We all know what it is to feel angry and why. But anger can often mask underlying feelings that we have either allowed to accumulate in an unexpressed form, or of which we have lost awareness through habit, time or dissociation, for example. Anger, when expressed openly, is our show of refusal, protestation or objection. It can be well-founded, controlled and reasonable, or unfounded, uncontrolled and destructive. Problematic habits of angry behaviour can be explored in therapy, and often reveal a range of underlying emotions like frustration, hurt, insecurity and sadness. Learning to tune into and express these underlying emotional states responsibly and maturely is our way out of unnecessary and corrosive habits of angry feelings and behaviours.
Aggression is a necessary energy that can help us mobilise our actions to meet our needs effectively, from subtle forms of aggression (reaching out for food, chewing it and swallowing it) to respectful assertiveness with others, to defending ourselves from verbal and physical attack. Aggression, when used honestly and responsibly, is thus a useful and necessary energy driving our behaviour. It is a source of our personal power as a human being. In mature persons it is essential for personal assertiveness, for maintaining boundaries and protecting our interests.
Aggression and anger become problematic when we develop habits of suppressing them or diverting them into destructive channels of expression that hurt others: gossip, betrayal, sarcasm, destructive envy, attacks on the innocent, dishonesty and a wide range of behaviours that fall under the definition of passive-aggression. We can also hurt ourselves with suppressed aggression and anger. This can undermine our power and can begin to be indirectly expressed as, for example, depression, moodiness, physical health problems, pessimism, insecurity, anxiety and stress.
“without honesty and a genuine willingness to question oneself there is no therapy”
Passive-aggression: the Suppressed, Repressed, Dissociated
Possibly one of the most pervasive features of undesireable or antisocial behaviour we find in society is passive-aggression. Passive-aggression is aggressive energy and anger typically pushed out of full awareness through habit. They become energies that indirectly emotionally injure, inconvenience, frustrate or insult others in ways that attempts to conceal the full intent of the aggressor. This is the result of hostility, frustration or anger that is suppressed – sometimes completely dissociated by repression over time – instead of being expressed openly and honestly. The suppressed or dissociated emotions emerge as destructive behaviours rather than honest words, with the behaviour invariably causing offence, loss or inconvenience to others. It is so common that all of us, at one time or another, will be passive-aggressive until we undertake the necessary tasks and work required to mature and transcend childhood forms of manipulation. Passive-aggression becomes a significant problem when it becomes a habit, or an ingrained aspect of our character, commonly found in people who ‘bottle up’ their feelings, who live in their heads and dissociate from their bodies, or who have never learned to routinely express themselves openly and honestly.
Suppression: the conscious refusal to express emotion or impulse
Repression: the habitual (unconscious) denial of emotion or impulse
Dissociation: a process of disconnecting from thoughts, emotions or awareness
Examples of passive-aggression vary widely and can be seen in:
- stereotypical ‘teenage’ sullenness, obstinacy or contrariness
- blaming and attempts to shift responsibility
- causing others inconvenience, stress or loss in subtle or crude ways
- wasting the other’s time, cancelling appointments or unreliability
- disrespecting or disregarding clear boundaries
- procrastination that causes others inconvenience or difficulty
- deliberate avoidance of open communication
- imposing oneself upon another, intrusions of privacy, stalking or spying
- labelling, pathologising and name-calling
- hurtful jokes and condescension made at the victim’s expense
- covert destruction of property or ‘accidental’ damage and theft of property or ideas
- usurping behaviours (e.g. oneupmanship, outdoing, favouritism and partiality)
- sexual harassment, infidelity, disloyalty and betrayal
- using social group settings as a hiding place for personal attacks on individual members
- cruelty or neglect of children and animals
- destructive or ruinous online or anonymous behaviours
- ‘Reactance’, or reneging on expectations at the last minute, failing to honour agreements
- feigned ignorance, sarcasm and condescension
- subtle insults, snide comments and personal snubs
- exploitation, objectivising people
- having little regard for the other’s feelings/ being unempathic
- backbiting, being ‘two-faced’, gossiping
- destructive envy
Examples of passive-aggressive behaviour are endless, with sadly much of it normalised and tolerated in our society. The volatile nature of passive-aggression is such that the passive-aggressive person, detached from the original source of her frustration, is like a loaded gun looking for a target towards which she can direct her pent-up destructiveness, thus transferring her inner torments to the body and mind of the other rather than feeling and dealing with them herself.
