Passive aggressive disorder is listed in the DSM under personality disorders. I am not sure whether or not I think we should continue to call this a personality disorder. Part of the problem is the degree of pervasiveness and dysfunction that is required to call it a disorder. I would rather focus on the concept of passive aggressive behaviors. In my opinion, there are numerically few individuals who would qualify for the status of a disorder in the DSM, but I believe almost everyone, at one time or another, uses passive aggressive behaviors.
I must confess that at various times in my life I have been particularly skilled at being passive aggressive. I used these behaviors as a way to protect myself from responsibility and to keep my independence. I was afraid of the consequences of being visible and owning my feelings and recognizing that I chose my circumstances. It was easier to be a victim of the misunderstanding or unreasonable expectations and demands of others than it was to say no to them and then deal with the consequences. I avoided the consequences of self-ownership and lived as a skilled “avoider” of responsibility for what I wanted and how I really behaved. I learned this as a way to survive in my family of origin. It was a dangerous family and the cost of being caught acting in ways less than expected was very high. I learned to dance among the rain drops without really getting wet. This allowed me to look good and have a defense against all charges, yet take my anger and cause frustration and rage in all who dealt with me. In this way, I was never “responsible” for letting them down. Dealing with me was like fighting Jello. There was no hard core, no center, nothing to grab hold of. I displayed no evidence that I was being oppositional. I was skilled at looking good and talking well so that it confused the people who were trying to challenge me or call me to account. The people around me were often out of control with their anger ( which I had provoked by my passive aggressiveness) and others looked at them askance, because they were raging and hateful and upset, without apparent reason. They were told (which I appreciated!) “He is such a wonderful, nice guy. How can you be so angry with him? What is wrong with you?” Others would look at my relationships and say, “He is so great and she is such a bitch, how can he stay with her? She is always mad and complaining! She really does not appreciate what she has.”
When I realized fully the cost to me of living with this defensive, yet provocative, strategy, I began to learn more about where these behaviors and “skills” had come from. Why did I learn to behave this way? What was the cost/benefit ratio for me if I continued to act this way? Even though I was skilled enough not to be obvious with these behaviors, I also knew when I was honest with myself that I was not happy and my intimate relationships were not really intimate. They were manifestations of the false self and were masks that I could put on and take off. Others sensed that I was not really the person I pretended to be and eventually would abandon or reject me, or attack me in their helpless rage. I could “win the day” but ultimately, I was alone in a crowd. If I wanted that to change, I needed to learn more about passive aggressive behavior. Why does it happen, how does it happen, how does it work, what is the cost? These were all questions I asked in order to learn how to change my behaviors.
Among the things I learned, is that no matter how perfectly you try to structure a relationship system that involves two or more people, there will ALWAYS be conflict. No matter the community, family or work dynamic and the perfection of the philosophy behind the structure of the group, if they include/involve more than a single person, there WILL be conflict! Conflict is unavoidable. It is not inherently bad or damaging, but it is just something that most people try to avoid. We do such a disservice to ourselves and our children when we teach, or allow them to learn how to be conflict avoidant. Conflict is a real and necessary thing that is innate to human behavior. We cannot eliminate it from our systems.
I have talked through the years with many individuals who have lived in religious communities, which they embrace because of their idealism and beliefs. They want to enmesh themselves into these communities and diminish their sense of self and selfishness. Invariably, they discover and are disillusioned by the reality of human dynamics. Within communities, as within families, there is hostility, selfishness, and jealousy over the possession of desired resources, of status and standing within the community, of power, of the affection and attention and respect of others. We are, by nature, competitive beings. We are like blue jay babies always screaming, “Feed me!” similar to Seymour in “The Little Shop of Horrors.” We are like that even when we do not want to be. So the challenge for people attempting to create families, work environments and communities is to construct a way of life that will minimize these reactions, but recognize that they are innate, human, necessary and inevitable.
So what do we do to reduce the damage that the passive aggressive people in our lives do? How do we structure our group to minimize the reality of conflict and competition? How do we learn to recognize in an early state the development of resentment, hostility, greed, or jealousy? If we learn to see the early warning signs of these issues, how do we “confront” them in a healthy manner?
I have been doing some consulting with a medical office. Most of the people who go into medical careers, like most educators, are what we call “conflict avoidant.” They go out of their way to avoid a situation of conflict and hostility. They are care-takers and often pleasers. These are preferred skills for survival that integrate well with their lifestyle and profession. Yet, even within these groups there is conflict. This always happens in human groups. Part of my responsibility to these practitioners has been to teach them that these conflicts are inevitable and to recognize their reactions to the conflict. Some people become aggressive and pushy as a way to get what they want. In response to this, those who are conflict avoidant tend to respond either by being passive aggressive or passive avoidant. If they are passive avoidant, they tell themselves that it does not really matter, they do not really care, they will not get themselves out of control over some trivial thing and then they stuff their feelings. Eventually, they have a melt down and there is a crisis. Both the individuals and the management then have to deal with a “crisis” instead of a problem. The cost of this type of behavior is high, both to the individuals and to the company.
For those who are not passive avoidant, the other option often seems to be passive aggressive. They manage to work out their hostility and resentment without being “accountable” for it. They “look good” they are “always in the right.” They are very difficult to confront or challenge, but they cause anger and rage within the community because they passively (out of sight, covertly) do things to frustrate those with whom they are in conflict or whom they resent. Little things, like leaving a mess on the desk, or not passing along a message, or dropping something into the conversation with others in the group that causes a misunderstanding, or a resentment, toward the “target,” but without ever being the one who said or did it. These skills are automatic, unconscious and yet deliberate. They effectively allow the individual who is passive aggressive to be a “player” without ever having to put on a uniform and take an at bat. There is no record or score. There is no opportunity to give them honest feedback. They never have to be accountable for their feelings or their behaviors. They are the good little girls who do what they are supposed to do and it is not their fault if the thing is messed up or gets broken. They do not have to pay the direct personal price, ever. They may have to pay part of the group price, but it is clearly not their fault. They are just good doobies who are going along with the cost because they are committed members of the group.
In the long run, it is better to teach people conflict management skills and encourage a process for open accountability. People must be encouraged, nay required, to speak in “I” statements and articulate their desires, frustrations, resentments in appropriate ways through the hierarchy. If we do not teach them to do this, and require them to do this, our community/family/workplace environment will be a place of tension, frustration and resentment. It will become toxic and we will all pay a price that we do not have to pay. Conflict is an inherent part of human relationships. Skill at being openly conflicted allows opportunity for resolution and growth. These skills can be learned and mastered. It is worth the price of admission even if we have to fight our discomfort and anxiety. Those of us who learned to be successfully passive aggressive, must eventually learn that we are, in reality, not successful. We are, at best, not accountable. Ultimately, we are hurt and alone and isolated. We may not know it because we use our skills to move on to another, similar, dysfunctional relationship. If you want harmony and intimacy and genuineness in your life, learn to deal with conflict in open and honest and accountable ways. Even when you do not get your way, the cost is a healthier self!