When Debra goes silent, a chill fills the room. Anya isn’t sure if she’s done something wrong, but she has a deep feeling of guilt and uneasiness.
She’s scrabbles around, second guessing, wondering what’s up. ‘Nothing’, says Debra, I’’m fine.’ She sends out a great big sigh as she says this, leaving Anya in no doubt that she’s not fine at all.
So what’s going on? This little vignette is a classic example of passive aggression. When someone feels very angry but has no healthy way of expressing it, the anger comes out in other ways. Stony silences. Long sulks. Huffing and puffing. A sense of martyrdom and victimhood.
Whether you’re the passive agressive person or on the receiving end, it’s not an easy place to be.
12 signs of passive aggressive behaviour
So how can you recognise passive aggression?
Context is everything, so these examples aren’t always passive agression but delivered in a certain way (with an unspoken anger), they can be received that way. You might recognise some of them in yourself or in others.
1) You feel a sense of injustice at things in your life which you voice through statements about what the other person has, but you don’t, such as ‘I never get to / you always…’
2) You find it very hard to ask for things directly so end up making comments which could be interpreted as resentful: ‘I’d love to have as much time off as you do.’
3) You think you rarely get angry at things but you have a great line in put downs or sharp responses ‘That’s typical of you / Another easy day for you then…’
4) You’re not able to say directly what you feel so you beat around the bush: ’You look really lovely in fuchsia’ (to a person wearing yellow.)
5) You ignore or stonewall someone who’s angering you with frosty silence to make them feel as uncomfortable as possible.
6) You delay decisions to avoid confrontation or keep someone guessing about your intentions: ‘Are you coming to the party?’ ‘Probably…’ (until the last minute when you don’t turn up or say you have something else on.)
7) You focus on keeping the score in friendships and relationships and any perceived inequality makes you go cold or uptight.
8) You use sarcasm to belittle or hurt someone else ‘Was that the best you could do?’
9) You guilt trip when you don’t get your way: ‘You always spend Christmas with us. Your mother will be heartbroken.’
10) You manipulate to get your needs met by concealing, exaggerating or making one-sided arguments.’We’ve never done what I want in 5 years together.’
11) You resist, provide automatic counter arguments or are plain stubbourn to antogonise another person.
12) You punish yourself when feeling angry with another person – ‘You were late for dinner, well I’m not eating anything now.’
This might make for uncomfortable reading and whether you’re giving it out or receiving it, it’s not an easy place to be.
Why is someone passive aggressive?
So why have you developed these responses? There may be many different reasons, but often it comes about because you learnt early in your life that being angry wasn’t acceptable to those close to you. That’s either because anger was taboo – everyone had to be nice all the time – or anger was a dangerous and very scary. Over time you found other ways to express anger, often disguised through passive aggression.
However hard you may try, anger can’t be obliterated. It’s a very important feeling, that helps you keep boundaries and safe. In the face of these negative attitudes to anger, you had to fine another way of expressing it. It’s like the water that seeps out of the dam. It has to find a way out and it always does.
The difficulty with expressing anger in this passive aggressive way, is that it rarely gets you what you really want and need. It tends to silence, alienate and aggravate others.
Thankfully it is possible to change. The starting place is to develop an awareness of and relationship with your anger, so that you start to recognise it and listen to it.
If you’re not used to expressing anger or even identifying that you feel it, where do you start? The body is your best resource for telling you when you’re angry.
Each person’s response is individual but starting to notice when your body tightens, when you get a warm or hot feeling in your chest or stomach, when your fists clench or your jaw tightens are all clues that there might be anger around.
Why anger is your friend
One of the biggest fears I hear when someone comes to counselling worrying about anger, is that it will get out of control if they really tap into it. Somehow, they fear becoming overwhelmed or out of control.
Actually the opposite is usually true; the more you give it healthy space and expression, the more you are in charge of how it’s expressed.
Getting to know your anger, little by little, you can begin to trust that it won’t destroy you or those around you, that it can be managed, contained and expressed healthily.
It is each person’s right to feel and express anger appropriately, by that I mean not acting out, being physical or abusive when giving voice to anger. And often if you can’t feel anger, the chances are that other feelings are muted or silenced too. It’s not possible to selectively tune out feelings. There’s only one on and off switch for all your feelings.
This week’s lifeline
If you struggle with voicing anger, here’s something you can do.
First close your eyes, relax into your breathing and then do a body scan to get in touch with how your body is feeling right now. Track from head to toe, looking for the sensations which you might be feeling right now.
Then call to mind a time when you were really angry. Bring it to mind vividly, with the place, people, weather all alive for you. Track back through your body looking for sensations and notice any areas that are more alive, tingly, hot. These are clues to where your anger lives.
The second part of the exercise is to start to make a map of anger in your life. What things, people, happenings make you angry. Think from the smallest things (eg cars not stopping at pedestrian crossings – yes that’s one of my bugbears) through to larger scale things such as injustice, cruelty, inhumanity, violations of boundaries.
The exercise is to build an inventory of your anger with life, the world, those around you.
This map can be a helpful reminder if you find yourself moving back into passive or silent anger.
If you are struggling with being passive aggressive or someone in your life is like that with you…
And you’d like a safe space to explore your what’s happening, I offer counselling and psychotherapy in Totnes, Paignton and Newton Abbott for anger issues and anger management.
Get more practical tips and techniques for dealing with life’s curveballs
Sign up for practical tips and advice for dealing with life’s tricky moments and get my Wellbeing in Nature Toolkit for free. It’s packed full of exercises for dealing with stress, anxiety and depression.