Last week, I wrote about being passive aggressive. I discussed the reasons for it, the ways that it manifests and what one needs to do to stop themselves from being passive aggressive. This week I want to talk about what to do if someone with whom you are in a relationship is passive aggressive. I also want to talk about what to do if you work with someone that uses these skills to protect themselves.
If you are in a relationship with someone important to you who uses passive aggressive behaviors to get their way, it is extremely frustrating and angry making. You become “rage-ful” and helpless. It is extremely difficult to challenge these behaviors without looking like you are silly and out of control or at the very least, “over-reacting.” But you are not. It is a system that is additive in its damage over time, and you develop less and less room to breathe. If you have fallen in love with someone before you discovered this ugly truth about them, what do you do? Do you have to abandon the relationship? Do you have to become an ugly, hateful person just to survive? Is there some better way to participate in the relationship without becoming subjected to the displaced wrath and manipulation of the passive aggressive partner?
I think there are two essential survival strategies for coping with people who are passive aggressive, PA. They are both within your power, not your PA partner’s. You can control these strategies and learn how and when to use them. Then at least you have a “choice” and a chance to be proactive in your own self-care and in determining the boundaries of an intimate relationship. The strategies are “self-honesty” and “reality testing.” They are both harder than one would think, but are both necessary for survival and the reclamation of dysfunctional relationships.
First, I will discuss self-honesty. I find that many, if not most people have difficulty being honest with themselves about what they feel, what they want, and how they try to get what they want. We tend to use justifying excuses and camouflage behaviors to mask our real intent, even from ourselves. This occurs in part because we have been culturally taught that to be self-interested and self-honest is selfish and arrogant. I remember being told by my parents and my teachers that it was a bad thing to think about and pursue what “I” wanted. It was self -indulgent and it meant I had a character weakness. In reality they gave me those messages, along with others, about how I should feel and how I should behave as a strategy for controlling my behavior and making me easier to deal with. I was expected to be submissive to the wisdom of my elders and allow their control over my behaviors. I remember once when my father was about to beat me with an electric extension cord, I attempted to “reason” with him about the power of persuasion relative to the power of force. His pithy rejoinder was that he “did not believe in all that psychology crap” and I would do what he wanted me with a smile on my face and a good attitude or he would know the reason why! So as I explained last week, I learned to be passive aggressive and manipulative, to use hidden and unaccountable weapons in order to get my way. It was a learned survival skill, but it was not a way to develop intimate relationships.
I believe that healthy selfishness is, indeed, healthy. I tell my clients that I do not “do guilt,” I do remorse. I think guilt is a manipulative tool used by others to control your behavior and feelings. If you learn to be self -honest you can learn to admit what you really want and to go directly after it. You do not have to expend the resources and energy to go around three sides of the square in an attempt to hide and misdirect others, but you can more efficiently, go after what you want. You can also more deliberately admit what you want and proactively try to negotiate for it.
Reality testing is the other skill I advocate. To develop good reality testing many questions need to be asked: What is “really” going on? What do I “really” want? What is the real cost of my choices? What is the payoff of my choices? I can choose to live with and love someone that is difficult to love and who requires me to work very hard to make the relationship satisfactory. I cannot “honestly” be a victim and be stuck with someone who is inappropriate for me. If I choose them, that choice comes at a cost. For example, if my wife asks me to attend a school function with a bunch of elementary teachers and administrators, I should go inside myself and ask how I really feel about going. If I don’t want to go, I should tell her. She may then negotiate with me and tell me the cost of my not going would be that she would be unhappy and angry for several days, or tell me that if I don’t go, there will be no sex for a month, or that she will go alone, but “I will be sorry.” Or she could just honestly say, “This event is important to me, even if you do not want to go, will you?” I have a choice. I can say yes, because you matter to me, even though it is something I dread, I will go. Or I can say, no I hate that too much and won’t go. The point here is that whatever choice I make, I have to honestly reality test it. If I go, it cannot be as a victim. I cannot go begrudgingly and punish her by acting out and being angry and resentful. If I go, I must go openly and fairly. I cannot “fake nice” and then present a bill of anger and manipulation to be collected later. If I am not willing to do this, I should honestly say I am not going, and then deal with whatever issues that raises in our relationship openly and honestly. That has been an easy lesson to learn for me in this relationship because my wife does not have a passive aggressive bone in her body.
