When Passive-Aggression isn’t Very Passive

Often when someone says that another person is being “passive-aggressive,” they really mean something else. Let’s clarify just what passive-aggression is — and what it isn’t — with the help of a framework for understanding human aggression in general.

Passive-aggression (or passive-aggressive) is another of the top 5 most misunderstood and misused terms in mental health. Most of the time, when I hear someone say that another person is being “passive-aggressive,” they really mean something else (more about that in just a bit). But in order to clarify just what passive-aggression is — and what it isn’t — it’s helpful to set a framework for understanding human aggression in general.

Aggression is the forceful energy we all expend to survive and prosper, and it usually involves attempting to secure a desired goal, to remove obstacles in the way of achieving those goals, or to remove perceived threats to our well-being. Our language reflects our deep-seated awareness of the true nature of aggression when we say things like “If you want something, you have to fight for it” or when we encourage those who are sick or infirm to rally their resources and do battle with their cancers, infections, other diseases, etc. Humans have always done a lot of fighting. It’s a big part of life.

When we’re not making some kind of love, we’re generally waging some kind of war.

How we fight is another matter. It’s too bad that traditional psychology paradigms have overly focused on how and why people “run” and are often either too silent or too inaccurate about the numerous ways and reasons people fight. It’s also of paramount importance to realize that aggression is not synonymous with violence. The following is a very basic summary of a framework that can help conceptualize the various subtypes of human aggression.

Aggression can be undisciplined and destructive.

Aggression can also be carefully tempered with concern for the impact on others and can be potentially quite constructive in the amelioration of human misery. When people fight fairly and constructively for what they need while being careful to respect the rights, needs, and boundaries of others, their behavior is best labeled assertive.

Aggression can be purely reactive. That is, it can be a response to a sudden, unexpected threat to well-being. Reactive aggression has certain characteristics. An illustration of these characteristics would be a cat sitting on a front porch who sees the neighborhood pit bull rounding the corner. It does certain characteristic things. It arches its back. Its hair stands on end. It brandishes its claws. It hisses. It signals a willingness to fight if it must. But it doesn’t really want to fight. It’s primarily afraid and more than anything it wants the threat to go away. If the pit bull goes its merry way without approaching the cat, the episode is over. The cat will not aggress. Reactive aggression is spontaneous, rooted in fear, and “defensive” in character, and the goal is the avoidance of victimization.

Aggression can also be predatory, or as some researchers prefer, instrumental. When a cat spies a mouse in the corner of a room that it fancies for a meal, it doesn’t make noise (hiss) or arch its back. It keeps its claws retracted and stays low to the ground so as to maintain quiet and low visibility. In fact, it does nothing to signal aggression but attempts to conceal it until the moment of attack. Its aggression is not prompted by fear of the mouse but rather desire for the mouse. And it’s not prompted by anger, either (an extremely important thing for folks to remember when making presumptions about the connection between anger and aggression — the basis for most so-called anger management paradigms). Predatory or instrumental aggression is rooted purely in desire, is strictly “offensive” in character, and the goal is victimization.

Aggression can be overt. That is, it can be out in the open, without pretense, apology, or attempt to conceal.

Aggression can also be covert. That is, it can be carefully cloaked so that aggressive intent is concealed from open observation. Covert-aggression is at the heart of much interpersonal manipulation and emotional abuse. People often get conned and abused by others because they fail to spot their aggressive intentions and behaviors until after they’ve already been victimized.

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One relatively benign form of covert-aggressive is passive-aggression. Passive-aggression is, as its name suggests, aggression through passivity. It’s not answering your mate when you’re mad at him and don’t particularly want to talk to him. It’s not returning a phone call when you don’t really want to connect with the other person in the first place. It’s not so accidentally “forgetting” once again to pick up the dry cleaning the partner you’re mad at asked you to pick up. It can be a fairly powerful and frustrating strategy when carried to extremes. When Ghandi’s followers simply stood fast and would not move out of the army’s line of fire, although many perished, their “passive-resistance” eventually brought an occupying empire to its knees. Most of the time, however, passive-aggression is a relatively self-defeating strategy, especially when it comes to getting what you need in a relationship.

Most of the time, when I hear people use the terms “passive-aggressive” or “passive-aggression” what they really mean is “covert-aggression.” I usually hear the term “passive-aggressive” used incorrectly to describe the subtle, hard to detect, but yet deliberate, calculating and underhanded tactics that manipulators and other disturbed characters use to intimidate, control, deceive, and abuse others. That’s what covert-aggression is all about. Although this kind of aggression is often subtle or concealed, there’s absolutely nothing “passive” about it. It’s very active, albeit veiled, aggression.

By the way it’s also true that “passive-aggressive” personality types are radically different in character from their “covert-aggressive” (manipulative) counterparts, although the passive-aggressive personality label is also frequently misused. But that’s another post…

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