Passive-aggressive behavior is a way to convey anger and upset to someone indirectly. It takes the form of comments that are meant to hurt, but hard to spot as hurtful.
Passive-aggressive comments are forms of poisonous communication that can erode love and connection.
(The following podcast transcript has been modified for easier readability and to benefit the Deaf and hard of hearing)
I got an email that I want to read parts of to help this person through a family matter. He says My question is about my relationship with my parents. I’ve had a lot of disagreements with them over time. They can be very negative and passive-aggressive. I don’t believe they are intentionally doing it. But it happens quite often.
When I talk to them on the phone, I have to actively manage the conversation, or else my parents will start talking about very negative things, sometimes about people. Other times they can be very kind. One night at a dinner. celebrating something that I accomplished, my mom was giving a toast and she said she was very proud of me, but then sarcastically said, even though it took you a few times.
Everyone laughed. But to me, it didn’t feel great. So my question is, what do I do about this? Is there anything I can do? They can be good parents, so I want them in my life. And there doesn’t seem to be an obvious answer, like going “no contact”.
I’ve had a lot of experience with anxiety and depression, and I feel like this kind of stuff is the cause of it. It sucks because I hate being defensive around my own family. And I feel it has spilled over into my life as a whole. Maybe I should tough it out. I’m not really sure. I really appreciate any help and advice with this. Thanks.
Thank you so much for writing this. I’m going to call you Matt so I can have something to call you here. Matt, you’re not alone. You’re not the only person that has had to deal with relatives family, and especially parents that this can often happen, where they are negative, although what you’re describing doesn’t sound as bad as some of the stuff I’ve heard, you know, with really narcissistic parents or really emotionally abusive parents.
What it sounds like you’re getting is probably along the lines of what I’ve experienced in my life, which is the passive-aggressive tendencies and the negativity of someone who might be repressing things in their own lives.
With your mom, for example, saying what she said, there’s probably a lot under that statement. Like she said, even though it took you a few times, or even though it took him a few times. There’s probably a lot under that statement. Like, if you were to ask her, What did you mean by that?
That would be a good starting question. You know, because you probably have emotions about it, and they’re probably built up and pent up emotions that have been building up over the years, but it’s better to start off with some curiosity. Like, Hmm, I wonder what she meant by that? What do you mean by a few times?
I mean, you probably know what she meant. But you could ask her that question just to find out her answer. She might say, Well, you know, you, you tried to accomplish it at first, then you failed, and then you tried it. Again, she might say something like that, it may be very matter of fact. But because this is one time out of many, that compound effect of her doing this over and over again, you’re going to have a lot more negative energy behind it than she might.
Now what I mean by that is that she might feel like there’s something that she wants to say to you, but she doesn’t. And this is where passive-aggressiveness comes in, is that we feel like we want to say something or we know we want to say something to someone, and yet we choose not to, and we take the passive route.
I’m going to be aggressive in a passive way to get my point across, but I don’t want to be confrontational, so I’m going to present it in this way. So instead of saying something like, You know, I was really disappointed in you… I mean, not saying that she feels this way but this could be an example of passive-aggressive behavior. Someone who could say, I’m really disappointed in you, I wish you had tried harder. I wish you had done your job well.
Instead of saying something like that, they come across and say something like, Oh, look, the project isn’t done. What a surprise, you know, something like that, that can be very passive-aggressive. And how does that feel when you hear something like that?
It doesn’t feel very good. Because in your mind, you’re probably going Yeah, I know what you’re saying. I know what you’re trying to convey here. And it’s not very nice, and it doesn’t feel very good when you do that.
Yes, you could say this. You could actually say this to the person being passive-aggressive towards you: You know, when you said that, it didn’t feel very good. It felt like you were putting me down.
That is, that is one approach that you could approach this in a very direct way. And you don’t even have to say Look, you’re always doing this to me. You can just address it as it happens. So you know, Let’s wipe out the past. Not easy to do, but let’s just wipe out the past and, and not base what we’re going to say on that moment.
