Ben complained that he was passed over for promotions. His boss said, “You don’t seem to be able to handle the responsibility.” But Ben complained more, and the boss finally gave him a small project to work on as a chance to show his abilities.

This project, unbeknownst to Ben as the test case, sat on his desk collecting dust. When the boss complained that he didn’t have it on time, Ben replied, “You didn’t tell me when it was due. And besides, I had to finish my other work, too.”

Inside, Ben was pleased he got back at the boss by making him unprepared for a meeting. But guess who still didn’t get a promotion? Well, of course, Ben, who attributed this to his boss’s incompetence rather than his own.

With lack of action, Ben created a problem, felt like a victim and got back at his boss. Rejection, resentment and revenge all stemmed from doing nothing.

— Excerpted from Overcoming Passive-Aggression by Rep. Tim Murphy and Loriann Hoff Oberlin (2005)

In many offices, schools, homes or other settings across the country, people who don’t fulfill ordinary expectations or obligations in their given roles annoy us to no end. Very often, they have a handy alibi, the proverbial excuse, which causes many of us to offer them “free passes.” We tend to accept, smooth over or excuse their behavior as they shirk responsibility for their actions and often for their covert anger. Only over time do we catch on to the pattern of indirect, incongruent, subtly manipulative behavior. We fall into this unproductive pattern — often called passive aggression — because we may misunderstand the core needs, irrational fears or things avoided, and at the same time fail to recognize how we (and others) enable people to hide anger.

If you come into regular contact with someone who fits this profile, particularly if you are trying to work with or help this individual, the first indication that something has gone amiss is that you feel stalled, blocked or even controlled. You feel the other person’s frustration vicariously. Unlike exploders, whom we recognize easily, anger concealers disguise their true feelings because they have so often been programmed to keep frustration and anger at a distance or project it onto someone else. When they were growing up, they may not have been allowed to say “I’m mad” or they may have been chastised for asserting themselves, even with “I statements.” Most likely, they were blamed and learned to do likewise.

With no constructive outlet for unsettling emotions, feelings go underground, emerging only when the build-up becomes too intense. Still, the angry person cannot embrace anger but discharges it through:

  • Sarcasm, criticism and blame
  • Chronic irritability and entitlement
  • Negative nonverbals (sighs, angry looks)
  • Self-destructive or addictive behavior (eating disorders, substance abuse)
  • Ambivalent, oppositional stances (mixed messages, defiance, “getting back”)

To a certain extent, we have all acted in a passive-aggressive way at one time or another. However, the persistent pattern of inactivity and shying away from active problem solving leads to larger problems in relationships, academic success, career progression or personal happiness. When passive aggression moves from being a temporary state to a permanent or semipermanent trait, it’s time to really understand how the behavior became rooted and how to help eliminate it.

Touching upon one’s childhood memories of anger leads to the pivotal awareness needed to turn around passive aggression. The people our clients grew up with were their first relationship lab — installers of their buttons. How was anger managed or mismanaged? What was the result when family members showed anger? Did it solve problems or make matters worse? Were there healthy outlets for expressing anger?

In many families where anger secretly lurks, children never grow beyond sugar-coating negative emotions. Thus, they remain vulnerable to reactivity in adult relationships because they lack an assertive skill set to help them cope against stressors. They protect themselves from anger by using any number of defense mechanisms, most notably blaming, denial and projection.

As “negativistic” was added to the literature, Theodore Millon and Roger D. Davis wrote in Disorders of Personality: DSM-IV and Beyond (1996) that many passive aggressors felt they had been “replaced” by a younger sibling and robbed of their due, thus acknowledging strong feelings of jealousy and resentment. But these individuals couldn’t risk being direct with mom or dad and possibly losing favor, so their new sibling became an easier anger target. Throughout life, these individuals may seek approval, yearn for independence yet feel dependent, avoid responsibility and feel powerless, fearing they’ll never get it right. In short, they remain rather childlike — one of the types of passive aggression my co-author Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.) and I identified in Overcoming Passive-Aggression.

Other types we identified may look more controlling or manipulative, with a core need to have the upper hand, push people’s buttons and still manage to keep responsibility at bay. They also fear and avoid cooperation, competition or risks and confrontation. They may be the first to claim, “I’m not angry,” yet their behavior sends the powerful and incongruent message that they indeed are very angry.

Two other anger-concealing types include the depressed/walking wounded and the self-absorbed. Both struggle with self-esteem. Each type drives others away in a distinct way: one by whining and seeing life as half-empty and the other by becoming a legend to themselves, ingratiating, acting like the superstar and displaying little to no empathy for others.

Passive aggressors quickly see others as authority figures to resist. So respond carefully, and teach clients who experience passive aggression to do likewise. If you take away an angry person’s freedom of choice, you might cement the unproductive behavior even more. Anger concealers are masters of the double-bind and placing others in no-win situations. And they are much more skilled at all of this than the average person. If anyone accepts and holds their anger for them, concealers will be happy (even relieved) because they have escaped frustration, even while getting it churning in someone else. With anger concealers:

  • Listen without argument
  • Reflect what they say while avoiding interpretation
  • Offer empathy informed by the core needs
  • Model assertiveness with “I statements” and show respect

Don’t talk to the person’s anger; instead talk to the resolution of any problem at hand. More specifically, with controlling or manipulative anger, show that you are trying to get on their side. Channel the vain person’s strengths for everyone’s benefit (trying to ignore ingratiating, annoying behavior), and reinforce responsible steps that the depressed and/or childlike type may take. Remember, theses individuals vacillate between the polarities of independence and dependence as well as activity and passivity, as Millon and Davis explained. Shift from problem-focused to solution-focused thinking.

The term passive-aggressive has grown into everyday use since its earliest inception during World War II. Many well-regarded clinicians and researchers such as Scott Wetzler, Leslie Morey and Lorna Smith Benjamin believe it was a mistake to relegate passive-aggressive personality disorder to the DSM-IV-TR appendix. Remain informed about the diagnostic criteria and traits because you may see this behavior often in clinical practice, schools, offices, homes and relationships. Recognizing passive aggression and understanding how not to enable it are key pieces that help all of us lead more direct, congruent and happier lives.