our lives with. We fear that expressing our anger outwardly, will irrevocably damage our relationship. For it has been dinned into our brains since early childhood that anger is a terrible thing and must be avoided at any cost.

This thinking is extremely problematic because anger, by itself is not a bad thing at all. It is a psychological messaging system that prods us to take action when some psychological boundary of ours has been violated. Understanding and responding to anger appropriately is a very essential part of being a functional social being. In fact, when we try to do the opposite i.e. suppress the legitimate urge to express our anger, we create a bigger problem for ourselves and others. When we repress our anger instead of addressing it in a socially appropriate way, we force it deeper into our psyche and it invariably finds its own outlet in various forms of passive aggressive behaviour.

But before I get into that, let me back up a bit. I began to think deeply about passive aggressive behaviour only after I got married. Before that it was only a part of the general grey-ness of existence that I encountered from time to time but never had to actually deal with for the simple reason that I always had the choice of walking away. But marriage, I came to learn, is a prism that breaks up this general area of grey into a veritable shade card of all sorts of darkness. The reason for this is that although we think we are marrying just one person, the reality of marriage is that we are bringing two sets of people together who may not be as motivated to have a relationship with each other as the two marrying partners are. Though it sounds morbid put that way (and I do apologize for taking such a negative viewpoint), marriage sometimes forces you into relationships with people who you normally would have nothing to do with. Like the proverbial horse taken to the water, we can’t force anyone to participate in a relationship that they don’t want to embrace by themselves. Not only that, marriage is essentially a social institution. There are hundreds of vaguely defined obligations associated with it that are very easy to fault the other on. As the list of unfulfilled expectations begins to grow, there is a lot of frustration both ways.  The problem gets even worse when one or both parties fight for the egoistic upper hand on a situation rather than a peaceful resolution. As a result, a pressure cooker like situation is created where legitimate anger is vented through all kinds of subversive behaviour that psychologists call passive aggressive.

The dictionary defines passive aggressive as “of or denoting a type of behaviour or personality characterized by indirect resistance to the demands of others and an avoidance of direct confrontation.” It is a covert way of expressing anger mainly to hurt the other person back for something they have done and with a conscious or unconscious intent to avoid any type of discussion around it. It implies a certain amount of self-righteousness on the part of the passive aggressive person where he or she is ‘absolutely right’ and will not consider any other argument that challenges that stance. Or in some cases, it is motivated by an underlying fear that by talking it out, they will not get their way.  Needless to say, it plays out in many insidious ways in our everyday lives.

Here are some of the most common examples.

  1. Inappropriate venting: Trolling, road rage, real world or online heckling and ranting. You basically spare the person you are angry with and go out and take it out on the world.
  2. Complaining about minor (seemingly unrelated) matters, starting with food.
  3. Throwing a spanner in the works by going ahead and doing something when a different course of action has been negotiated. Sometimes, resorting to a feigned headache or a stomach upset to disrupt a plan that the other person has made.
  4. Being sarcastic or critical in a way that puts the other person down. Body shaming is a classic example. As is back biting and spreading rumours.
  5. Negating your feelings directly or with counter accusations (“you have no right to feel this way, because you do worse things all the time”). Or acting as if that hurtful thing was never said.
  6. Sulking and stone walling: Many people think that by ignoring someone, they are taking a non-violent stance but the truth is, wilfully ignoring someone is an act of aggression. The silence, we assume in such a case is not peaceful. It’s a shutting out. Although we do not say anything, we are resentful and want the other person to feel our pain. Unless, the person on the receiving end is someone like the Dalai Lama, it always finds its mark. But what the perpetrator does not realize is that instead of making the relationship stronger like a talk does, un-verbalized resentment lodges itself like a thorn in the other person’s heart and pushes them away.

So, how do we deal with passive aggressive behaviour? If we are trying to give someone the “silent treatment”, we must immediately stop and choose some other non-violent option. If we are being stone walled ourselves, there are several options for us too.

Here are some suggestions.