When the moment comes, just base what you’re going to talk about on that moment, not the 50, or 100, or 5000 times it happened before, because now you’re making the choice to be direct. Now you’re telling yourself, I’m going to adjust this as it comes up, because I don’t want to have to deal with it anymore. I don’t want to have to face this and have to swallow my anger or try to say something witty or clever just to get through the moment myself because they’re being passive, now I’ll be a passive-reactionary like I’ll react passively. I’m just making these terms up. What I want to do is address this as time goes on, so it will minimize and hopefully diminish and dissolve so I don’t have to deal with this anymore. And they understand that it actually is hurtful to me.
I can do this by addressing it directly: Hey, Mom, when you said that, what did you mean by that?
Logically, you may know what she meant. Well, she meant that she was addressing the other times I failed or didn’t succeed, or whatever term she uses. She’s addressing all the other times that I didn’t do well, or, you know, you could interpret it in any way you want. And you may or may not be right.
But that’s not the point. The point is now, to put her in the spotlight. Sounds a little bit harsh. But what we want to do is if you want to get rid of passive-aggressive behavior, you need to be active and direct. And it doesn’t mean you have to be a jerk. It doesn’t mean I mean, not that you would be to be direct and confront this, but it doesn’t mean you have to be confrontational. It just means you’re curious. You approach this with curiosity.
I like to say that you approach it with morbid fascination like you are just so darn curious, you have to know. That way you get out of the negative space. And you get into more of an observation and that curious space and you’re curious about what you’re observing. And you are inquisitive about what you’re observing.
You take this on, instead of I can’t believe she just said that about me. She did it again. And now I’m angry about it.
If you take your old reactionary feelings and thoughts out of the equation, and instead put yourself in a curious mode and the inquisitive mode, the observation mode, then you can approach her as if this is the first time you’ve ever heard her or anyone that you’re dealing with do this to you.
When you hear someone being passive-aggressive, you become observant, curious, and inquisitive. You ask them, Hey, what did you mean by that? They’re going to give you an answer, and this answer is going to be either revealing or not. They may even be flippant about it or apathetic about it. Like, really, you’re that sensitive to it, I was just joking.
I’m sure that’s gonna happen to a lot of people when they do this. But this is what can happen. But that’s not where it ends. You just start off saying, What did you mean by that? And then the next question is, Did you know that by saying that it really hurt my feelings?
This is going to reveal something a little deeper going on. It not only allows you to express yourself, but it’s also not accusing. You know, you’re being passively direct. You’re expressing but you’re not accusing. You’re asking if they knew that what they did hurt you.
Did you know that what you said hurt me? It hurt my feelings. It made me feel small. It made me feel like you didn’t like me or that you were upset with me. You know, be serious about this. But don’t jump down their throat because you want to have a real conversation without people getting defensive.
How do you do that? You stay inquisitive. You stay curious, you stay in a space of I just want to know more. I just want to know more of your thought process of why you went there. And you may know why they went there. I mean, we probably do know a lot of the times why someone’s being passive-aggressive, but maybe not. Maybe there’s something else going on in their life. Maybe it has nothing to do with you.
You know, some people are brought up and they repress a lot of negative energy. Then they have families and they have relationships, and they pull out all this repressed negative energy in different ways, and it comes out toward the people they love. The people they love are like, What? I didn’t deserve that. What was that about?
To them, it’s just normal behavior, because that’s how they behaved for so long, that they didn’t even know they were mistreating you. I was passive-aggressive for a long time, a long period of my life. When I started being aware of it, I started catching myself. And when it happened, I would stop myself before I said something, or immediately after I said something, I would reflect on it and say, Wait, wait, wait, why did I do that? I would ask myself, why did I just do that? What was I trying to accomplish there? I was being passive-aggressive. Why wouldn’t I have been more direct in that moment?
I like to ask myself these questions when I catch myself doing something like that so that I don’t keep bad behaviors or old, unhealthy patterns. This happens, we get stuck in these old unhealthy thought patterns and behaviors that don’t serve us that don’t serve anyone else and that we don’t realize how damaging they can be.
