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Mindset Reality Check on Passive-Aggressive Behavior

By Harry Petsanis and Donna McCance

"The minute you start to prioritize yourself is the minute you’ll speak directly, confidently, honestly, and in a manner that’s truly reflective of how you think and feel. It will also be the minute you go from passive-aggressive to being authentic."

-Harry Petsanis

Passive-Aggressive Behavior Defined

Passive-aggressive behavior is defined as a pattern of negative, passively hostile behavior displayed by people who are uncomfortable with directly expressing themselves and their desires. Rather than talking openly about their feelings and disagreeing, they will agree with what someone says or asks of them, and then negatively act out their feelings later.

Passive-aggressive behavior is a learned behavior stemming from a person who has learned not to openly communicate. When an individual’s upbringing was such that they didn’t feel safe expressing their feelings, thoughts, and opinions, they learned an indirect way of showing how they truly felt. Passive-aggressive behavior is also learned by observing it in others.

The Disruptive, Destructive Foundation of Passive-Aggressive Behavior

The early years of conditioning children not to communicate their true feelings results in them becoming adults who harbor frustration, anger, and hostility as they behave in destructive passive-aggressive ways.

This learned behavior comes from being taught that our words don’t matter, and therefore, we don’t matter. We’re taught that prioritizing others supersedes ourselves. We’re taught that our value and worth are determined by how others perceive our value and worth. We’re taught and conditioned that when we do prioritize ourselves, we’re suppressed, admonished or punished.

Passive-aggressive people have been conditioned to accommodate and please others by acquiescing to whatever their requests and needs are, putting others first, and ignoring their own needs. This results in inner conflict and resentment. We’ve been conditioned to always be thinking of the collective, prioritizing others, not hurting peoples’ feelings, not angering people, and that our value is determined by what people think of us.

Even in a circus, a tightrope walker would rarely walk the tightrope without a net. We learn at an early age that when we try to be authentic, direct, and walk the tightrope of life, there’s someone there to push us off with no safety net for us to land on. That immediately conditions us to not look for the safety net the next time we walk the high wire because we’ll never walk the high wire again.

When we’re young, there are times when adults teach us and redirect us when our physical safety is at risk, such as putting our hands on a hot stove or walking into traffic. However, redirecting our emotional growth toward pleasing others and serving their purpose is an attempt to control us, get us to conform, and it keeps us from being authentic. We quickly learn we have no voice or choice over our lives.

Passive-aggressive people will go along with others, agreeing politely and sometimes with enthusiasm, and will not express themselves even when they don’t agree. However, they will later show their dissatisfaction by destructive behavior meant to sabotage things in many different ways.

Passive-aggressive people will procrastinate, avoid responsibility, not complete tasks, resist people, criticize, use sarcasm, blame, complain, make excuses, withhold information, and do whatever they can to prevent progress and completion of what is required of them. They are cynical, bitter, and disagreeable.

Passive-aggressive people lack authenticity. They cannot be relied on because of their dishonesty with themselves and others. Being authentic means you are true to yourself, your words, and your actions. When your actions do not match your thoughts and your words, you are inauthentic. (See our blog on Authenticity, October 25, 2021).

Destroying Passive-Aggressive Behavior with A New Foundation in Mindset

At one time or another, we have all been affected in some way by passive-aggression. Many of us have been to meetings when we have heard others agree with everything presented, and then we later hear them complaining about what they “have to do.” There are also times when we have agreed to do something asked of us even when we didn’t want to do it, only to find ourselves complaining about it later. The difference is that while we may complain, we do the job. Passive-aggressive people will do whatever they can not to do the job and they will do whatever they can to impede progress.

Our lack of authenticity isn’t just revealed through our words. It’s also revealed through our actions. For example, laughing at the boss’s jokes at the start of a meeting when they’re not funny, just because they’re the boss. It’s hard for people to listen with an unfiltered mind without their biases, prejudices, and history being factored into the equation.

Passive-aggressive behavior happens two ways. You can be a participant in the passive-aggressive behavior or you can be affected by this behavior through someone else. The purposeful negative behavior of passive-aggressive people can be exasperating, dysfunctional, and detrimental for those associated with them. Passive-aggressive behavior affects everyones’ emotional well being, causing unhappiness, discontent, and lack of progress.

Passive-aggression and lack of confidence go hand in hand. If someone is confident, they say what they feel, don’t preface things, and don’t water down and minimize their words. They don’t look at life from the perspective of pleasing people and not wanting to offend them, or trying to attain their approval, acceptance, and affection.

We are all capable of changing our mindset to undo the conditioning that was done to us. Behavior is learned, and behavior can be unlearned. There are steps you can take to change and improve your life, but only you are the one who can take the steps toward change. (See our Blog on Accountability, October 25, 2021)

The first step is to BELIEVE IN YOURSELF

and know you can change your mindset.

