passive-aggressive blogpost

It’s not what you think.

I’m not writing this blogpost as a comment on anyone else. It’s not a guilt trip. It probably won’t even be lucid, so it’s hard to imagine it’ll be planned out and malicious in intent.

I’m perplexed by the concept of ‘passive-aggressive’.

In full disclosure, I probably engage in passive-aggressive behaviors. I’ve been called that on occasion, and when I examine my behavior, I do err on the side of avoiding direct conflict (more on that in a bit). If I start overthinking, which I am prone to do, I’ll start wondering if maybe this blogpost is, in fact, passive-aggressive. I will then tie myself into emotional pretzel knots and apologize profusely and delete it if anyone ends up challenging me on it —I’ve been through therapy for it, and it’s a pattern.

‘Passive-aggressive’ as a descriptor started life in a technical document from the US War Department during World War II (click for link to an interesting source article). A Colonel Menninger mentioned how, although soldiers weren’t defiant per se, they seemed to be engaging in behaviors that were counterproductive for the people in charge. Listed were “passive measures, such as pouting, stubbornness, procrastination, inefficiency, and passive obstructionism.” In the beginning, passive-aggressive behavior was something that was used to describe the behavior of service members lower down the chain of command that were interfering with the efficiency of the plans of those higher up the chain who weren’t necessarily being put in immediate danger. After World War II, it was added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the first DSM) and made available to the wider community who happened to come into contact with psychologists and psychiatrists. From there, it entered popular culture, with a tendency to be applied to groups who were dissatisfied with their station but who felt they couldn’t do anything about it.

I knew none of that information before I started writing that paragraph. I didn’t set out to be passive-aggressive, but I’m beginning to feel cynical. The behaviors originally described as ‘passive-aggressive’ served the purpose of men in combat not wanting to die but also not being allowed to directly challenge orders.

There are many reasons to avoid conflict, the main one being you can get hurt —killed even.

Personally, I’ve done a lot of thinking about the concept of being passive-aggressive because, as I’ve said, I’ve received that label before. What I’ve noticed is, when I think about the behaviors mentioned, I have the benefit of knowing what’s going on in my own head —other people might not. Here are the reasons I have behaved in ways that might be characterized as ‘passive-aggressive’:

  • Work: I need to get along and maintain working relationships. I will advocate for myself directly, but what comes up is that people are not satisfied with what I have to say (no, I cannot cure your child) or there are rules which are actually codified into law. I am professional. I try to avoid drama because the job is hard enough as it is. Not everything is personal.

  • Personal: I need to get along and maintain personal relationships. I am an avoidant personality —not to pathologize it, but I am. I need to do a better job about advocating for myself directly. I am doing better, but it requires effort.

Sometimes, I am genuinely trying to not lose my shit because I value the relationship —me losing my shit looks very, very scary. I get over things quickly but have an explosive temper. In this case, I go passive in order to avoid becoming aggressive.

Sometimes, I’m not certain how I feel about things until later, when I realize I was angry.

Sometimes, I’m trying to give the other person the benefit of the doubt.

Sometimes, I know from experience what I’m saying won’t be received at all, so why bother trying?

Sometimes, it takes me a while to process what’s happening and what was said.

Sometimes, I’m just biding my time to get out of the situation and it doesn’t feel like it’s worth the effort to become angry or try to salvage the interaction.

Sometimes, I am genuinely trying to be okay with what is going on because I understand I might be overreacting or irrational (I can decide this for myself, but lord help you if you decide that for me!).

If I’m in a situation with a stranger, I don’t know what they’re bringing to the table, and is it worth it to find out? Violence bad.

These are all I could come up with. Maybe there are more?

What do you think?

ten words

I went on and on the other day about doing a values sort (link here, if you’re interested in trying one), and I’ve finally done it. It took a nice long hike uphill for about two miles, and then the hike downhill, also for two miles, and then a bit of time beyond that. Now things seem much clearer in my head. Must’ve been the elevation gain.

Some people feel comfortable about sharing what they think, and some people feel their values or whatever they come up with are too personal to share. I fall into the first category. I will talk to literally anybody about anything (except small talk), so why not? If anything, putting my choices into words helps me clarify what I’m thinking. Why share it? Why not? I tend to err on the side of making things explicit (not that way, pervert —I mean that I point out the seemingly obvious and the stuff no one really seems to care about or pay attention to!), and it’s modeling how to do it, anyway. I genuinely think this stuff helps people to clear up what it is they really want. For me, it helped me get less down on myself —could write an essay on that, but won’t. I will talk my way through the thinking.

