As someone who used to be passive aggressive and avoid confrontation like the plague, I can speak to this with some degree of experience. I jokingly use a totally made-up scenario, approved by Dr. Dave, to explain to clients:
So Dr. Dave and I share an office. Naturally, there is a box of Kleenex in that office. We are therapists, after all. Suppose that I have some weird belief system that the Kleenex should not be easily accessible to clients and I, therefore, like to put them on the bookcase. That way, a client has to get up from the sofa and walk across the room to get a Kleenex. Meanwhile, Dr. Dave has absolutely NO IDEA I feel this way and has never stopped to wonder why the Kleenex box is on the book shelf every time he comes in after I’ve been in the office. He innocently scratches his head and places it back on the table in front of the sofa. When I come back into the office the next day, I notice that the box is back on the table and become irritated. My thought process (however irrational) is this: “Did he not notice that I moved the box? What is the matter with him?”
And this goes on for the next month. Each time he comes into the office and finds the box on the bookshelf, he innocently scratches his head and moves it back. Each time I come into the office and notice it’s back on the table next to the sofa, I become a little more irritated.
In a matter of time, I’ve pushed down all these irritated feelings (because I’m avoiding the confrontation with him) and one day I become irate and I explode like a volcano and unleash a verbal vomit of profanity and frustration because he didn’t say “Bless You” when I sneezed and THEN it comes out about the Kleenex box. “And another thing! What’s up with you and the damn Kleenex box? Why do you keep moving it back to the table when I have clearly told you it belongs on the book shelf? Idiot!”
(Necessary Disclaimers: #1) That would never happen! #2) The Kleenex box stays on the table next to sofa, in case the client needs one, lol. )
So what do you think happens next? I would most likely get fired for talking to my boss that way. Dr. Dave would be very upset over the encounter and he would be, for all intents and purposes, a victim to my passive aggressive behaviors. It’s a lose-lose situation for everyone – not to mention a totally unnecessary one.
THE PROBLEM: The passive aggressive person is TERRIFIED of confrontations, however small.
WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT? Either quit seeing it as a confrontation or change your perspective of what a confrontation is. You can politely say: “Honey, I get really bothered when you leave your shoes next to the kitchen door. They’re smelly and gross and the kitchen is where we prepare food. Is there any way you could wait until you get to the bedroom before you take them off?”
THE EFFECT: You’ve communicated your concerns, now your partner has the opportunity to accept or reject your suggestion, you’ve explained WHY you feel this way, AND you’ve offered an alternative.
THE PROBLEM: Passive Aggressive people assume that they’re communicating their feelings and beliefs through non-verbal communication, when what they are actually doing is assuming that others can read their minds.
WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT: Understand that others can’t read your mind. However clear you believe you’re being through non-verbal communication (tone of voice, slamming doors, sighing, rolling your eyes, etc.), the other person is most likely not getting the message. And that doesn’t mean the other person is an idiot. If someone is difficult for you to deal with, has hurt your feelings, or is being inappropriate, you need to tell them! We all come from different backgrounds, cultures, experiences, and life events – that person’s intentions might be the opposite of what you believe them to be.
THE EFFECT: Once you get a handle on this, you won’t be as stressed out and the other person will be informed as to what’s bothering you, and they will then be given the opportunity to change or address said behavior.
THE PROBLEM: The root of passive aggressive tendencies is usually that the person either a) doesn’t feel that they deserve to speak their mind, or that they would not be heard in the event that they did, or b) feels totally entitled to every thought, whim, and emotion that rises within them.
WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT: Figure out which one you are (or which one the person with whom you are dealing is) and address it from there. Ask yourself why you feel that way? What other examples can you think of in which your approach (or someone else’s) didn’t work? What is your motivation for changing this behavior? When dealing with others, remember that they (usually) are not thinking about or analyzing us 1/3 as much as we are thinking about or analyzing ourselves. Be careful of the assumptions you make regarding others and be mindful of alternative explanations.
For example, if you walk into a room and 2 of your co-workers start laughing, what is your first thought? Are they laughing at you? If that’s what you believe, make up 2 alternative scenarios, such as “Maybe one of them had just finished a joke, right before I walked in”, or “The person that walked in behind me slipped on a banana peel and I didn’t notice because I was too worried what others were thinking of me”.
THE EFFECT: You start to train your brain with some pretty critical messages: It’s not all about you. Your perception of what others think about you is probably not the reality of what others think about you. You are entitled to speak your mind, as long as you do so appropriately.
We at BHC Assessment and Consulting hope this helps, whether you’re passive aggressive, or have to deal with someone who is!