You’ve been dealing with this for a long time, so you’re feeling the long term damage of someone being passive-aggressive towards you or negative in general. So the fact that your mom and dad may not know they’re being passive-aggressive may not know that their behavior is damaging tells you that maybe it’s really not about you, it’s just something that they have not been able to address and maybe heal inside themselves. This is why it’s important to approach this with observation, curiosity, and inquisitiveness.
When you do that, you’re going to be able to open a conversation without someone getting too defensive. Now, here’s the flip side of this, you approach it in the way I’m saying, and they still get defensive. When this happens, there’s probably a lot more going on inside there, that they’re not willing to visit or express, and the closer you get to that, the more defensive they get.
You know, someone was traumatized when they were a child, and they were brought up to believe certain things about themselves or about other people, or they’re just brought up with a general negativity about them, then they may have a lot of upset anger, stuff inside them, that hasn’t been able to be released, and touching upon that by talking about it, by bringing it up, could make them very fearful. When they’re fearful, they may get very defensive. Then they may put you down: Why you’re just so sensitive, I can’t believe I have to explain myself to you. You’re just too sensitive, and you just need to get over it.
They may get like that, now you know that there’s something more going on, there’s some big thing going on inside them. But I want you to make it not about you. When you hear someone’s bigger defensive reaction like that. It’s more and more about them than anything about you.
This is important because you know, your self worth and your self-esteem can be greatly affected. If you make their behavior about you. It’s not about you. It’s about how they’ve handled life all these years. It’s about how they’ve learned and healed through things or if they didn’t.
Imagine if you were traumatized as a child and you never healed from it, and you just decided to repress it. And now you’re in adult relationships and you’re carrying around old trauma, old, unhealed trauma. When you carry that stuff around, you’re going to show up in the world is toxic. I mean, not always, when you can, you’re going to show up in the world in a different way that may not serve you or others. When you do that, you may not develop the healthiest relationships and you probably won’t have a healthy relationship with yourself.
Other behaviors will spring up and make your relationships not as happy or satisfying or fulfilling as they could be. This is what happens when we don’t heal from old stuff that happened in our past – that we just carried into other relationships, we carry it out through our behavior, and other people are inadvertently indirectly or directly hurt. And sometimes we don’t know it.
Just like I carried judgment around for a long time, judging my romantic partners every time I got into a relationship so that they felt unsafe around me. But to me, it wasn’t hurting them, it was helping them. I truly believed judging them and telling them what they needed to do to better in life was helping them. That was my messed up thought process at the time.
When I was able to get past the judgments, when I was able to understand that my judgments were a method of controlling people to fit them into an environment that I wanted to create, instead of accepting people for who they are and adapting to my environment, then I realized that No wonder the women in my life kept breaking up with me or divorcing me. No wonder I was never happy because I would never be happy until everyone did exactly what I wanted them to do.
Of course, that doesn’t lead to happiness. But where does that come from? That comes from an old, dysfunctional upbringing that I never got past. And until I realized that I couldn’t heal from it. This is important to understand that a lot of people walk around like this. Your parents probably walk around like this (I mean, the person who wrote the letter, maybe not your parents, somebody else who’s listening), but a lot of people walk around like this and until they understand what they need to heal and grow and learn from, then they may not have the tools necessary to show up in a way that is healthy.
They may not know they’re unhealthy and some people aren’t unhealthy. Just because you have trauma doesn’t mean you’re unhealthy; doesn’t mean you aren’t doing the best you can and showing up the best way you can. There’s a lot of people that have had some sort of trauma or neglect or just bad situations that have shown up in their life that caused them to be more self-protective, that show up today and they’re okay.
They have stuff to deal with and they’re not toxic to other people. It’s just that when you get toxic toward other people, you either A: Know about it and don’t care. B: Don’t know about it, and don’t care, or C: Know about it in care, but can’t really stop yourself because you don’t have the tools or the resources to help you through it.
That’s where shows like this come in and self-help and therapy and coaching all the things we do to try to help ourselves. But when we still haven’t gotten the answers we need, then it stays with us. This is why it’s important, I believe, that when you see someone having a reaction that just seems a little bit exaggerated, like, Whoa, that was a big reaction. You have to get back into your inquisitive observation and curious state so that you don’t become activated as well, then exacerbate the defensiveness and the negative energy that’s building up around that situation. With you Matt, the questions are the most important because you want to find out if they even know they’re hurting you.
