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Unpacking the Passive Aggressive Response

duck flapping its wings
When you’re angry, do you ever feel like all you’re allowed to do is flap your wings?

Passive Aggression Is a Complex Reaction

Stress can be layered sometimes, and that can make it more complicated when you want to question your stressful thoughts. When you’re being passive aggressive, what is really going on? What are the thoughts to question? Let’s explore this a bit.

What Is Passive Aggression?

Passive aggression is a complicated reaction to stress. It combines two stressful stories and the reaction comes out as a kind of mixture of both. Here’s what it normally looks like for me.

Let’s say someone doesn’t include me. The first layer of my reaction may be simply anger or hurt at being left out. If that was all, I might get angry and say something out of that anger. Of course, that would only create a fight, I think, which would escalate the situation, so I opt out of this approach.

The second layer of the reaction (what I actually do) is to suppress my anger and pretend that everything is okay—except that I let my anger be seen in little ways that are very indirect (the way I close the door, the way I avoid eye contact, the way I plan not to include them in the future, etc.). 

The fight becomes subtle, but it is just as vicious. It is aggressive, but instead of being active aggression, it is passive (almost hidden) aggression.

How Do You Do The Work on Passive Aggression?

The Work of Byron Katie (4 Questions and Turnarounds) is a way to question my thinking in any stressful situation so that I can start to free myself of the beliefs that cause my reactions. How does it apply in the case of passive aggression?

First of all, the principle is exactly the same as if I were doing The Work on my actively aggressive reactions. When I see a reaction in myself, whether passive aggressive or active aggressive, it is a sign for me to slow down and write down my stressful thoughts so I can question them.

When I do this, looking at a situation where I was reacting in a passive aggressive way, I usually find two main categories of stressful thoughts to question.

1. Thoughts About What Angers Me

This first category is straightforward emotion: usually anger, frustration, or sadness. What angers or saddens me? I make a list. For example:

She does not include me.
I want her to include me.
It’s not fair.
She doesn’t like me.

These thoughts deal with the actual offense which triggered me. Questioning these types of thoughts often helps me to relax and see that 1) it’s it fine that she doesn’t include me and 2) she may not be excluding me as much I think. 

There are so many interesting turnarounds to be found when questioning this list of stressful thoughts.

2. Thoughts About What Restricts Me From Being Honest

The second category of stressful thoughts has to do with what stops me from communicating directly. They may be thoughts like:

She’ll get upset if I tell her I feel hurt.
She’ll exclude me forever if I criticize her.
I need her approval.
I need her friendship.
I don’t want to lose her.
I will be overpowered if I speak up.

These thoughts deal with the passive part of my passive aggressive reaction. When I believe these kinds of thoughts, I am not allowed to communicate directly, but have to resort to door slamming or subtle forms of revenge. 

When I question this list, I start to see that I am the only one who needs to approve of me. I become less attached to “keeping the peace” or even keeping the relationship. I stand more and more on my own feet.

You Don’t Have to Separate These Lists Out

Sometimes it may be useful to separate each list out, giving time to write the thoughts that are causing the feeling of aggression, and the thoughts that are causing the passivity. But many times, these two parts come out naturally when you write your stressful thoughts.

This is why I like the Judge-Your-Neighbor Worksheet so much as a way of collecting stressful thoughts to question. When I answer the questions on that worksheet, both the beliefs that make me aggressive and the beliefs that make me passive will often naturally come out. 

Then, I can take my time to do The Work on each of the thoughts I identified. 

Want to Go Deeper?

Join us!! 

Have a great week,

“The Work is never passive, though its results are always peaceful.” Byron Katie, I Need Your Love, Is It True?

Further reading: Does The Work Make You Passive?

Todd Smith has been doing The Work of Byron Katie on an almost daily basis since 2007. He is just as excited about this simple process of self-inquiry today as he was when he first came across it. He also enjoys writing about The Work, and training others in the subtleties of this meditative process. Join Todd for The Work 101 online course, private sessions, virtual retreats, and his ongoing Inquiry Circle group.