Passive-aggressive personalities are among the most misunderstood and misrepresented types. And largely because of this, they disappeared as a distinctly disordered type in Psychiatry’s official Diagnostic Manual many years ago. Professionals and laypersons alike just didn’t seem to understand who these folks are, how they operate, and the problems they cause relationships.
Not every passive-aggressive personality can be rightfully considered “disordered.” Still, passive-aggressive personalities are among the most difficult to deal with. And, oddly enough, they’re also among the most self-defeating folks around. As I first pointed out in In Sheep’s Clothing, these folks are NOT the folks properly labeled covert-aggressive. Sadly, many folks still confuse the two types. But passive and covert types are radically different from one another. So it’s worth taking a deeper look at both of them.
The Passive Versus Active Dimension of Personality Styles
Personality has to do with the stylized way a person prefers to see and deal with the world. And some styles of relatating are largely defined by what a person doesn’t do that they probably should do. For, example, some folks simply don’t fend for themselves very well. They just don’t assert themselves when they should or have the chance. They rarely act autonomously. Sometimes it’s because they’re afraid to do so. Maybe they feel inadequate. But whatever the reason, they habitually don’t self-assert. And that engenders a lot of dependency on others. That’s why we rightly call such folks passive-dependent. It’s their failure to act, learn, and become self-confident in the process that leads them to become emotionally dependent upon others.
Passive-aggressive behaviors also involve what a person doesn’t do as opposed to what he or she actively does. It can be as simple as stalling on a task someone has asked you to do time and time again. It can also be just not talking when you’re upset and won’t say directly what’s on your mind. So, passive-aggressive behavior is basically “fighting” in a passive way – by what you don’t or won’t do. It’s passive resistance as opposed to an active assault.
Covert-aggressive behavior is agression that’s inherently active as opposed to passive. The covert-aggressor actively mounts a campaign to win or dominate, but does so subtly, deceptively, stealthily. He or she uses clever tactics to keep the true nature of their intentions and behavior carefully veiled. Covert aggressors employ this strategy because it increases the likelihood they’ll be victorious.
Understanding Passive-Aggressive Personalities
Pasive-aggressive personalities are very different from their covert-aggressive counterparts. Folks with Passive-Agressive Personality Disorder (PAPD) are pathologically fearful of autonomy and are also incredibly shame-sensitive. And those two features work together to create problems. I’ve given the following kind of example in my books and in many workshops:
Joe asks Jane where she’d like to go to dinner. Not one to take an assertive stand, and fearing to make a potentially embarassing call, Jane defers to Joe, who suggests restaurant A. But Jane doesn’t really like the place as well as Joe does, so she stalls, pouts, and looks unhappy. Recgonizing this Joe again urges Jane to simply choose, promising he’ll happily abide by her choice. But she still stalls in making the call, telling Joe she asked him to do so, after all. Joe suggests restaurant B. The frown on Jane’s face suggests the paralizing “dance” of offering and resisting will continue until Joe is ready to pull the hair out of his head!
Jane dreads feeling like she made the wrong call. She’s so sensitive to having egg on her face that she rarely takes a stand. But she also dislikes letting others call the shots because it too makes her look bad, weak, inept. This puts her in a real bind. Moreover, her way of coping is incredibly self-defeating. And that’s mostly because she neither asks for or actively goes after the things she wants.
Covert-aggressors are strictly self-advancing as opposed to self-defeating. And, they’re generally shame-lacking as opposed to overly shame-sensitive. Any care they have for how they look is purely tactical. If you knew what they were really like, you’d be more wary. And you’d probably be more conscious of how they might try to get the better of you.
Response to my latest inteview with Pi Venus Winslow has been high. You can access the interview by following this link: Trusting After Trauma with Dr. George Simon and Pi Venus Winslow
On next week’s Character Matters podcast, I’ll be announcing the details of the first live-streamed broadcast. I’ll be able to take questions live on that program.