Here goes:

  1. Hope. I’ve always been a bit of a nihilist. It’s really no fun. Over the past years, and especially since my cancer diagnosis in 2012, I no longer have any desire to hurry toward the end. I’m here for the duration —now what? Hope. It’s as likely going forward as anything else, particularly if you don’t give into fear and cynicism along the way. [N.B.: If you come at me with fatalist-cynical stuff, I will likely get viscerally pissed off at you. Character flaw, maybe, but it tells me that it really matters to me.]

  2. Balance. For the past couple of years, I’ve realized that any pronouncement I want to make about something, with very few exceptions, I come up with a reason when it also doesn’t hold. Same thing for character traits—honesty is good but don’t want to be too honest, bravery is good but you have to be wise, etc. I used to think it meant I didn’t have the courage of my convictions, but it doesn’t mean that at all. I believe that there is very little in this world that is pure anything. Also, all work and no play makes Agnes a very dull girl indeed.

  3. Curiosity. Not of the cat-killing variety. If you don’t know something, I think it’s very important to wonder about it —in fact, it’s very important to wonder about what you think you know, too. It’s important to wonder about people rather than make assumptions about them. Which brings us to …

  4. Growth. I read something recently about growth being the driving principle of the cancer cell, but I would say I do not value that kind of growth. I value the kind of growth that maximizes what someone has. Learning fits in there; so does trying new things. I think it’s very important that we not stagnate because the rest of the world is always rolling forwards. We should probably rise to meet it.

  5. Collaboration. I want to be a person who doesn’t need people. I am a person who does need some distance from people, but I’ve come to realize, it’s in short bursts. A little solitude is good. I also don’t like being around people just to be around them —been there, done that, and it sucks. I really, really, really enjoy spending time with likeminded people and working towards something —anything —be it a pot of chili or a short story or finding ways to make the world a better place (in very small ways). I love collaboration to the point where, at least artistically (she says, extending her pinky, la dee dah), I prefer to leave open endings and work unfinished so that the person reading/looking at it can finish it themselves. It interests me that people would 1) come up with something different from me and 2) come up with something different from each other. I don’t think I have all the answers —I love hearing what other people think.

  6. Health. The one I forget about often, but when I don’t have it, boy, do I feel it. Cancer makes you think about health a lot, obviously, but that’s not the only time it comes up. I like when my body and mind feel well. I try to maintain my health as best I can so I can do things like grow as a human being and do what I want to do in this life. I exercise; I think about what I eat and drink; I am working on finding more balance in how I do things (because health and balance are closely intertwined). I’d like my life here to be as pain-free as possible. Health! What’s the saying? If you haven’t got your health, what have you got?

  7. Acceptance. Really not great at this one, and I need to get better at it, but I’m better than I used to be. I need to accept who I am. Who am I? No idea, and it would take me a lifetime —possibly two —to figure it out. This is maddening to some people. I need to be okay with that. I also need to be accepting of the things I cannot change (hello, serenity prayer …) and of other people who may or may not change. I need to be accepting of situations, personalities, evidence, and other things. I tend to want things the way I want them. When they don’t turn out that way, I take it very hard. I’m learning to shrug and move on.

  8. Creativity. I cannot not create. Can’t. Tried. I’m the girl who doodles, I’m the girl who can’t get a toilet paper roll without turning it into Jaws (I’m not kidding). Most of my professional life has been making materials that don’t exist because a kid needs them. I’m a fly-by-the-seat of my pants kind of girl, and I like (and accept) this about myself. I’m an artistic problem solver!

  9. Joy. Not happiness. Not fun. Not humor. Maybe it’s too much Marie Kondo in the ether, but the word ‘joy’ seems more appropriate. I’m not always a happy person —I see too much of the world for that to be a regular state of affairs. I seem to have lost my capacity for fun and humor, but hope to have them surgically reimplanted at some point. Joy, though? Even at my worst, I have never lost my capacity for joy. I’m the kind of person who can sit and watch a spider spin a web for hours, and I’m the kind of person who feels genuinely joyful when people have successes in areas where I’ve had failures. It’s really important, joy, particularly for maintaining hope. Good stuff. And last but not least …

  10. Compassion. I’m not perfect and neither are you, so until the time comes that one of us is perfect, compassion is necessary. And it’s compassion for everyone else and for myself. That “for myself” part is new —it really wasn’t until recently that I realized I too have a need for compassion, and sometimes, I’m the only one who is considering that need. Compassion is necessary in a civil society (which I hope we have very soon). I imagine what world I want my son living in when I’m gone; I try to conduct myself in such a way that I would want someone to treat him if he were having a hard time. At the same time, I’m trying to acknowledge that I myself need breaks & support. I’m learning. I hope I learn it soon because it’s really hard!

And that’s the thought process behind a value sort. There is no right way to do it, but that’s an example of one way it can be done. I highly recommend it, if for no other reason than to figure out what’s important to you. Even if you think you know, it clarifies it.

And good luck.