I was at the supermarket and ran into a couple my husband and I go to dinner or concerts with about every two months. They aren’t our closest friends, but it was still nice to see them. When I said goodbye, they must have thought I left, because seconds later, I was in another aisle and overheard the two of them talking about me. The husband said he felt sorry for my husband, because I pretended to be sweet but that my passive-aggressive anger was too much for any man to bear. The wife laughed out loud in what sounded like agreement and reminded him how I would be a martyr one minute and then give my husband the silent treatment the next. I was shocked and walked away feeling misunderstood and angry. They were so judgmental!
I love my husband, but this couple has no idea how difficult he can be. I’ve been replaying what they said, and what bothers me is that they could have such a negative view about me; I had no idea my behavior had that kind of effect on others.
It’s one thing if you act aggressive and you’re aware you’ve made a bad impression. What hurts is that I try so hard to never come across angry or mean. What is passive-aggressive anger?
This experience shook me up, and I want to understand if I’m not aware of doing things that turn others off.
Anger is an emotional experience, a resentment of being hurt. The pain causing the anger can be physical or emotional. For instance, one can be angry from being slapped or verbally insulted. Anger is an emotion often intended to right a wrong, self-soothe and protect oneself. A problem often arises when one confuses anger and aggression. Anger is an emotion, whereas aggression is a behavior, usually — but not always — resulting from anger.
It’s a dynamic that typically starts in childhood. When parents are overly afraid that their angry child will become aggressive, they punish or shame the child; what the child learns from this is to repress angry feelings, but it doesn’t mean the feelings disappear. If anger isn’t dealt with constructively, it will come out in one way or another. Some learn to deal with anger passive-aggressively. While it’s not the most constructive way, it’s usually adapted as a coping mechanism before puberty. Oftentimes, this behavior is normalized without the individual even being aware of their negative moods and actions.
I’m sorry your feelings were hurt by your friends, but if this interaction helps you face behavior that is negatively affecting your relationships, it is more than worth it.
Remember, I’m not saying your anger is bad. I’m saying that you might have learned behaviors that are no longer in your best interests. Do you recognize any of the following tactics?
Passive-aggressive anger is sometimes expressed in secretive behaviors, such as gossiping, spreading rumors or using a third party to express negative feelings and sabotage relationships. When shared with another person, negative feelings are expressed by ignoring, quietly muttering negative comments, not responding when spoken to, avoiding eye contact, acting detached or appearing aloof.
Another tactic is to express passive anger by being disingenuous, specifically, pretending to agree in order to end a conversation and avoid dealing with the genuine issues. Some provoke aggression and then claim that the other person is too sensitive, that they were “just joking” or pretending to be sorry or feigning tearfulness when confronted.
Another category is when the anger is turned inward, such as constant self-blame, apologizing too frequently, being accident-prone, underachieving, being a workaholic or embracing martyrdom — being overly helpful at a cost to oneself or being self-sacrificing and refusing any help.
Other examples of behaviors that are defending against repressed aggression include sleeping too much, giving unbalanced amounts of time to intellectual rather than emotional aspects of events, talking about frustrations but showing no feelings and obsessive behaviors such as compulsive cleaning.
If you learn to accept your anger instead of trying to control it whenever you experience disrespectful or unfair treatment, you can choose to be more assertive and resolve interpersonal conflicts with new, healthier ways of relating. n
Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has offices in Pasadena, Santa Monica and Canoga Park. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit her Web site, patticarmalt-vener.com.