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Eliminating Passive Aggressiveness

Chapter 14: Eliminating Passive Aggressiveness

Tools for Anger Work-Out

By: James J. Messina, Ph.D.


What is passive aggressiveness?

I act in a passive aggressive way when I:

  • hide my hostility by seeming to be nice to someone I dislike, and am unable to be honest with the person.
  • say I agree with something but don't follow through because I really don't agree with it.
  • act opposite to what others are expecting.
  • quietly manipulate to get my own way after voicing a completely different opinion, just to keep the peace.
  • seek revenge by agreeing and looking good, but never following through on my promises.
  • tell people what they want to hear, even if I don't believe in what I am saying.
  • try to please people by agreeing to their plan of action, yet actually doing the opposite.
  • act one way, which is true to my inner feelings, yet say another.
  • am out of touch with my inner feelings; the only way to know how I feel about something is to observe my behavior, don't trust my words.
  • hate something or someone but am afraid of letting my true feelings show.
  • feel pressured to act or believe in a certain way when I really don't want to.
  • avoid conflict at all cost by giving in to others, then procrastinate and never do what I agreed to do.
  • am angry but afraid to show my anger, so I quietly take my revenge by doing the opposite.


What are the typical reactions to my passive aggressiveness?

When people recognize my passive aggressiveness they:

  • are surprised.
  • get disappointed.
  • get angry.
  • are confused by my behavior.
  • confront me on my actions.
  • realize that I lied to them.
  • get frustrated by the inconsistency in my behavior.
  • begin to do battle with me, resulting in a conflict greater than the one I originally tried to avoid.
  • get upset and fly into a rage and this damages the relationship.
  • no longer trust me.
  • resent me for being dishonest.
  • act in a similar way with me and our communication winds up at a standstill where neither of us wins.
  • feel challenged by me and in their competitive reaction become more adamant in seeking to achieve what I had originally verbally agreed to with them.

What irrational thinking keeps me passive aggressive when I disagree with others?

  • I must avoid an argument, fight or conflict at all costs.
  • I never win in confrontation.
  • There is no use in opposing them, they are much more powerful than I am.
  • I must please people by telling them what they want to hear.
  • I never get anywhere by showing my anger openly.
  • It's bad to get angry.
  • No one wants to know how I feel.
  • No one will understand how I feel.
  • My problems are unique; I need to hide them since no one would understand.
  • I am a loser and failure anyway; why try to defend my position?
  • I will never win in this situation; why try?
  • I enjoy seeing people get blown away by my agreeing with them and then my doing the opposite of what I agreed to do.
  • I'd rather back down right away to minimize the damages a fight could bring rather than tell people how I really feel about things.
  • It's so hard to be honest with people about how I feel when what I feel is counter to what they want me to feel.
  • It's important for people to like and accept me and I say anything just so long as they like me.
  • It's not what I do or how I act that is important to people, it is what I say that influences them.
  • People will never know I'm angry and disagree with them.
  • I hide my feelings well from others.
  • Feelings don't count. It is better to deny my feelings than upset another person I am in disagreement with.
  • I'd rather lie than get into an argument with someone.
  • If I lie about how I feel, others will never know the truth.


How can I recognize when someone is being passive aggressive with me?

I can tell that people are being passive aggressive with me when they:

  • always agree with my point of view, even when I am being narrow minded or blind to other alternatives.
  • never disagree or argue with my point of view.
  • take every opportunity to put me down in a humorous or sarcastic way.
  • never confront me with their negative feelings.
  • avoid discussions about unpleasant topics.
  • are always cheerful and upbeat to my face; yet I hear from others how negative they are about me behind my back.
  • yes me constantly never disagreeing with anything I say.
  • consistently do the opposite of what I thought they agreed to do.
  • withdraw or pull away from me whenever I confront them with my anger or negative feelings about them.
  • deny that they have any problems with our relationship.
  • talk about others in a negative or disparaging way, yet are nice and friendly to their faces.
  • demonstrate behavior inconsistent with their words.
  • make me feel foolish for expecting one thing from them when they deliver the opposite.
  • make me believe I can count on them to do something for me but they never follow through.
  • talk with fantasy and magical thinking about how they are going to change, yet the change never occurs.
  • show a consistent pattern of exerting no effort toward improving our relationship.
  • talk or act irrationally in dealing with a problem, as if it were very easy to overcome and correct.
  • minimize the extent of the problems facing us in our relationship.
  • tend to patronize me and try to make me believe that I am just imagining problems between us.
  • continue to deny that a problem exists when all the evidence points to the opposite

How can I confront a passive aggressive person?

If others are being passive aggressive with me I can:

  • point out the behavior that indicates passive aggressiveness on their part.
  • point out the inconsistency between their words and actions.
  • pay attention to their actions rather than their words, then give them feedback as to what their actions tell me about their feelings.
  • ask for their true feelings reassuring them that there are no right or wrong feelings, and that it is OK to share negative feelings.
  • ask them what has them so intimidated that they fear sharing their feelings with me.
  • reassure them that we can reach a win-win solution in our communication if we are willing to compromise.
  • defuse the competition in our relationship. It doesn't matter what we are discussing as long as we respect how each of us feels about what we are discussing.
  • remain open to any negative feelings they have and let them know this.
  • begin to trust what they do rather than what they say and let them know that I am doing this.
  • make myself more accessible to them.
  • help them lessen their fear of rejection from me by reassuring them that I really do care.