The following are some steps you can do to destroy your

passive-aggressive behaviors:

  • Assess your own behavior: Self-assessment is key to self-awareness. In order for you to be aware of your true self, you must reflect on your thoughts, behaviors, and interactions openly and honestly. Journal writing is a great way for you to take an inventory of yourself. After gaining an understanding of passive-aggressive behavior, assess yourself and see if you exhibit some of those behaviors. That is the start to self-awareness, which will lead to change, which will lead to self-improvement, which will lead to a new mindset.

  • Learn to Communicate: Learn to express your feelings openly and honestly. Build confidence with expressing your thoughts, feelings, and opinions. Focus on yourself and not concerns about others agreeing or disagreeing with you. One way of learning to communicate effectively is to be direct and to the point, with as few words as possible. Role playing and practicing speaking is another way you can start to get comfortable with being assertive and expressing yourself.

  • Confront your fears: There are so many fears that we have within us that hold us back. Fear of failure, fear of not being good enough, fear of conflict, fear of not being accepted or liked, fear of ridicule, fear of the unknown, etc. All these fears lead to us compromising who we truly are and hiding within our comfort zones. When you don’t say how you truly feel, your unhappiness is compounded. You act in an emotionally destructive way toward yourself and others. In the long run, it’s easier, more efficient, and healthy to say how you truly feel from the beginning. (See our Blog on Fear, October 11, 2021)

  • Build self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-worth: While it’s not right that you were conditioned at an early age not to speak up for yourself, it’s also not right that you allow yourself to continue that pattern now that you are aware of it. Once you become aware of something, you can no longer use it as an excuse. Building self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-worth begin with your SELF! Confidence, esteem, and worth all come from within you. No one gives them to you. They are already within you, waiting for you to develop them and show them to others. Recognize that you are good, you are worthy, you are strong, you are capable, and take back what belongs to you! (See our Blog on Self-Confidence, November 1, 2021)

The following are some steps you can take toward dealing

with passive-aggressive people:

  • Set Boundaries: If you are in a situation where you are interacting with a person who is behaving in a passive-aggressive way, it’s important to take care of yourself and set boundaries. While you may attempt to communicate with them about their destructive behavior, they may blame, make excuses, and attempt to “gaslight” you. (See our Blog on Gaslighting, November 15).

  • Set Clear Expectations: Do not give in to passive-aggressive people, as you will be enabling their behavior and it will continue. Be calm, open, honest, and firm when you address their behavior with them, setting limits as to how you will not accept how they are acting toward you. Set clear expectations so they will have a good understanding of what is and is not acceptable behavior.

  • Stay Positive: Positive attitudes are contagious, and negative attitudes are contagious. Passive-aggressive people have very negative attitudes because of the hatred they harbor inside themselves. It’s easy to get dragged into negativity, even by simply agreeing with someone who is being negative, thinking we are acknowledging their feelings. Step away from the negativity and hold on to your positive mindset.

  • Don’t personalize: Keep in the back of your mind that the passive-aggressive person is intentionally trying to personalize their attacks so that you will cognitively distort your mind into believing there’s something wrong with you and what you’re doing. Stay focused and reject this tactic.

  • Stay away: Minimize your contact with passive-aggressive people as much as possible as a way to maintain your emotional well being and not be in a situation where you might be enabling their behavior. They will realize people want nothing to do with their negativity when no one wants to be around them.

  • Get help: If you are having difficulty with a co-worker’s passive-aggressive behavior, seek help from your supervisor or human resources. The passive-aggressive person may benefit from receiving resources on identifying and correcting their behavior. Seek mental health support for yourself if you feel you are having difficulty identifying the source of your passive-aggressive behavior so you can change and feel better about yourself and others.

Modeling of Behavior

Remember, when you are around other people, they are observing your behavior and learning from it. When you act in a passive-aggressive way, they learn to act in a passive-aggressive way. It’s also important to remember that just as you have suffered from the conditioning of your past that has prevented you from speaking up, don’t do the same thing to those around you. When you do, you are causing the pattern to repeat itself and hurting someone else’s life.

Prioritize Yourself

The minute you start to prioritize yourself is the minute you’ll speak directly, confidently, honestly, and in a manner that’s truly reflective of how you think and feel. It will also be the minute you go from passive-aggressive to being authentic.

Break free from the conditioning of pleasing others first. Put yourself first and foremost. Be true to yourself, speak for yourself, and advocate for yourself. No one else will do that for you. It’s up to you to take control of yourself and

stop sabotaging yourself and others.

About the Authors

Harry Petsanis is a mindset and accountability coach, philosopher of human nature, consultant, and lifelong fitness and nutrition expert. He is a writer and author, with two published books: “The Truth is A Lie” and “The Logical Path To Life.” His book “The Truth is A Lie” was nominated by the 2019 Author Academy Awards in the "best self help" book category. Harry has a Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism. He has an intense passion for psychology and the human condition.

Click here to order Harry Petsanis’s books.

Donna McCance, M.Ed. is a business administrator, licensed teacher and principal/vice principal with over 20 years experience teaching in elementary education and educational leadership. She has a Masters in Education, Masters in Human Services Management, Bachelors in Business Administration and Associates in Business Administration.

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