In pretty much every TFM situation, there’s an element of passive aggression. This is a style of communication and behaviour stems from hinting at aggression through obstructionist, resistant and covert behaviour. It’s saying one thing, doing another, and masking feelings of anger and resentment due to what fundamentally boils down to a fear of confrontation. Those feelings seep out somewhere and every habitual passive aggressive convinces themselves at some point that what they’re doing is the best way to handle things because of how people have and will react. Some people are so entrenched in their passive aggression that they don’t recognise it and will flat-out deny an issue unless their behaviour is spelt out for them. They repeatedly put themselves between a rock and a hard place because their behaviour quite frankly winds up and even alienates people so of course they interpret those reactions as legitimising their position, while failing to realise that it’s not because speaking up or conflict or criticism is ‘wrong’; their reactions are in part due to the frustration of passive aggression.
In a TFM situation, one if not both of you are engaging in a level of passive aggressive behaviour. Passive aggression is highly common in families where members feel as if they cannot voice their true feelings and opinions or where they feel that they have experienced negative consequences in the past.
If you grew up with a parent who was an Absentee, then you might smile away to keep the peace because you don’t want to be abandoned by them again but then hint at your resentment, hurt and frustration in other ways.
If you’re dealing with a Follower, again, you might on one hand try to help them but then because you may feel as if they are not appreciating you or are at time disloyal, you might not come out straight and say, “I’m p_ssed off with you because you ________” but then you might decide not to do something that they typically expect you to, so that you can hint at your feelings.
If you’re dealing with Obliger, knowing that they’re likely to bring out the violins and start playing on your guilt strings might convince you that there’s no point in saying anything but then your resentment about guilted into compliance will show itself maybe in sniping, snapping, or agreeing to do something but doing it in a huff.
If you grew up with a Power Player, you might decide like I did to deliberately underperform at certain things which manifests itself in a procrastination habit so that they don’t get to dine out on your success. You might find more covert ways of hinting at your true feelings and yes, rebelling.
If you’re dealing with a Rebel, you might decide that instead of saying how you really feel or limiting their access to you so that they for instance, don’t disrupt particular aspects of your life, that you find ways to hint at your frustration so that you don’t get put in the position of saying, “No you can’t come” but you do in your own way let them know that you’re unhappy with them.
With a User, you might feel super uncomfortable about coming out straight and saying that you no longer want to do whatever it is but then you might start to do whatever it is with less attentiveness in the hopes that they might stop asking or you might talk up and exaggerate your plans so that they get the hint that you’re not available but then when they pull their usual stuff, instead of declining to be used, you say/show yes and then more resentment builds and round and round you go.
What is important to note is that we are all guilty of passive aggression at times, quite simply because sometimes it takes us a bit of time to fully register that we’re not happy with something. The more self-aware and responsible we are, is the less prone we are to continuing with that passive aggression because we recognise what we’re doing and we either decide to address the issue more directly and/or opt to be more boundaried, recognising that being passive aggressive is that cue to get grounded.
Due to my childhood and my family’s resistance to handling conflict and criticism in a reasonable manner (or at all), I know that I have to be mindful of where I might be trying to avoid confrontation by hinting through for instance, huffing and puffing around the place or raising objections or putting lots of fluff around a decline. I catch myself and ask, Where can I be more direct and as a result, more me here? I immediately stop feeling like a child and more grounded.
Get a sense of when you’re suppressing irritation, annoyance, and anger.
This is where a lot of passive aggression stems from and so understanding how your body feels, what type of stuff tends to go through your mind and the type of behaviour you engage in will help you to understand your typical passive aggressive behaviour.
- Do you feel resentful?
- Do you wish that they would notice what you think, feel, want, need or expect without you having to come out straight and say it and then feel annoyed that they’re not picking up on your hints (your passive aggressive behaviour)?
- Do you say that nothing’s wrong or that you’re OK even though they’re asking you this in response to hints at your true feelings coming through your actions?
- Do you call them names in your mind?
- Is your mind rumbling with what you would say if only you weren’t holding back?
- Are you huffing, puffing, and sighing around the place?
- Do you say YES and then go through a load of angst about how to say NO?
- Do you keep throwing out excuses and objections but then when asked if there is an issue, say that there isn’t?
- Are you rolling your eyes, clenching your fists or digging your nails into your hands?
Resist the urge to ‘hold back’.
I’m not suggesting that you be rude but it is time to speak up. It’s put up or let it go time. All of this holding it in and even hoarding it up doesn’t feel good and the problem is, if you keep this up, when you finally decide to say something, it will come out far worse than it would have done if you’d addressed it at the time.
Whatever you say that you’re going to do, come hell or high water, do it short of a genuine unavoidable emergency.
This will stop you from being so quick to say yes or fabricating excuses and catastrophes to get out of things, or even worse, letting down people at the last moment or doing things to sabotage what you’ve agreed to. If you don’t mean it, don’t say it. Don’t say what you think people want to hear; say what you mean. I’ve been guilty of saying yes too quickly to stuff in the past so now I check myself and if I say I’m going, I’m going. This is far better than stressing myself coming up with fluffy excuses.
Be a person of your word who says what they mean, means what they say and has matching actions.
The more that you do this, the more you can be sure that you’re not being passive aggressive. Every time you tell people what you think that they want to hear, it ends up resulting in some form of resistant behaviour if you don’t catch it.
Don’t blame the other party for you not speaking up.
This was a tough one for me to swallow with my family but you know what? The alternative wasn’t pretty. Yes, it is true that the bulk of my family do not handle conflict, criticism, feelings etc very well but each time I’ve said nothing because “I know how they’re going to react”, I’ve not been living in line with my own values. Sometimes they don’t react very well and sometimes, they surprise me but since I’ve taken responsibility for my end of the relationship with each of them, I feel miles better.
