Hi. I’m a former passive-aggressor. Nice to meet you.
In case you don’t know what that means: “Passive-aggressive behavior is characterized by a pattern of passive hostility and an avoidance of direct communication.” Inaction where some action is socially customary is a typical passive-aggressive strategy, like showing up late for functions, staying silent when a response is expected, etc. (Read more about that here.)
For me, this has looked like silence when someone has hurt me, or complete avoidance until enough time has gone by that I can safely interact without fear of conflict. Conflict is something that can make my heart race just thinking about it. I can’t even watch reality TV without sweating and having to take breaks before eventually just giving it up altogether. The way I avoided the dreaded “C” word over the years was through passive aggression. It’s not something I’m proud of or something I was really even aware of until recently.
Not My Finest Moment
On one such occasion of conflict avoidance, I take you back to a warm, sunny day when I was swimming in my grandmother’s pool. She is a beautiful and wealthy woman who spent her younger years modeling. She’s always had a knack for fashion and all things lovely so when you go to see her, you do not—I repeat—do not come dressed in anything you don’t want commented on. Lord help you if you’ve gained a few pounds or had a bad haircut. I spend more time getting ready for a visit with her than I do for a date with my husband. True story.
While swimming (by swimming, I mean exercising…she doesn’t get in unless it’s to exercise), she told me that we should really focus on losing the last of that baby weight. We could do it together. She had gotten me a book called The Sleep Diet for my birthday, and if I read it I would see that if I slept more and ate better the weight would come off easier. I was recently widowed. I was a single mom with a relatively new baby. I wasn’t sleeping. The book seemed to mock me from inside the gift bag.
I know she wasn’t trying to hurt me and that she loves me like crazy, but inside I was defensive to what felt like an unjust and ill-timed suggestion. But did I say anything? No. Instead, I did the only thing that would make me feel better without causing conflict: I peed in her pool. Yep. I did it, and it felt great. It felt like I was getting her back somehow. Like the words that were screaming in my chest to come out of my mouth were released through my bladder. I later realized this was a new low.
Why didn’t I just tell her how I felt? What was the worst that could happen? We’d get in a fight? Well, yes, actually that does sound like the worst. Did I mention I hate fights? Like more than I can even describe to you. I’d rather run a marathon than get in a verbal altercation, which is saying a lot because I hate running.
I’m a Work in Progress
I wish I could say this was my rock bottom and I started to change, but honestly nothing changed until I met my second husband. I’m now married to a very honest person who not only doesn’t shy from conflict but actually enjoys a good debate (#weirdo). I quickly learned my passive-aggressive tendencies would get me nowhere with him. The only time I could get him to understand me was to drop the passiveness altogether and be straight-outta-Compton aggressive. I’m kidding. It wasn’t that drastic but it might as well have been to me.
To really just tell him how I felt was terrifying. It took many, many times for me to practice this and what healed me was his response or sometimes his lack thereof. He was almost always calm and assured me he wasn’t going anywhere. Even if it got heated, he said he had to practice not reacting to me even if it did surprise him. He told me he wanted me to feel safe enough to tell him things, and it worked! Now we can actually fight! It’s rare (and I still hate it), but it happens and it’s actually kind of freeing sometimes. If there is something bothering me, I try and address it quickly and directly but in a loving way.
I used to think I was being loving by not engaging in conflict, but really I was just ignoring things and shoving them deep inside. This only led to me distancing myself from that person, which is not loving at all.
Why didn’t I just tell her how I felt? What was the worst that could happen?
I’ve learned that it’s very freeing to just be truthful and direct and it saves an insane amount of time—time worrying about how to tell someone what’s going on, or why you’re upset, or how you’re going to avoid them. Time explaining what you truly meant because you didn’t say in a clear way what you were worried or upset about. Time from feeling resentful or secretly angry because the person slighting you has no idea they’ve been slighting you.
How Are You Handling Conflict?
Now I know not everyone has a safe place and I don’t know your history, but if you regularly see yourself with symptoms of quiet anger, resentment, or a nagging fear that being honest will lead to a fight, I truly recommend reflecting, considering why, and maybe even reaching out for some guidance through a counselor or therapist. (You could even start by submitting a question to Grit and Grace’s free advice column, Ask Dr. Zoe!)
Be honest and do your best to pick a good time to bring things up. I’m living proof that this isn’t something you have to struggle with forever, but you do have to stop the cycle and practice honesty in your relationships. You won’t be sorry! It’s a much lighter load to carry. Not to mention people will feel safer swimming around you.
Here are a few pointers on how to handle confrontation in a healthy way, from an article in Psychology Today.
- Be direct.
- Talk about how you feel without blaming.
- Never say never (or “always”).
- Pick your battles.
- Really listen.
- Don’t automatically object to complaints.
- Take a different perspective.
- Do not show contempt.
- Don’t get overwhelmed with negativity.
- Know when it’s time for a time-out.
I used to think I was being loving by not engaging in conflict, but really I was just ignoring things and shoving them deep inside.
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