Psychology by the numbers: Five findings about passive-aggressive behavior – and how to counter it.

A woman and a man discuss, suppressing their true feelings
A woman and a man discuss, suppressing their true feelings

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It was a military psychiatrist during the Second World War who invented the concept of passive-aggressive behavior: Colonel Menninger observed that some soldiers resisted rigid paternalism by pretending not to understand or to have forgotten orders, making sarcastic remarks, badmouthing superiors behind their backs, feeling constantly treated unfairly. Menninger saw this as a reaction of immaturity, which he called passive-aggressive behavior. Psychological research has never been in agreement as to whether the phenomenon should be included among the personality disorders. The American Psychiatric Association has removed it from its current DSM-5 classification catalog; the World Health Organization’s ICD system still lists it under "other specific disorders".

1 Passive-aggressive tactics

The American management scientist Preston Ni mentions in his book How to Successfully Handle Passive-Aggressive People typical passive-aggres-sive tactics such as:

Pseudohumor: A hurtful phrase like a knife, followed by a smirk and the comment, "Just kidding!"

Playing dumb"Oh, did we really talk about this??"Present dates as misunderstandings; postpone promises; prevent everything that would be necessary for the other person to succeed, be happy or satisfied.

Gossip, Spreading rumors.

Silence, to punish others or to give them a feeling of insecurity.

Blaming the other personn – for not reminding him of an appointment, for presenting things differently ..

2 genders

Passive-aggressive classics in relationships are sentences like "Of course, as you wish" – in situations where it is actually clear that the speaker wants something else. Or when asked if the other person is angry, "No, it’s nothing." Or also: "I only think." In passive-aggressive mode, contradictory signals are often used: "I guess you missed the exit after all, honey!"Refusing to communicate openly about an annoyance is garnished with a term of endearment.

The psychiatrist Scott Wetzler of the New Yorker Albert Einstein College of Medicine has observed that women and men show different passive-aggressive behaviors in relationships: "Men are passive-aggressive in a particularly destructive, clumsy way, with which they upset or destroy love and work relationships," he writes in his book Why men stonewall. Men who act this way do not keep promises and agreements, like to blame their partner and even complain when she confronts them with their behavior. Unlike women, men’s pent-up frustration often discharges in a fit of rage before they switch back to passive behavior with tactics like silence and stillness. The result: a constant climate of insecurity.

3 Origins

People who frequently engage in passive-aggressive behavior often come from loving but very demanding families, according to neuropsychiatrist Lorna Benjamin of the University of Utah. It is often firstborns who have been given a lot of responsibility at an early age. The feeling they felt toward their guardians is then later transferred to authorities and superiors. Mayo Clinic researchers also attribute passive-aggressive behavior to many narcissists. They use it to punish others and make themselves feel even more grandiose.

4 Oppositional Defiant Disorder

The worst mistake in dealing with passive-aggressive behavior of the other person: getting provoked – and then reacting with exactly the anger that the other person hides inside and does not dare to show. To avoid falling into this trap, it is important to recognize this behavior as soon as possible – and then remain deliberately deliberate and calm, advise social worker Jody E. Long and her co-authors in the book The Angry Smile. A warning sign they list: The other person repeatedly displays blocking, delaying responses that annoy one without each one seeming worth responding to.

Eric Barker, author of career advice books, warns against trying to put yourself in the shoes of your passive-aggressive counterpart. Instead, stay clear with yourself and prepare well for important conversations with such people. His tips: expose the tactics, do not accept excuses, evaluate only actions, not mere declarations of intention. Make clear announcements and demand clear answers. And: always strive for a win-win situation, because passive-aggressive characters want to do everything they can not to lose – and resort to destructive steps if necessary.

5 Therapy

In psychotherapy, passive-aggressive behavior develops yet another dimension: some clients with this behavior perceive therapists as an authority they want to refuse, trying to prove to them that their diagnosis is wrong, that the proposed therapeutic path is ineffective. Johann F. Kinzl, former director of the University Clinic for Psychosomatic Medicine in Innsbruck, calls them "yes-but-sayers". For example, prescribed medications are not taken and it is mentioned with thievish glee to the doctor that they probably do not work; one has followed all the advice without noticing an improvement. The only sensible way: debunk the strategies. Clients can learn in cognitive behavioral therapy to survey their thoughts, notice emotions, feel anger, and revise their assumptions about the consequences of confronting it.

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