Don’t treat all potential and actual conflict and criticism equally.
One of the issues I see time and again with people who are struggling with a TFM is that they either avoid what they feel is confrontation right across the board in their life (which only adds to more resentment, hurt and frustration) or they overcompensate for all of the things that they don’t say or do with the TFM by almost taking it out on others. Either way, it’s persisting with this notion of conflict and criticism being ‘bad’.
Many workplace bullies are people who are taking out their displaced anger, resentment, fear and sadness on others.
If you take each situation individually, it allows you to be conscious, aware and present rather than having a blanket response. Putting aside the TFM, any other people in your life, especially those who you have respectful relationships with or you certainly have no reason to tar them with the same brush as a family member, be more direct aka assertive and avoid being passive or passive aggressive.
If you don’t mean it, don’t say it.
- If you aren’t OK, don’t say that you’re OK.
- If you are mad at them, don’t say that you’re not.
- If you don’t feel that an apology is appropriate, don’t apologise especially as an insincere apology is very grating and obvious.
- If you’re not ready to accept an apology and move on, then don’t. Saying you will and then showing that you haven’t will just create confusing mixed messages.
- If you know full well that you’re not going to be able to do something, don’t leave it until the last minute to tell them; tell them now.
Don’t delay what you’ve agreed to do.
If you know that you cannot do it by a certain time, say so instead of saying that you will and then sticking to the timeframe that you knew that you could do it in.
Don’t do a shite job.
The stock and trade of the passive aggressive is to do things to such a low standard that they’re not asked or expectations are lowered. Give it a good effort and where appropriate, your best effort, or let someone else do it.
Unless you’re hinting about a surprise gift, steer clear of all other hinting. Hinting is the epitome of passive aggression. It’s not fair to expect people to be your interpreter just because you don’t want to be direct and honest.
If you’re p-ssed off, again, be direct, don’t insinuate.
If you’re going to insult someone or call them out on something, come out straight and say it. Yes, they might be annoyed about whatever you say directly but it’s nothing compared to what they will feel about insinuations that you won’t take responsibility for when they recgnise them.
Don’t go around the houses with your actions.
There are many ways to skin a cat. It’s all very well saying “I’m in” but if your actions say “I’m out”, something is wrong. Passive aggression also comes in the form of knowing exactly what the outcome is that you want to obtain and influencing and steering things in that direction. Example: You don’t want to go to your cousin’s party but rather than say so, you act strangely so that he/she ends up saying something and you don’t have to go.
Easy on the sarcasm.
Quit the sarcasm because put-down’s and so-called wit can actually be perceived as abusive and ‘chopping’ by some depending on what level you’re going to. Humour and sarcasm don’t hide a put-down or your discontent with something but what they can do is cause a great deal of discomfort and doubt for the other party.
And now for how to deal with the TFM’s passive aggression:
Everything that you’ve seen above also tells you about other people’s passive aggression. With this in mind, I have a few key tips that will keep headaches from a TFM’s PA behaviour to a minimum.
Name it! The problem with habitual passive aggressive is that they are very entrenched in their behaviour and will avoid coming out straight unless it becomes clear that you are aware of what is going on. Don’t say, “You are being passive aggressive” and instead paint a picture of what they’re saying and doing.
E.g. I emailed you and when you replied, you said ________ which to me hinted at there being an issue. I asked you if everything is OK, you said it is but then added ________ in your reply which again hinted at there being an issue. I asked again and you still denied it and now you’ve sent me a very lengthy email telling me off. I have given you three opportunities to come out straight and you denied there being an issue when there clearly is. That’s not very fair.
Stick to the facts. Never be vague and repeat verbatim anything they’ve said along with anything else that they’ve done. Use the Be Factual Approach and never ever, ever ever ever, feed them after midnight (joke) or get in to some airy fairy discussion about emotions or trying to interpret their behaviour. Let the facts speak for themselves plus they have an opportunity to clarify.
E.g. I asked you on Monday if you would be able to help me out with building the shed. You said yes but then when I attempted to confirm with you on Thursday and then on Friday, you would not return my calls or texts. You then tell me at the last minute that you cannot make it and then blow up at me about how I have a sense of entitlement. I am OK with you being unable to help build the shed, what I’m not OK with is not coming out straight and saying that you could not do it and then blaming me. You are not obliged to help me.
Don’t meet passive aggression with passive aggression. It just causes you to deviate from who you are and feeds the problem. If you want to be less open to whatever the issue is, passive aggression will have the opposite effect plus if they notice it, they will feel that their behaviour has been legitimised.
Call them out on any put-downs. “You seem to enjoy putting me down” will soon make clear that passive aggressive jabs veiled in smiling faux compliments and sarcasm, will not go unchallenged.
Be clear on your annoyance. Tell them that you’re not annoyed (or whatever) because they can’t whatever it is; it’s the whole saying one thing and doing another and other forms of resistant behaviour.
Reinforce the positives. e.g. I know that it isn’t easy to hear this but our relationship is important. I am always open to a discussion because I value open and honest communication. I can assure you that I won’t judge or criticise you for being straight with me because at least we both know where we stand.
Also see Day 24 for nipping guilting in the bud, another form of passive aggression.
JOURNALING: Were you surprised by any of the examples of passive aggression, either because you recognised some of your own habits or because it finally put a name to a frustration that you’ve encountered with a TFM? If you have adopted some forms of passive aggression, do you understand why you felt the need to? It’s important to acknowledge what’s behind it so that you can have compassion for you and also so that you no longer feel drawn in by other people’s forms of it? If lots of stuff is coming up, try an Unsent Letter or the Releasing Exercise in the Resources.