Now you may get well that’s too bad if you’re hurt that I didn’t mean anything by it. You might get an answer like that. So the next thing to tell them is Well, now that you know it hurts me, will you please do your best to not say things like that again?
Depending on the answer they give you, the next question is, Well, now that you know, it hurts me, can you please do your best to not try to do that again? Now, again, they may be flippant. They may say something like, Pfft, whatever I’ll try. Which you know, that’s probably not what you want to hear. But if their behavior changes after that, that’s good.
But if they’re still passive-aggressive after that, and you’re at some function, and your mom or dad says something in front of other people, like, Well, Matt told me not to say anything about it so I guess I won’t. I mean, there’s some passive-aggressive right there as well. Now you’re noticing that they want to say something else, but now they’re being passive-aggressive about you, about what you said, and you’re going to have to get right back into that space again and ask, Hey, did you know that you were just passive-aggressive again? Did you know that what you just said hurt as well? Because I told you that in confidence, I told you that in hopes that you would understand that those kinds of words hurt me.
Now you don’t have to use the words I’m using. I’m just helping you understand a philosophy behind the approach when it comes to passive-aggressive people because you want them to know what they’re doing. A good approach to do that is to be inquisitive, to be curious so that you aren’t confrontational.
Now, that doesn’t mean you can’t be confrontational. You know, I tend to gravitate in between both ways of being. I tend to gravitate in between, Hey, did you know what you just said is very disrespectful, and I would appreciate it if you wouldn’t say that again. I’m pretty much more direct like that because I know I have earned respect. I know I have earned kindness and support. I know I’ve earned these things. It’s not from an egotistical point of view. It’s from a Hey, I’m showing up the best way I can and I’m treating you the best way I can.
I’m not being underhanded in my comments about you. I’m not being passive-aggressive. I’m as honest as I can be with you. I deserve the same treatment back. I would much rather my girlfriend say to me, Hey, you know, when you said you’d do the dishes and you didn’t that really upset me.
I would rather have her say that than anything close to Oh, the dishes still aren’t done, I guess we’ll be eating off the floor. She’s never said anything like that. But she might have come close a couple of times, but not about dishes.
The point is, that it’s so much easier to get it on the table, let’s talk about it, let’s hash it out. Not that you’re gonna fight about it or argue. But with some people, you know, you take that approach that I started off with you just take a more passive, inquisitive approach, because you want to find out where they are. That’s all I’m saying. Find out where they are. Then when you find out where they are, you’ll have more information at your disposal instead of interpreting what’s going on instead of making assumptions about what’s going on.
If you want to take the more passive, non-confrontational approach, you want to have as much data as possible, not so that you have an arsenal to attack them with, but so that they’re aware of what they’re doing so that they figure out, it’s self-discovery. They discover what they’re doing on their own, just by providing them data.
One of those data points is, Hey, did you know what you said just hurt me? They can absorb that. They can now make a choice based on that. Because someone who cares about you, someone who loves you, someone who wants the best for you, is going to think to themselves, I don’t want to hurt him. I don’t want to hurt her. I never want to come across like that to that person. I love this person.
Someone who really wants the best for you and cares about you is going to get into that space. Someone who’s highly defensive because of old traumas, unhealed, emotional wounds, whatever it is, they may not be able to get into that space. Maybe not now, maybe not ever until they address that stuff inside of them. This is why sometimes this more passive, inquisitive approach helps them take the next step deeper into their own psyche into their own emotional stuff.
Instead of you just coming up and saying, Hey, don’t be passive-aggressive, that’s mean… Again, you can say that and more power to you, that’s fine. I like to be somewhere in the middle, where I’m productive, or I’m helping them realize that what they said is hurtful. And hopefully that they will hear this information and make a different decision next time.
This is tough if you’re dealing with relatives who have treated you a certain way all your life to suddenly appear to them as different, as someone who doesn’t mind bringing a subject matter up for conversation, not to throw it in their face, but just to let them know Hey, what you’re doing is making me feel this way. They may not be used to that.