Effects on Others
There are many ways passive-aggressive individuals find to covertly express their hostility in ways that help them evade detection or accusation – passing off cutting remarks as humour for example, then berating the victim who complains by telling them ‘they take things too seriously’. But the effects upon the recipient are usually unmistakable and are themselves often enough evidence of the presence of passive-aggression itself: feeling offended or ‘kicked in the gut’ emotionally; feelings of hurt, frustration, anxiety. disrespect, shame or anger that make no immediate sense; feeling insulted by words or actions that appear to be inoffensive; discovering damaged property or missing possessions; being defrauded, swindled, cheated or over-charged; suffering loss of time or opportunity by, for example, the aggressor being habitually late for meetings or cancelling at the last minute or other ways of wasting one’s time. In each case, victims of passive-aggressive people are typically left feeling disturbed, troubled, hurt, stressed, preoccupied or upset, sometimes with no obvious cause to point to.
Inauthenticity and Transference
Passive-aggression as a habit of personal inauthenticity is socially irritating and anti-social to all but the most indifferent or insensitive of people. And for the aggressor it is a sure way to lose friends or partners, to ensure a lack of popularity (or conversely to become popular in destructive groups whose currency is free-floating aggression) and to instill angry, sometimes even violent, responses in others.
In psychotherapy, passive-aggressive patients tend to express their anger in a variety of ways: time-keeping, last-minute or repeated cancellations, unwillingness to fully engage or disclose, attempts to shift responsibility, non-payment of sessions, repeated breaches of agreed boundaries, unexpected abandonment of therapy, and other destructive behaviours that defeat the therapeutic endeavour or attempt to punish the therapist for perceived, often undisclosed, failures or challenges.
In the psychotherapy process itself, passive-aggression can manifest in the form of negative transference – relating to the therapist as if he or she were someone from the patient’s past for whom the original aggression was intended but never openly expressed. Negative transference can result in negative counter-transference (the therapist’s offended reaction to the patient’s offensive transference). In terms of passive-aggression, transference from the patient is effectively a type of prejudice that the patient holds, punishing others for the perceived misdeeds or failings of another. In reality, passive-aggressive persons will find all manner of justifications for punishing their therapist for simply doing his or her job.
Transference: the redirection of desires, expectations or emotions from a past situation or person to another (e.g. the psychotherapist)
A patient who has had negative experiences of men, for example, could behave passive-aggressively towards her male therapist as if he were one of these men from her past, even though the therapist has done nothing to elicit such a response, other than being male. Effectively, such behaviour is not dissimilar to a prejudice that targets another race, religion, gender or social group based, for example, on negative experiences of one or two individuals fitting such a profile and then extrapolated to apply to all instances of that identity. The failure to express the emotions associated with the experience become the basis of a general prejudice against whole groups of innocent people sharing either outward resemblances or familiar associations of feelings in the passive-aggressive individual. The task of the therapist is to be aware of transference – in this case the passive-aggression – and at the same time hold in his or her awareness any counter-transferential impulses rather than acting on them. Otherwise, the end result is the therapist beginning to ‘act out’ the unexpressed feelings of the patient, thus confirming the patient’s existing prejudice.
An example of this type of passive-aggressive transference is the patient who arrives late to each session or cancels sessions with very little notice, or who continues to frustrate or inconvenience the therapy work in some way. The same patient may mistrust or dislike the therapist with no evidence to support the mistrust or dislike. He or she may also fail to bring the necessary motivation, energy or commitment to the therapeutic relationship, defeating any attempt on the therapist’s part to ‘help’ whilst at the same time behaving as if the therapist has failed to help through lack of skill, caring or insight. If left unaddressed, the situation can result in the therapist feeling frustrated, angry or ineffective and the therapeutic endeavour being sabotaged.
How passive-aggression can sabotage the therapeutic relationship
Sharon had a range of passive-aggressive behaviours that she brought to her sessions. She would repeatedly cough whilst the therapist spoke, never coughing whilst she herself spoke. She would cancel sessions at short notice; talk at length to evade her elected focus for the work; send her therapist condescending emails with articles that supported her psychiatric self-diagnosis (when there was no formal diagnosis and little evidence to support one) and became punitive when her therapist informed her that the second self-diagnosed condition that she used to reinforce the first one could be easily treated in therapy if she wanted that. Even the most benign forms of therapeutic challenge or invitations to express her anger openly and honestly were met with passive-aggressive resistance.
Sharon, true to form, abandoned therapy only days after she had told her therapist of her intentions to continue their work for the foreseeable future. Her adherence to a constructed identity (self-diagnoses that relieved her of personal responsibility by assuming the role of victim) had served to maintain and excuse her behaviours, ultimately using passive-aggression to defeat any attempts by the therapist to help her empower herself and grow in the ways she had originally requested.
