Dealing with people who exhibit passive-aggressive behavior is easily one of the most challenging aspects of our social lives. Here’s what you need to know about this annoying personality quirk and how you can handle people who express their hostility in indirect and backhanded ways.
Interacting with passive-aggressive (PA) people is something many of us are all too familiar with. As a behavior, it manifests in many different ways — some of them quite backhanded and subtle — which can make it difficult to recognize.
Simply put, passive-aggressiveness is a way of expressing hostility, albeit through typically muted, seemingly apathetic, and indirect channels of negative behavior. It can involve everything from the passive resistance of everyday social and work-related tasks (e.g. procrastination, learned helplessness, deliberate inefficiency, and forgetfulness) through to stubbornness, resentment, and contradictory behavior (e.g. appearing to be enthusiastic about something, but purposefully acting in a way that’s unhelpful and sometimes damaging).
Though no longer recognized by the American Psychological Association (APA) as a formal personality disorder (more on this later), it’s something we all have to deal with — both as something that happens to us, and as something we do to others. While it’s crucial to avoid the pathologization of every single behavior that makes us feel bad, threatened, or irritated, it’s important that we still be able to recognize PA behavior when it happens, and understand the most effective ways to deal with it.
But before we get into that, let’s take a look at the rather surprising history of this thing we call passive-aggressive behavior.
Passive-aggressive behavior was first documented during the Second World War when it was used to describe soldiers who refused to comply with their officers’ demands. A 1945 U.S. War Department memo complained about soldiers who were shirking duty through willful incompetence. These soldiers weren’t being openly defiant, noted the memo, but they were expressing their aggressiveness “by passive measures, such as pouting, stubbornness, procrastination, inefficiency, and passive obstructionism.” The War Department construed their behavior as an “immaturity” and a reaction to “routine military stress.”
Over the course of the following decade, this terminology took hold in the military medical literature — and was then passed on to the American psychology community at large. As noted by Northwestern University psychologist Christopher Lane:
Having logged the quirks of servicemen, however, psychiatrists soon began applying the same charges virtually unaltered to civilians. As it readied the first edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders for publication in 1952, the APA simply copied the relevant phrases from the military memo and gave them diagnostic codes. Indeed, it adopted the same practice for a large number of behaviors and ailments, making the temporary frustration of the U.S. War Department a basis for establishing lasting pathologies in the population at large.
So, instead of being concerned about soldiers’ disobedience, the APA applied the concept to conflicts at work and home. Psychologists began to construe struggles in the workplace or family as aggressiveness meted out “by passive measures, such as pouting, stubbornness, procrastination, inefficiency, and passive obstruction.”
The effect of this was more sinister than it might appear on first glance. The APA was turning fairly common behaviors into actual disorders of personality; “reactions” to many conflicts were defined as symptoms of “personality,” which were in turn assessed as being pathologic. As Lane explains, the
APA soon broadcast that the businessman or housewife with a “passive aggressive personality” revealed a pathologic “trait disturbance.” Marking a clear deviation from normalcy, their behavior was thus a syndrome that might recur if left untreated. The APA was not simply overdramatizing routine behaviors; it was relabeling them malfunctions of biology and neurology, the direction in which American psychiatry overall was heading.
By DSM II, published in 1968, the APA was defining mental illnesses as lifelong conditions that were independent of the contexts in which bad ‘traits’ were surfacing. Such behaviors were considered maladaptive, and psychologists took the stance these conditions should be treated. Adding insult to injury, the second DSM added two sentences that significantly increased the probability of (mis)diagnosis:
This behavior commonly reflects hostility which the individual feels he dare not express openly. Often the behavior is one expression of the patient’s resentment at failing to find gratification in a relationship with an individual or institution upon which he is over-dependent. (APA, 1968, p. 44, code 301.81)
In the words of Lane, “Not only had the DSM outlawed pouting, then; it left large numbers of people with unfulfilling jobs vulnerable to a psychiatric diagnosis, too.”
The standard was thus set. For nearly four decades, “passive-aggressive personality disorder” (PAPD) was considered a formal DSM pathology.
It was finally dropped from the DSM-IV in 1994. After much debate, it was agreed that, as a personality disorder, it was too narrow, situational, and behavioral to warrant a full-blown diagnosis. What’s more, the APA didn’t think there was enough scientific evidence to back it as a distinct disorder and that it significantly overlapped with other disorders.