I’ve been through this, it’s very difficult to get past your own stuff when it comes to addressing this with family members. It is, it’s difficult to get past your own stuff. But once you are able to feel confident in yourself and know that you are more worthy than they’re treating you, you are more significant, you are more important, you are more valuable, and you deserve respect, you deserve kindness, you deserve to be treated as you treat others. Once you really align with that, you’ll have no problem standing up and saying, Hey, what you did was very disrespectful. Could you please not do that again?
Yeah, no problem. But you know, it takes some time to get there. We’ll be right back.
I’m gonna address one more item that I didn’t address in the last segment when it comes to dealing with passive-aggressive or negative people. With Matt’s email, he said something that his mom or I think his parents, they can tend to be negative in general. So maybe not passive-aggressive toward him but just negative people.
For example, she might say I saw your cousin yesterday. I don’t know how her husband puts up with her. She’s always complaining. She might say something along those lines. You can hear the negativity, but this is your opportunity to be in that observation space. When you hear the negativity starting, I want you to think of it as a hook. You know, it’s gonna hook you it’s gonna draw your attention to it. You hear the hook, you are drawn into what the person is saying and you think to yourself, Oh, this is where the negativity starts. Okay, now I have to be observant. Now I have to be aware. Now I have to be out of my old reactionary state. And I’m going to be more present, more focused on my task, my mission.
My mission is to focus on the negativity, but don’t say Oh, you’re always complaining about that. When are you going to stop complaining that? You don’t become reactionary? What I want you to do at this point, or at least what you can try is to focus on the person’s emotional state about what they’re talking about.
For example, for Matt, his mom says, I don’t know how her husband puts up with her. She’s always complaining. If Matt is being observant and inquisitive and wants to stay out of reaction mode and actually wants to find a way to get past this negativity, and maybe even minimize it for the future, it is to bring the attention back on the emotional state of the person, in this case, his mom.
In other words, what he’s doing is sort of putting her on the spot. And what I mean by that is, what he could do is ask her Well, how did that make you feel? Not only does this satisfy the person that might be complaining that someone’s actually listening to them, but it does something a little bit in the opposite direction that the person that’s complaining may not want to do, which is address their emotional state in a way that is a little bit revealing, a little bit too connected, a little bit too deep.
If you are able to succeed, and they’re able to connect with their emotional state at a deeper level, then that can be helpful to them. It’s also a success if they don’t want to connect at that deeper emotional place because they’re not going to want to be negative around you for too long if you keep asking about their emotional state. And I think I said this in last week’s episode or the week before so if this sounds familiar, this is very much the same thing, is that you put someone in a place of introspection and reflection.
People who often complain, who are often negative, don’t want to go inside, they want it to be external. They want their complaints, their negative energy to be outside of them, and they want everyone to know about it. You know, many people that complain, not everyone, but a lot of people want their negativity to be known.
Instead of dealing with their emotional state about what they’re upset about, they just express it to either get attention or want agreement or whatever their reason, but for you to put them on the spot and say, Oh, you’re upset about my cousin complaining? How does that make you feel?
You might get an answer like, Oh, it’s just ridiculous. It makes me feel like their marriage is falling apart, which really isn’t a feeling, but then you could follow up and ask the question, Are you upset by that? Are you angry about that?
Start to dive in a little bit, start to drill down and see how far they go with it. Because many people who complain, don’t want to dive into themselves. When you start doing it and start bringing them there, they’re not going to like it. This is my experience and my prediction, they’re not going to like it. And because they don’t like it, they’ll probably be less and less negative around you more often, because every time they’re negative around you, they have to address their own feelings. And that might be too tough for them. So they might, they might start changing their behavior around you.
But it does take you to have the wherewithal and the presence of mind to be in that space where you’re not getting offended or defensive, you’re not going into a place of, Oh, there she goes again or There he goes again, and then you’re getting riled up. It’s almost like you’re watching a science experiment, and you’re testing stimuli. You’re testing their reaction to stimuli.
