Why do people act in Passive Aggressive ways?

By David Joel Miller, MS, Licensed Therapist & Licensed Counselor.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay.com

Why must they act Passive Aggressive?

Passive Aggressive Personality Disorder used to be a recognized mental illness. Then in the DSM-4, it was reduced to a condition that may need more study, and most recently it has simply disappeared from our way of thinking of mental illnesses.

Remember that there are times when a person gets criticized for adopting this form of behavior, maybe even referred for psychiatric care and then other people may be praised for adopting some form of passive reaction to an injustice.

So let’s look at why some people may adopt Passive Aggressive Behavior and why we are no longer so sure that it should qualify as a mental illness.

There are legitimate reasons people do not just come out and say what they mean. There are also reasons people may choose to say nothing but fail to carry through on things they were told to do. Passive-Aggressive behavior can be the result of some of those reasons.

People become Passive Aggressive when they have no power or control.

Children, especially if they are in an abusive or non-loving home, may not feel they can say no to their parents. They get out of things, not by saying no or discussing things but by taking excessive time or doing things wrong. If they break enough dishes mom may stop asking them to do the dishes.

The same behavior makes sense in the boss and employee situation. Sometimes you can’t tell the boss no, so you just do not get around to doing things that would be a waste of time anyway. Not everyone does this. Some employees are very conscientious, but the worse the boss in terms of giving arbitrary orders and not allowing people to disagree the more likely this becomes.

Some people use Passive Aggressive behavior more often than others.

If you came from a family where it was not acceptable to disagree with the parents or worse yet where you were not supposed to have any feeling unless they were sanctioned by the adult, you are more likely to hide your anger and then express it in Passive Aggressive ways.

Mental health clinicians used to think that there were things we called “Personality Disorders” and the presumption was that people who had these were always like that and that they were hard to treat and never changed. These premises have recently been called into question. Turns out that people can change their behavior when the situation changes.

One other thing that cuts against the validity of there being such a thing as Passive-Aggressive Personality Disorder is that it is mostly used in situations where there is a weaker person who is unable to disagree with a stronger person or in a close situation like a marriage where sometimes we want to avoid both doing what the other person told us to do and also avoid making this into an argument.

One characteristic that has been used to differentiate Passive Aggressive behavior from something like passive nonviolence is the level of anger or hostility that the person using passive-aggressive behavior is experiencing.

When the non-doing stops being a way of avoiding conflict and becomes a way to harm someone else without having to accept the responsibility that hidden or veiled aggression can drive the most rational person to open hostility.

One aspect of Passive-aggressive behavior that has received a lot of attention is the times when it appears to be motivated by contrariness or oppositional motives. When a youth adopts the position that they will avoid doing whatever the adult asks them to do just for the sake of asserting that the adult cannot control them this can escalate to severe problems.

Frankly, much of what was getting called Passive-Aggressive Personality Disorder looks way more like Oppositional Defiant Disorder when we see it in youths.

Passive Aggressive Personality Disorder shared so many features in common with other personality disorders and with depression and anxiety most professionals only used it when a parent or spouse said that was what the client was doing.

Most of the things we have been thinking of as personality disorders include a lot of antagonism towards others. Sometimes this is because the person’s life experiences tell them that they will not be treated fairly if they openly disagree or resist the will of others.

So while you will still read about Passive-Aggressive people, mental health has largely concluded that this is not a mental illness but is a way that some people cope with not being able to express disagreement. In other words, Passive Aggressive behavior is a symptom of some other problem rather than being a particular treatable disease.

Staying connected with David Joel Miller

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1 thought on “Why do people act in Passive Aggressive ways?

  1. Pingback: Are you the Passive Aggressive type? | counselorssoapbox

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