The quiet and the furious

You need to help your loved one who seethes silently before the repressed fire burns the relationship

Man and woman having dinner - woman not interestedDo you know of a family member, friend, or colleague who repeatedly engages in a few of the following behaviours?

  • Grumbles about the extent of work to be done.
  • Does work in a shoddy manner even though she is capable of doing a better job.
  • Complains about being misunderstood, unappreciated and being taken for granted by others.
  • Is sullen and ends up getting into arguments with others.
  • Resists, complains or feels resentful towards authority figures often out of context.
  • Passively resists fulfilling routine social and occupational tasks.
  • Expresses envy and resentment toward those who are apparently more fortunate and voices exaggerated and persistent complaints of personal misfortune
  • Alternates between hostile defiance and contrition

If you answered yes to say 3 – 4 of these statements, then you could be facing someone who is engaging in passive-aggressive behaviour [PAB].

What is PAB?

Let us understand PAB with the help of Sunny’s example. As a bright and intelligent student, whatever marks Sunny got were never enough for his parents, who constantly nagged him to do even better. Finally, in class 10, Sunny was so fed up of never being able to please his parents, and so angry at their constant nagging, that he made up his mind to not get good marks at all. Although his parents saw him study through the year, Sunny decided to teach them a lesson, and prove to them, once and for all, that he has had enough. He ended up barely getting a first class in his final exams.

This is a classic sign of a person with PAB. A person is said to behave in a passive-aggressive manner when her aggression is not ‘overt’. She rebels through her behaviour. Passive-aggressives protest by not listening or not doing what is expected of them. Usually, their actions rather than words reflect their true feelings. As a result, there is a mismatch between what they say and do. Some typical behaviour traits of people with PAB include:

  • Consistent procrastination: not doing work on time, tendency to postpone or delay work indefinitely.
  • Stubbornness: tendency to act mulish and stubborn without reason.
  • Forgetfulness or absent-mindedness: forgetting critical tasks and things [such as important appointments, meetings, and so forth].
  • Tardiness: arriving late for functions or meetings, missing deadlines.
  • Ineffective or sub-standard work.
  • Sulking or resentful attitude, especially toward authority figures.

How it manifests

Passive-aggressive behaviour typically shows up in response to authority figures—parent, boss, a domineering spouse or an elder sibling. What this means is that dealing with authority is a core issue for people with this problem. On one hand, the person may agree to what you say, but may also show resistance towards that by not following through. And most often, the behaviour is not purposeful or conscious.

While the exact cause of such behaviour is not known, in most cases, early childhood experiences with an authority figure usually result in creating resentment in the person’s mind. For instance, it could be a domineering father who creates feelings of hostility and resentment in the child. She is unable to express her feelings or communicate her resentment any other way. Eventually, she resorts to certain behaviours without being openly aggressive. Over a period of time, these behaviours get reinforced, and the child grows up with these patterns. Families where open expression of negative feelings is not allowed, encourage passive-aggressive behaviour.

However, it is important to realise that most of us indulge in some PAB from time to time. There are times when a woman may end up cooking poorly in response to her husband’s criticism or when a person delays a project because he is angry at his boss’s unfairness, or does a half-baked job, and ends up suffering more. Don’t be in a hurry to label anyone’s behaviour as being passive aggressive. There is some passive aggression in all of us, but thankfully, it surfaces only occasionally.


Magnifying lens over an exclamation markSpot an error in this article? A typo maybe? Or an incorrect source? Let us know!


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