I realize that almost sounds a little manipulative. It sounds like you’re influencing them in some way. To a certain extent, you may be, and I’m not saying that you should do this. I’m saying that if it’s always negative, and it’s very hard to be around the person, and you’d like to spend time with the person as Matt did in his email, he wants to spend time with his parents, but he just can’t stand to be around the negativity all the time. Yes, he could be more resilient and hang out with them and just accept that who they are and that’s who they’ll always be, absolutely, I endorse that as well. If you can become accepting then that is an enlightened point of view. And you just look at someone and say that’s who they are. And that’s who they’ll always be.
But I don’t think it’s unethical to ask people about their feelings. In fact, I think it’s compassion and empathetic, to say, Oh really? How does that make you feel? Even though one of the outcomes of doing that might be them feeling less and less comfortable around you, at least sharing that negativity with you.
I want you to use your own judgment here, I want you to use your own moral compass, your ethical compass, and tell you what the best direction to go is. I personally have no problem using this what I might call, strategy, I have no problem asking someone to connect with their emotional state about it. Because quite frankly, I think that’s a great way to communicate anyway. I think that’s a great way to communicate with anyone. So that’s why I’m sharing this with you. In case it comes in handy for someone in your life.
If you know someone that complains a lot, and that’s all they do. Maybe it is time they do face their own emotions and figure something out in themselves because maybe they’re kind of miserable inside. And if that’s the case, I think they would be happier if they weren’t so miserable. Kind of makes sense.
Just to kind of wrap up what I was talking about today about the negativity of others, the toxicity of others sometimes, being around certain people, you hope that they eventually change. Like one of the techniques I talked about is moving them toward change by helping them connect with themselves at a deeper level.
But what if they don’t? What if they never change? What if that is who they are? Who are you going to be from that point on? This is something I was reading one of my old blog posts or one of my old transcripts from an episode I did a long time ago. I was saying that people continue showing up in your life in the same way each and every time, not because they are not changing, although that is, of course, a big part of it, but because you haven’t learned what you needed to learn.
I’m not saying that’s 100% true. But if you think about it in terms of this, if you think about the people that show up in your life that drive you crazy, that if you showed up differently, would they continue to be the same pain in the butt? Would they continue to show up in the same way if something changed about you?
That doesn’t mean you become accepting and resilient and tolerant. I mean, acceptance is a big part of it, yes, because if you accept that you can’t change them and that they’ll never change, you do have to reach a new level with that. But what would happen if you decided to respond differently.
For example, when my stepfather showed up and I had to honor my boundaries with him for the first time ever, that changed my life. That changed our relationship. That changed how he showed up in my life. For those that don’t know the story, he showed up at my mom’s doorstep. He was an abusive alcoholic husband and stepfather and father to our family for 40, over 40 years, and then they finally got divorced. And then suddenly, I’m at my mom’s house one day and he shows up. And I regressed into that scared little child that used to allow him to do anything he wanted.
I felt that coming on inside of me. For the first time, I decided to make a different choice. I decided to choose to stand up to him. Not be a jerk, but just say I’m sorry, you’re not allowed in. You’re not allowed in this house. That was so hard to do. That was so Scary. That was the biggest leap of faith I’ve ever taken. I was just waiting for him to punch me out or push through or something.
But he didn’t. He shrugged his shoulders and said, Okay, and then walked away. It surprised me. There’s more to that story. But for the most part, that’s what happened. Because I made a different decision that day, he showed up differently in my life. In fact, he didn’t show up anymore. His presence in my life became very minimal. Not because he changed, he was the same person. I changed. I decided to take a different road that day.
When you decide to take a different road, and it usually involves honoring yourself, it usually involves aligning with what’s best for you usually involves caring for yourself and/or those you love. When you make a different decision, the people that have been bothering you for months, years, or all your life, suddenly show up differently or not at all.
I know it’s a big complicated discussion to have and there are definitely a lot of variables involved there. But think about that, how else can you show up in other people’s lives, so that you’re not there to change them, you’re just there to heal from whatever you need to heal from, and grow beyond where you’ve been? So the way they show up if they do at all, doesn’t bother you anymore. Because you have no problem honoring yourself, you have no problem stepping into that self-worth, knowing you deserve to be treated, kindly.