The Silent Treatment: Passive-Aggressive Tendencies in Low Aggression Scorers

As we saw in last week’s behavioral scale deep dive, people with a low Aggression score often cringe at the thought of confrontation or conflict. Although these people can be peacemakers and provide a calming influence on others, sometimes their natural inclination to passivity can manifest into passive-aggressive behavior that can potentially damage many relationships around them. In managing someone with a low aggression score, it’s important to watch out for this kind of behavior, understand where it comes from and know how to help them in a healthy way. 

What is Passive-Aggressive Behavior?

Passive-aggressive:  denoting or pertaining to a personality type or behavior marked by the expression of negative emotions in passive, indirect ways, as through manipulation or noncooperation

In our experience, we’ve found that if someone scores low in Aggression they often have other defining behavioral traits that are related, such as low dominance and high submissiveness.  With this particular scale cocktail, these people tend to fall into the common archetype of “The People Pleaser;” aren’t very assertive, often easily give into more dominating figures and generally avoid conflict and confrontation for fear of rejection from others, often falling into a passive-aggressive pattern.

Passive-aggressive behavior, though expressed in many different forms (sarcasm, the silent treatment, running late, etc), has the same roots: There is an underlying fear and avoidance of direct conflict, yet a feeling of powerlessness and helplessness.Instead of communicating assertively and honestly when they feel mad, annoyed, or disappointed with someone or something, low scorers in Aggression may bottle up their feelings or shut down completely. On the surface level, a passive-aggressive person will often not show that they are angry or resentful and act out anger in a subtle, indirect way. They often feel incapable of dealing directly with the object of their resentments and instead express their anger by subtly undermining them.

Here are a few behaviors that can show up in someone that is passive-aggressive: 

  • Non-communication in problematic scenarios
  • Avoidance of conflict
  • Procrastination
  • Manipulation
  • Obstructing: Deliberately avoiding or stalling a conflict or change
  • Fear of Competition
  • Ambiguity
  • Sulking, Shut-down, silent treatment
  • Chronic lateness
  • Fear of Intimacy
  • Making excuses 
  • Victimiazation, self-pity
  • Witholding usual behaviors or roles
  • Blaming others

Similarly, if a person with this particular behavioral scale cocktail doesn’t fall completely into a passive-aggressive communication style, their passive nature can often result in an explosive outburst when their threshold for suppressing their anger and annoyances has been met. Although this is less manipulative and “aggressive” than passive-aggressive behavior, it is something to be aware of when you’re dealing with a low aggression scorer, and can potentially lead to a more aggressive form. 

Understanding Passive-Aggressive Behavior

Most of us can acknowledge that passive-aggressive behavior can be detrimental to relationships in families, romances, and in the workplace. So then why is this often detrimental behavior so common? The first step in dealing with someone who often resorts to passive-aggressive behavior is simply recognizing the patterns and becoming aware of why they are there. As with anything, the simple understanding of why someone behaves the way they do is a HUGE step in bridging the gap and encouraging growth in your relationships. Here are a few reasons that can contribute to the prevalence of passive-aggression:

  • Upbringing
  • Fear of Conflict 
    • For those with a low aggression score, standing up for yourself can be terrifying. Being assertive and emotionally open doesn’t often come naturally to these people and passivity or passive-aggression might seem like an easier alternative to deal with a conflict, or effectively avoid a confrontation altogether. 
  • Fear of Anger
    • At some point in our upbringing, some of us may learn that it is bad to express anger inappropriately. The passive-aggressive person may have learned at some point in their early development that expressing anger in any way is bad and that he or she is bad for feeling anger.
  • Low Self-Confidence or Self-Esteem
  • Situational Characteristics
    • It’s easy to fall into a passive-aggressive pattern if you perceive a situation as one where displays of aggression are not socially acceptable, such as at work or a family dinner. As a result, those with low aggression scores might be more inclined to respond in a passive-aggressive way when someone makes them angry.

Practices to Mindfully Stop Passive-Aggressive Behavior

Although passive-aggression may result in easier, perceived benefits to someone who is afraid of conflict, it can actually make conflicts much worst in the long run, breeding deep-seated resentment and isolation. However, by practicing mindful self-awareness and practicing more assertive communication skills, you can begin to curb this behavioral pattern. Here are a few ideas to mindfully stop passive-aggressive behavior if you find yourself or someone else falling into that trap from time to time: 

  1. Mindful Awareness: Recognize your passive-aggressive patterns 
    • The first step to curbing passive aggressive behavior is to become aware of when you’re reacting in a passive- aggressive way. Are you agreeing to something you don’t actually want to do to avoid telling someone you don’t want to do it? Are you procrastinating on a project because you don’t like the person you’re working with? 
  2.  Foster self-awareness about what it is you need, or want to express
    • If you don’t realize why you’re angry, it will be impossible to communicate it to someone else.When you’re feeling something that confuses you, step back and take the time to ascertain the deepest root problem.
  3. Realize you have a right to be angry— it’s a natural human emotion! 
    • You can still be a nice person and feel emotions we typically label as “negative,” such as anger. It’s natural to get angry  at a loving friend, girlfriend, boyfriend, wife, husband, mother, father, son, or daughter and doesn’t make you a bad person; What matters is how you address it. Trying not to feel angry doesn’t make anger go away; if anything, it makes it more powerful and lays fertile ground for a future explosion. Instead, communicate what they did to upset you. 
  4. Reframe Aggression as being assertive
    • State facts clearly and be clear about your opinions. Let the person know the impact of their behavior in clear statements.
  5. Be open to confrontation & “Have the Courage to be Clear”
    • Although this is the most direct tip, it’s probably the most difficult if you’re a notorious  people-pleaser.  it requires that you talk about what’s bothering you and that can be scary to do as someone who shies away from conflict. However, confrontation doesn’t have to be a bad, scary thing; Confrontation can be direct and respectful, even without sugarcoating every other sentence.  To make it less scary, it helps to have an established method for being direct when confronting someone or asserting yourself. When you’re dealing with someone who is being selfish or inconsiderate, you need to be willing to assert your interests at least as strongly as they are willing to assert theirs and able to stand your ground in a cool collected way, which can feel extremely uncomfortable.  However,  learning how to be more assertive and less passive-aggressive is fundamental for good mental health and healthy relationships. Be bold!

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