Approaches in Psychotherapy
My approach to both negative transference and passive-aggression is always the same: open dialogue and my honest description of what I see happening. Indeed, at the assessment stage it is often apparent to me what transference issues may potentially emerge and, particularly in the case of negative transference potential, I would have an explicit discussion about the possibility arising and the steps that we can take to address it and work with it constructively. This way the patient is empowered and prepared for any instances that subsequently emerge in ways that maximise the chances of therapeutic success. That said, habitually passive-aggressive people – through sheer force of habit – tend to find a wide variety of ways through which to leak hostile energy into the relationship, effectively cutting their nose off to spite their face. Passive-aggression can very easily bring an end to the therapeutic endeavour if it is allowed to go unaddressed.
Again, it is my experience that the combination of clearly defined boundaries and confronting each instance of such behaviour openly and honestly, inviting the patient to work with the underlying feelings in a constructive way, either brings about a shift into constructive therapeutic work, or the imminent end or abandonment of the therapy by a disgruntled patient. Either case is better, in my view, than continuing to engage in an inauthentic, destructive, time-wasting and money-wasting process in which the patient attempts to disempower, disrespect and deflate the therapist, and where the patient only succeeds in reinforcing his or her destructive habits by misusing a relationship that is designed to provide him or her with genuine care, honest insight and support.
“Some patients are so entrenched in their passive-aggression that to have it challenged or explored feels like a threat to their sense of self, and in those cases some will abandon therapy early, or fail to meaningfully engage at all.”
For patients who know or suspect themselves to have passive-aggressive tendencies, it’s important that they come to therapy with an attitude of goodwill and openness about their habits, with a genuine desire to look at feelings they may have been holding onto for many years. For without honesty and a genuine willingness to question oneself there is no therapy. For many, passive-aggressive behaviour and the emotional energy that fuels it sits on the periphery of their awareness, and denial only helps maintain both the suppression or repression and the destructive behaviour itself. Some patients are so entrenched in their passive-aggression that to have it challenged or explored feels like a threat to their sense of self, and in those cases some will abandon therapy early, or fail to meaningfully engage at all. By definition, habitual suppression or repression of aggressive energy can in the long run often fuel depression, social isolation and rejection, self-harm and self-starvation, substance misuse or addictions, and other complicating secondary behaviours.
When dealing with passive-aggressive behaviour as a discreet problem, approaches in psychotherapy are quite straightforward and involve identifying suppressed emotions, and any unfinished business from which the emotions originate, developing skills in emotional awareness, personal responsibility, clarifying the functional importance of personal boundaries, and non-violent communication skills. The overall project being one of helping the passive-aggressive individual become more authentic in his or her ways of relating to others.
Approaches in Social Settings
Dealing with passive-aggressive people on a social level can be a different matter. Some suggest simply ignoring the behaviour, pretending that it has no effect, with the notion that the aggressor will stop when he or she senses that the victim is unaffected by his or her efforts. This tact obviously requires a fair degree of restraint and tolerance of anti-social behaviour in the hope that it will end at some point. My experience is that it doesn’t tend to work as a long-term solution, and the offending behaviour will simply return or be passed on to another victim.
Another solution can be to dis-engage, where possible, from passive-aggressive people altogether, refusing to allow them their toxic influence upon us. The third option, as in the therapeutic example above, is non-violent confrontation of the aggressor with simple openness and honesty regarding the impact that the aggressor is having and a declaration of one’s personal boundaries and consequences around such behaviour. ‘If you continue to do this, then the consequence will be this…’ etc. With clear boundaries and consequences of boundary breaches spelled out, the hope is that the aggressor will see reason and desist now that the game is up and any backlash for him or her spelled out before it happens again. Maintaining and acting on such boundaries consistently is essential for them to be meaningful. Each approach is entirely dependant upon the particular circumstances and individual concerned. But patients who are victims of passive-aggressive people in, for example, the workplace, can learn a variety of skills to deal with their particular circumstances effectively.
In the end, however, passive-aggression is at its core an unskilful means of expressing emotional energy covertly in destructive ways. It causes unneccessary stress, hurt or misery for recipients, and by its nature is a source of primary and secondary misery in the passive-aggressive person: primary in the unpleasant inner world of passive-aggressive people, and secondary in the losses and negative, sometimes violent, repercussions they can suffer as a result of their behaviour. It is a prime example of what happens when we fail – through learned helplessness, lack of social skills, personal immaturity or simple cowardice – to express our thoughts and feelings openly, honestly and authentically in relationship, instead meting out our pent-up hostilities as covert punishments upon the innocent. As a social phenomenon of global proportions it is, I would suggest, a pandemic of cultural inauthenticity that – for the sake of a happier, more authentic society – we would all do well to address wherever and whenever it arises.
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