I remember in my first marriage times when my wife would come in as I was watching the evening news to quietly announce that dinner would be delayed. She needed milk from the store and had to go get it. If I were not alert and did not recognize the hidden message, which was “get up and go get some milk!” I was in huge trouble. If I responded, “That’s okay, I don’t mind eating later,” I would be making a huge mistake. My first wife did not come out directly and ask for what she wanted. I was supposed to guess. She always maintained plausible deniability. My present wife does not. When we first got married, I was expecting the behavior I had experienced for almost twenty years from my first wife. If the same situation happened, I would jump up and say, “Let me go to the store dear.” My wife would laugh and say, “No, you are busy, I can go.” I would say, “No, no, no let me.” She would reply, “ If I wanted you to go, I would ask you to go,” and then she would leave to go to the store. I would wait and watch for days for the price to be delivered for my “selfish” behavior. I was frustrated because the price never came. Eventually, I learned to trust that my wife was “honest” by reality testing. She would, indeed, ask me to go to the store if that was what she wanted. There was never ever a price to pay for her having to go. So, in part, the message is that having a healthy partner helped me learn to be healthier.
The second situation I want to examine is dealing with a passive aggressive coworker. If you take a new job, and everyone is being “nice” to you, the new guy, it feels good. Eventually, when the new wears off, you find that this workplace is much like all others. In every situation where you have a group of people, you are likely to have some who have issues, are jealous, angry, manipulative, and dishonest or masked in how they present themselves. They have different skill sets for acheiving their goals. It is not always as easy to confront situations at work because you do not always have the option to quit. The bills must be paid, obligations must be met. My answer to this dilemma is the same two skills. Self-honesty and reality testing are required for survival and satisfaction. You may have to make the honest decision that you cannot trust someone you work with. Perhaps they steal your sales leads, maybe they put blame on you for things that go wrong on a team project and take the credit for things that go well. You cannot afford to have illusions about their self interest and their strategy. You cannot allow yourself to be a “victim.” You must also act with self- interest and self -honesty. You may have to be aware that you cannot stay in this job. The cost of staying will be high and unsupportable over time. The point, then, is to admit this to yourself and begin to look for a way to transition to a new opportunity. Perhaps, you can transfer within the company if it is large enough to have other options, or to a new job, if it does not. What you cannot do is “lie” to yourself that if you just work hard enough you will be noticed and successful. It is not productive if you create a crisis and quit in a huff. Make a plan and work your plan.
If it is not bad enough to need to quit, then you can choose to stay and work on strategies to protect yourself. Keep good records and make sure you talk to your supervisor about your concerns. Learn to appropriately challenge the offender and talk about your limits. Always use “I” statements: “I have a problem with my breathing, and wonder if I could ask you to wear less perfume to work.” Not, “ someone around here is wearing too much perfume”, or “I have an issue that is causing me difficulty, I really need emotionally to have a sense of ownership about my space and wonder if I could ask you to stop sitting at my desk to use the phone.” Rather than, “This is my space, keep out you b***h!” Remember to document incidents and build alliances with others, but not in an aggressive, hateful way. There will be others at work who respond to the problem the same way you do, but they will not be as skilled as you at confrontation. Conflict is not inherently, or even mostly, a bad thing. It does happen, you will feel better and be more successful if you learn how to manage conflict rather than avoid it. Remember, self-honesty and reality testing are the two essential skills for resisting someone that is passive aggressive.