Most of us have at least one passive-aggressive person in our life. Maybe it’s a mother who nitpicks and criticizes everything we do, or a co-worker who uses sarcasm to cut us down, or a micromanaging boss who drops hints but never tells us directly that we’re not doing a good job. Just being around a passive-aggressive person can harm one’s mental health.
How can you deal with passive-aggressive people?
There are a few things you should know about passive aggression: First, it is a form of anger. Your passive-aggressive mother, co-worker, and/or boss are deeply angry people. They’re just as angry as a person who screams or throws things, but they have a different way of showing it. Passive-aggressive people are often terrified of confrontation, so they couch their anger with smiles. Some may not be self-aware enough to realize they’re angry, but their anger, bitterness, or frustration lies just under the surface.
As a marriage and family therapist in Santa Monica, I treat many people with passive-aggressive anger issues. I sometimes see their partners as well. It’s those individuals, who have to deal with a passive-aggressive person, day after day, who often need the most help, one, because the passive-aggressiveness is hurting them, and, two, because they’re likely enabling the behavior.
It takes two people to support a passive-aggressive relationship. To stop the cycle, try these five steps:
1. Hold them accountable.
When you fail to hold a passive-aggressive person accountable for their actions, you unintentionally perpetuate their behavior. If you’re a people-pleaser, this is especially devastating: You want to make everyone happy, and you don’t like confrontation or conflict, so you absorb all kinds of subtle emotional abuse. Stop blaming yourself or making excuses for others; you are not responsible for the damaging way a passive-aggressive person shows their anger.
2. Stop apologizing.
Unless you did something wrong, don’t apologize. Especially don’t apologize if they refuse to be direct and tell you what they feel you’ve done wrong. If your boss says, “Leaving early again today?” every time you go home before 5:30 but is never straightforward about wanting you to work later, don’t apologize or make an excuse. Be upfront and ask if you need to stay late. It may be that he or she really does need you at work later, but it also may be that the boss just wants you to feel guilty because that makes them feel more in control.
3. Put your needs first.
Forcing other people to put their needs first is a skill many passive-aggressive people have. They prefer eating late, so all dinner parties must begin after 8 p.m. They only like gin and tonics, so you must always have tonic in the fridge, even when no one else drinks it. Don’t give in to their demands: If they like to eat late, but you’ve got kids with an early bedtime, they don’t have to come. That may sound harsh, but the passive-aggressive behavior is often more about asserting control than about a genuine preference. You need to stand your ground or risk getting walked over.
4. Don’t play the game.
While terrified of their own anger, passive-aggressive people are often OK triggering someone else’s. The wrong way to handle this is to blow up at them or to respond with passive aggression of your own. If you do, they win. Still, it can be hard to manage your emotions when dealing with someone who upsets you so much. As much as you can, limit the amount of time you spend around the person. When you’re together, if you feel yourself getting angry, take slow, deep breaths to calm down and momentarily remove yourself from the situation.
5. Confront the issue.
Eventually, you may have to confront the passive-aggressive person about their behavior. This conversation will take preparation. Don’t jump right into it the next time you’re angry; your health and happiness is the goal, not scoring points. That’s why you shouldn’t start by accusing them of being passive-aggressive. They are, but they’re not going to respond well to hearing it from you. Instead, be specific about what it is they say or do that upsets you. Tell them how it makes you feel, and be clear about the consequences if they don’t stop. If you tell them what bothers you, they keep doing it, and you let them, their behavior will get worse.
The best thing you can do when dealing with passive-aggressiveness is not to let it get under your skin.
Every time someone uses passive aggression to try to upset you, remind yourself that under their anger lies deep unhappiness. The happier you are with your life, the easier it will be to see them for what they are: sad. Next time your co-worker makes a snide comment about what you’re wearing, turn your anger to feelings of pity and rise above it.