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Relationships • Conflicts

An Alternative to Passive Aggression

We know by now — of course — that passive aggression is not an ideal strategy. It isn’t good for our health; it doesn’t look pretty and it makes for a foul atmosphere in any office or home. We understand that it isn’t in anyone’s interest for us to say, ‘No, I’m really fine’ when we are going out of our minds with distress. Or to smile wanly and conclude, ‘Oh well, that’s just the way it is then…’ when we desperately and furiously want it to be otherwise.

But to go anywhere productive beyond passive aggression, we first need to be sympathetic to the reasons why we got here. The behaviour is, in its own way, an evolution, a progress from something else; it’s a sensible move away from blind rage. 

We became passive aggressive because, at some earlier stage in our development, we stopped being merely convulsed with anger. We realised, probably at the coaxing of some bigger person, that it was a bad idea to hit, and maybe even bite. We gave up pulling hair. We ceased attempting to throw rulers or shoes. And whatever charge we may want to level at passive aggression, let’s assume that this was — in its way — progress.

The mature way out of passive aggression is therefore not to go back and give way to aggression pure and simple. It is something far more surprising and a great deal more psychologically adept: it’s to start to become vulnerable about the hurts we have suffered.

We move on skilfully from passive aggression when we cease trying to show our opponent how awful they are and concentrate instead on a much more logical and winning strategy: telling them how they have made us feel small and wounded. 

In so far as we stick to describing our opponent in dark and negative terms, it will always be open to them to fight back remorselessly. We’ll call them selfish; they’ll say they are generous to a fault. We’ll insist that they are petty; they’ll remind us how lofty and noble their motives are. We’ll call them a shit, and they’ll tell us with preternatural calm that we’re no longer being reasonable.

Far better to sidestep the unproductive matter of who our opponent happens to be and concentrate instead on revealing how they are making us feel, a subject on which we are the incontestable experts. 

Call someone cruel and they’ll give us a thousand reasons why they aren’t; tell them we feel scared by what we register as meanness, there’ll be a good chance they’ll fall silent. Call someone unreliable, they’ll tell us they measure up very well to the norm; tell them that some of their behaviours worry us by their unpredictability, they may on a good day begin to see the point.

We can learn to disarm our opponents not by attacking them, but by showing them that they have hurt us. We need to tell them that their behaviour has left us as vulnerable as if we were a child; that they have frightened us; that we no longer feel safe; that our hopes have been dashed; that we are feeling immensely let down.

It is, in the end always hurt that underpins anger. By disclosing how we have been made sad, we are getting to the root of our distress, rather than playing vainly and endlessly with its destructive symptoms.

Why can all this be so hard? Because it feels reckless and counterintuitive to tell a person who has hurt us that they have hurt us. The immediate impulse is simply to try to hurt them right back. The last thing we want is to increase our vulnerability when we are under attack. But though this may feel natural, it merely prolongs the pain. Rage does not – in fact — ever protect us. If we want to be understood by other people, we need to start with honesty. The next time we’ve been wounded, at the very moment of greatest apparent danger, we need to turn around to our opponent and face them with a new and indomitable weapon: those nakedly powerful, sad and calm words: I’m feeling so hurt because…

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