Aug 04

Passive-Aggression: Experts On Hidden Anger, Angry Smiles

The nastiest thing about hidden anger is that it sneaks up on you…much like a boa constrictor that gradually tightens its grip until it’s too late for you to get away. Dr. Tim Murphy, Loriann Hoff Oberlin, Overcoming Passive-Aggression

Overcoming Passive-Aggression: How to Stop Hidden Anger from Spoiling Your Relationships, Career and Happiness (2005) was touted back when it was published asthe first book to unravel the anger lurking in men, women, children, employees, bosses, co-workers, teachers, and students.”

Therapist and co-writer of the book Loriann Hoff Oberlin describes those who could be called “anger concealers” (Counseling Today):

[They] 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’)

On the website of the authors’ book is a “quick quiz” to help us gauge our hidden anger:

  • Was anger prohibited in your home as a child?
  • Do you smile when you’re truly frustrated?
  • Are you ever intentionally slow performing a request?
  • When afraid to share opinions, do you later resent things not going your way?
  • Do you often feel that problems you encounter are someone else’s fault?
  • Does the fear of rejection prevent you from taking action?
  • Do you yearn for more freedom in a relationship but at the same time wish to be close?

In 2008 another book came out on this topic, The Angry Smile: The Psychology of Passive-Aggressive Behavior in Families, Schools, and Workplaces by Nicholas James Long, Jody E. Long, and Signe Whitson. The latter, a clinical social worker, has a blog on Psychology Today.com called “Passive Aggressive Diaries.”

One of Whitson’s posts explains the book title’s “angry smile”—“Whereas the aggressive person often acts on impulse and regrets his behavior in short order, the passive aggressive person typically derives genuine pleasure out of frustrating others.” Furthermore:

A hallmark of the passive aggressive person is that he or she believes life will only get worse if other people know of his anger, so he expresses his thoughts and feelings indirectly, through characteristic behaviors as withdrawing from conversations (often with last words such as ‘fine’ or ‘whatever’), sulking, procrastinating, carrying out tasks at sub-standard levels, sabotaging group efforts, and spreading rumors or discontent behind the scenes.

Some reasons people use passive-aggression are listed in another post. Click on the link for details.

1. Anger is Socially Unacceptable

2. Sugarcoated Hostility is Socially Acceptable

3. Passive Aggression is Easier than Assertiveness

4. Passive Aggression is Easily Rationalized

5. Revenge is Sweet

6. Passive Aggressive Behavior is Convenient

7. Passive Aggression can be Powerful

Yet another post offers the five pathological levels of passive-aggression, also outlined in the book. As you’ll see, each level after the first is increasingly unhealthy.

Level 1: Temporary Compliance, in which the passive aggressive person verbally complies with a request, but behaviorally delays acting on it. Temporary compliance is the most common form of passive aggressive behavior and sounds something like, “I’m cooooooming!”

Level 2: Intentional Inefficiency, in which the passive aggressive person complies with a request, but carries it out in an unacceptable manner. Intentional Inefficiency looks something like my husband unloading the dishwaser by putting everything out on the counter and claiming, ‘I wasn’t sure where these went!’

Level 3: Letting a Problem Escalate, in which the passive aggressive person uses inaction to allow a forseeable problem to escalate and takes pleasure in the resulting anguish. Passive aggressive kids are at this level when they return a car with an empty gas tank, even when they know their parent will be late for work if they have to stop for gas.

Level 4: Hidden but Conscious Revenge, in which the passive aggressive person makes a deliberate decision–and takes hidden action–to get back at someone. This more serious level could involve stealing field trip money from the purse of a teacher who they feel has mistreated them, sabotaging the presentation of a colleague who they feel was unfairly promoted over them, or slashing the tires of a resented step-father’s car.

Level 5: Self-depreciation, in which a passive aggressive person goes to self-destructive lengths to seek vengeance. From the teenager who dyes his hair blue before a college interview to the girl who starves herself to get back at her demanding father, this level is the most pathological…and usually not great fodder for ‘funny’ stories.

Whitson has much more on her blog, including how to deal with passive-aggression. See, for example, “The Passive Aggressive Conflict Cycle.” Although the above two books and blog aren’t the only resources available, they make for a good start toward understanding passive-aggressive behavior.