If I find myself being passive aggressive, how can I correct this?

To avoid being passive aggressive with others I can:

  • try to be assertive, open, and honest with my negative feelings or anger.
  • warn people to read my behavior rather than my words if they want to know my feelings.
  • confront myself with my inconsistent behavior and challenge myself to explain it.
  • take the risk to confront my anger assertively and on the spot so that I can bring my behavior in line with my feelings.
  • work at making my behavior consistent with my feelings.
  • change the way I interact with people and make my relationships more honest.
  • admit that I have been a liar.
  • work at being more honest with people even if it results in a conflict.
  • identify the irrational thinking that prevents me from confronting people when I am angry.
  • learn how to become assertive with my negative feelings.
  • accept that it is OK to have conflict and disagreement.
  • learn to compromise and come to a win-win solution.


Why should I eliminate acting in a passive aggressive way?

By eliminating passive aggressiveness when I am angry I could:

  • have deeper, more honest, and longer lasting relationships.
  • feel less stress, anxiety and depression in my dealings with others.
  • learn to be clear and consistent about my feelings.
  • reassure others that they will no longer have to guess how I really feel.
  • stop resorting to lies about my feelings.
  • develop self-respect, self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-worth.
  • have more energy because I would no longer be defending myself from powerful, intimidating people.
  • have clarity of focus and purpose, working on the things I want rather than what others want for me.
  • have fewer people venting their rage on me.
  • experience a sense of harmony in my life.

Steps to eliminating passive aggressiveness 


Step 1: First, I must begin to recognize this behavior when it occurs. To do this, I will answer the following questions in my journal:

  • What is my usual response when I disagree with someone who intimidates me?
  • How do I feel when I am angry or upset with someone who intimidates me?
  • How often do I agree with these people rather than confront them just to avoid conflict?
  • What benefits do I derive by avoiding confrontation?
  • What are my feelings after I have backed down from someone who intimidates me?
  • From whom have I backed down? How successful was this? How often did I go ahead with what I had planned, ignoring what these people wanted me to do? What usually resulted from my failure to follow through with my part of the plan?
  • What do I do now after I've backed down from a disagreement? Am I still passive aggressive? How can I tell? What are the results? How often does this happen?
  • Under what circumstances do I resort to passive aggressiveness?
  • What is involved in these situations? Why do I resort to passive aggressiveness?
  • What are the negative results of my passive aggressiveness?


Step 2: If I find that I am resorting to passive aggressiveness, then I need help to recognize the negative impact it has in my life. To do this I will record the following exercise in my journal.

My Passive Aggressive Ways

Write a story about five separate incidents during which I acted passive aggressive. In each story, detail:

  • When it happened.
  • With whom it happened.
  • What I was angry about or over what we disagreed.
  • Why I was intimidated.
  • What I did later to show I was being passive aggressive.
  • The reasons I acted the way I did.
  • How others reacted to my passive aggressive behaviors.
  • How others confronted me on how I was acting.
  • What they told me about my behavior and how they felt about it.
  • The final outcome of the situation.


Step 3: I am now ready to confront my past passive aggressiveness and ways I could change it. Complete the following exercise:

The Other Side of the Story

Write a sequel to each of the five stories from Step 2. In each sequel include:
  • What I did differently when I first recognized that I was angry or had negative feelings.
  • How I honestly confronted my feelings as being different from my behavior.
  • How I made sure that my actions were consistent with my expressed feelings.
  • How I gave others permission to ``call me on it'' if I deviated from my expressed feelings.
  • How others handle my being assertive with my anger and/or negative feelings.
  • How we resolved the conflict or disagreement that resulted.
  • The impact this confrontation had on our relationship.
  • How the stress and anxiety of intimidation and power games was eliminated from our relationship.
  • How I felt about learning to handle my anger and/or disagreements in a healthy way.
  • The benefits of my being direct and assertive in confronting my anger and/or negative feelings with others.


Step 5: Once I've been able to rewrite my passive aggressive behavioral script, I need to apply it. Whenever I am angry or in disagreement with someone, I will strive to:
  • Tell the person immediately how I am feeling, even if I am angry or in disagreement.
  • Allow the other to express feelings openly as well.
  • Ask the other to allow for a compromise “win win'' solution.
  • Ventilate feelings, then jointly brainstorm solutions.
  • Arrive at a solution in which we both “win.''
  • Act on this.
  • Make sure my actions are consistent with the agreement.
  • Make sure my behavior is consistent with my feelings.
  • Give the other permission to point out when my behavior deviates from our agreement.
  • Monitor my emotions and renegotiate our solution if they aren't consistent with our compromise.
  • Let the other know if I get upset over the compromise; no masking of my feelings.
  • Confront intimidation openly and honestly.
  • Ensure that our relationship is based on honesty.
  • Accept the uniqueness and individuality of others, allowing each of us to be ourselves.

Step 6: If I find I am still resorting to passive aggressiveness then I need to return to Step 1, and begin again.