Instead, the disorder was diluted, renamed Negativistic Personality Disorder (NEGPD), and appendicized in the DSM for future consideration and study. Symptoms continued to include passive resistance to routine social or work tasks, complaints of being misunderstood, a disdain for authority, envy, and resentment. But under the new name, it could also include negative moods and other non-specific personality issues.
Calls for a Return
Since then, some psychologists have expressed their dissatisfaction with the omission.
Psychologists Christopher Hopwood and Aidan G. C. Wright say the re-classification and focus on “negativistic ideas” has done much to undermine and undervalue the condition formerly known as PAPD. They claim that the focus on negativity, both in PAPD and NEGPD, has both altered and diminished the usefulness of the concept at the clinical level.
To back their claim, the researchers recruited 1,453 undergraduates who were asked to complete the Personality Diagnostic Questionnaire that corresponds to the DSM. Results showed that the change from PAPD to NEGPD was “substantial” and that the diagnostic criteria has become way too broad. The researchers would like to see Passive-Aggressive Personality Disorder returned to its former status, along with a renewed research focus on the core dimensions of passive aggressive personality, including “irresponsible behavior, inner feelings of inadequacy and need for acknowledgment, and ruminative resentment about and contempt for authority figures.”
A 2009 study in the journal Psychiatry reached a similar conclusion, arguing that “PAPD is a useful clinical construct that deserves careful consideration in clinical assessment and may merit further consideration in discussions of [personality disorders].
With all due respect to these studies, it’s safe to say that PA behavior is problematic and annoying. But whether it deserves to be defined as a bona fide mental illness — and subsequent stigmatization in society at large — seems debatable. Calls to restore its place as a formal pathology are indicative of the struggles of psychiatry to justify its (often qualitative, normative) definitions of mental illness. It’s important to draw a line between pathologizing PA behavior and figuring out how to deal with difficult individuals in one’s life. What’s more, it risks pathologizing compliant defiance in the face of authority, whether it be work-to-rule actions, the Occupy Movement, or (sadly) a potentially abusive home or work environment.
Recognizing Passive-Aggressive Behavior
All this said, there’s no denying that passive-aggressive behavior exists and that it poses a challenge for many of us in our daily lives. Though expressed in different ways, it typically involves non-verbal aggression that manifests as negative behavior. Examples include answering “yes” or “no” to an either/or question, deliberately “forgetting” to send an email attachment, or avoiding communication when there’s clearly something important or problematic to be discussed and resolved (storming off or leaving notes are prime examples).
An article from the New York Times offers some other real-world examples:
A 45-year-old college instructor in Hawaii recently broke off a long relationship with a man she said was a “wonderful, devoted listener, an extremely sensitive person.”
But in time, she said, it was apparent that he was also passive-aggressive. On one occasion, she said, he gave away her seat on an airplane while she was finding a storage compartment for her luggage, saying he thought she had taken another seat. On others, he would arrive home early from work and finish off meals they normally shared, without explanation. And when he was in one of his moods, the listening ceased; she may as well not have been in the room.
As noted in the NYT post, one of the most challenging things about living/coping with a passive-aggressive person is that one struggles to understand what they did wrong.
According to Out Of the FOG, a website for family members of people with personality disorders, PA behavior looks like this:
Withdrawal - of material support, contribution to shared goals, Re-prioritizing alternate activities and goals, “go-slow’s”, procrastination or targeted incompetence.
Silent Treatment - inappropriate “one-word” answers, inattention, making yourself generally “unavailable”.
Off-line Criticism - propagating gossip or criticism to a third party in an attempt to negatively influence the third party’s opinion of a person.
Sarcasm, Critical and “Off-Color” Jokes - Humor which targets a specific individual is a form of Passive-Aggressive communication.
Indirect Violence - shows-of-strength such as destruction of property, slamming doors, cruelty to animals in the sight of another is passive-aggressive.
The APA says PA can be detected by four (or more) of the following behavioral traits:
- The passive resistance of fulfilling routine social and work tasks
- Constant complaints about being misunderstood and unappreciated by others
- Sullen and argumentative moods
- Frequent and unreasonable criticisms of authority
- The expression of envy and resentment towards those apparently more fortunate
- Exaggerated and persistent complaints about personal misfortune
- Toggling between hostile defiance and contrition
As an aside, passive-aggressive personalities often bear resemblance to pathological narcissism, including the expression of such traits as an exaggerated sense of self worth, lack of impulse control, an inability to empathize, and a sense of entitlement.