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Passive-aggressive behaviors, traits and disorders: An overview
Passive-aggression is an immature defence mechanism that describes obstructionist or resistant covert tendencies. Initially, the term was applied to concealed, non-compliant behaviours. However, the term was extended to describe traits and even a personality disorder.
The reason for passive-aggression is that negative emotions cannot always be expressed to the stimulus. For example, an employee who does not like a reasonable directive issued by the boss may delay performing the task as a sign of resistance. Then too, being sullen or otherwise subtly resistance may be the easy response to such a situation.
It is called an immature defence because it is common in children who cannot act out against figures of authority. However, in adults, the “mature” way to approach situations is to dialogue and seek helpful, sustainable solutions. Passive-aggression usually gets in the way of this.
As far as the behaviour goes, everyone has the potential to display passive-aggressive conduct at one point or another. For many persons, it is a contextual phenomenon which arises when goals or desires are obstructed, denied outright or invalidated. Persons who display this behaviour act out through frustration and when the source of it is perceived as too dominant. As a result, the passive-aggression is a direct result of the inability to effectively cope with anger or frustrations. It is merely a response to an external stimulus.
The trait or disorder
Passive-aggressive tendencies can be pathological or unwholesome. This is when it’s more than just behaviour, but a personality trait or disorder. To use attribution theory, it is unhealthy when it is in the person’s make-up as opposed to being conduct that is linked to an external stimulus. It can be pathological as well.
Take the example of someone who loses their temper and starts yelling at people. A person with a passive-aggressive disorder may smile at the source of their frustrations, let it build up over time, and probably shoot them eventually. Therefore, the behaviour is habitual and patterned, regardless of whether it is appropriate or not. It is compulsive and represents an inability to address negative emotions in a socially desirable manner.
It is evident that there are several root causes of passive-aggressive tendencies. For behaviour, it is merely a source of frustration that is too powerful or influential to deal with. However, as a trait or disorder, it is far more deep-rooted. In such cases, it may be tied to the person being socialized in an environment where it is difficult or unsafe to express negative emotions. Those persons may be feeling pure hate but may be acting normal.
Hidden anger that comes out indirectly—through inappropriate, unproductive action or even inaction—can undermine relationships with friends, family and colleagues at work. Murphy, a psychologist and member of Congress, and Oberlin (coauthors of The Angry Child) closely examine how this kind of anger, called passive-aggressive, can undermine sufferers and their relationships and make life generally miserable.
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Passive-aggression as a trait may not necessarily be pathological, since it may stem from a person’s immaturity with regard to handling conflict or negativity. They may avoid it and express it through these subtle resistance behaviours.
This is different from displacement, which refers to acting out against a person or object that is not the cause of the negative emotion. Passive-aggression is repressed behaviour that is manifested in the subconscious mind. Often, the person displaying this conduct is unaware from it or may flatly deny exhibiting it.
This tendency, trait or disorder is defined by a high level of ambiguity between words and deeds, or one action and another. This is because passive-aggressive behaviour is neither genuine nor sincere. The result of this is having compliant words or actions co-existing with obstructionist behaviours.
This is where passive-aggressiveness may seem a bit spiteful, since there is the desire to strike back by transferring the negative emotion to another context against the source of the frustration. An example of this may be a wife not speaking to her husband because he stayed out late the night before.
Passive-aggression is usually an attempt to regain control of a situation in an understated manner. As an ego defence mechanism, it can protect one’s ego if it involves blaming others or being fearful of intimacy. Passive-aggression is usually exhibited by those who are not in control or do not feel in control of their situation or emotions.
Everyone was/ is guilty of passive-aggressive conduct at some point in their lives. However, more powerful or dominant personalities do not use this strategy much since they tend to make their true feelings felt and are unafraid of, or invulnerable to, consequences. As a trait or disorder, it is more disturbing than it is as behaviour.