  1. Don’t take it personally. Try not to make an ego issue out of it. The more we detach ourselves from any kind of wrong, the better equipped we are the deal with it in a constructive way. Wisdom and anger are mutually exclusive.
  2. Grow a robust sense of self where you feel good being you and do not require a great deal of external validation. I know it’s difficult but it’s worth a try.
  3. Diffuse the build-up of negative energy by offering to talk. Remember that if you wear boxing gloves to the discussion table, the other person is likely to put his on too. Do not accuse or threaten. Talk and if that is too hard, write a note. Think of all the reasons why you want to keep the relationship going.

We must always keep in mind that we have a right to protest when we feel we have been wronged. But we must do so in a way that does not hurt the other person. The ultimate purpose of life is not to emerge a victorious war lord swinging a clutch of severed heads but to make the best use of our limited time in this world by nurturing others through our relationships and being nurtured in return.


The expression of anger

Even when Ravi first began dating Tania, he instinctually felt that she was very emotional. She would get angry easily and when she did, she screamed loudly. Her demeanour would look menacing, she didn’t mince words and the foul language she used was deplorable. It didn’t matter who was at the receiving end. Nor did it matter, if they were with friends or had company or were at a party or at a family gathering. When he brought it up with her she said, “I don’t like to bury my emotions. If something upsets me, I’d rather express it and get it out of my system. It means that I don’t carry any baggage.”

Initially, Ravi tried to accept her justification as she calmed down as quickly as she got angry. But soon he began to feel uncomfortable. He found himself pre-empting her every reaction and felt a compulsion to try and remove the cause of her anger as much as he possibly could. He was always alert and stressed. It wasn’t so much her angry outbursts but the shrillness of her voice that often made him cringe. He did enjoy her company, but he couldn’t help feeling as if everyone was whispering behind their back about her bouts of anger.

He didn’t know how to deal with it or make her understand his discomfort. So he began to avoid her. Did she make him feel embarrassed? Or was he simply trying to protect himself from public ridicule?

His behaviour upset Tania greatly as she really liked him. She didn’t unnecessarily get angry; there was always a valid reason for her outburst. Ravi had to accept her as she was. She had never pretended in front of him so why was he acting prudish? She confronted him, rather as Ravi said, he felt ‘cornered!’ As they argued and her temper rose, the boundaries of civility broke between them. Ravi desperately tried to explain his feelings but she just wouldn’t listen. She felt wronged.

Soon after, they broke up.

Its evident here that sometimes what makes us angry is less important than what we do with it. Although Ravi understood that her anger was at times justified, what he couldn’t fathom was the intensity of the outburst. He felt that most often, she responded inappropriately.

Anger is a normal emotion with a wide range of intensity, from mild irritation and frustration to rage leading to various complex responses.

While growing up, parents teach children to express their emotions the ‘right’ way. Their ‘righteousness’ of course, is defined by their own personal values, belief systems, perceptions and judgements. Sometimes though, they forget that how they express these emotions in front of their children, however unintentional, are lessons that children learn as efficiently.

In addition, how the children are made to feel in such situations and in turn how they respond or how acceptable their reactions are, reflect the qualities they begin to attribute to these emotions growing up. Each child uses their own mechanisms to adapt, adopt and react to such situations. This could either lead to constructive or destructive behaviour in adulthood.

Some homes, on the other hand, do not allow children to express certain emotions openly and anger outbursts are one of them. Unresolved anger and / or anger that children don’t learn to express, in adulthood, can often lead to violent behaviour, depression, irritability, feelings of being disconnected or alienated. Minor discrepancies upset them, they can become defensive and feel pressurised to justify and constantly explain their behaviour.

angerAccording to Ravi, Tania was unable to distinguish between situations and always responded with the same intensity. Generally, different situations warrant differing expressions of anger. The intensity of the expression is mostly based on how it makes an individual feel personally. At the outset, it might look as if the situation is the culprit but delving deeper, it is in fact, a reflection of how the situation makes them feel about themselves – either insecure, inferior, disrespected, vulnerable, taken for granted, unimportant or worthless.

Both Ravi and Tania had different ways of expressing their anger. Ravi was unable to recognise the actual trigger within an unpleasant situation that made her angry. While Tania couldn’t look beyond feeling ‘wronged’ and so responded to Ravi the same way she’d learned to behave whenever she felt upset.