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?