Passive-aggressive is a label often meted out by non-experts to cubby hole people who may be moody or not willing to talk straight talk, people who are quiet and not assertive or even as a way to manipulate someone else by placing a derogatory label on them. As an HSM, I have been called passive aggressive by those who think my thoughtful and deliberate approach on things is manipulative. Not so.
What is passive aggressive behavior anyway? The classical definitions describe this behavior as a passive group of manipulative behaviors used to provide resistance to another or others, mired in moodiness, sarcasm, stubbornness, learned helplessness, blaming, and backhanded compliments or in some way to mask hidden anger. The gist of this seems to be about an inability to process anger in a straight forward and positive, assertive way. Repressed anger, lack of assertiveness. Sound familiar, HSMs?
Passive aggressive behavior is learned at home. Children made to feel that anger is something not to be expressed, find ways to allow the inner turmoil to seep out and passive aggressive behavior is one way to do that. It also occurs in families where any honest, straight forward emotional display is discouraged, and again, the child learns coping strategies, that help relieve the internal pressure cooker.
Passive aggressive behavior in extreme is defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSMxx) as a disorder, needing therapeutic treatment. In its lesser forms, passive aggressive behavior is more of a failed coping strategy that is more of a distorted approach to getting your point across. It’s a childish behavior, it’s manipulative and it’s catty.
The root of passive aggressive behavior is most often stemmed from anger or disappointment, or hurt feelings. The motive for passive aggressive behavior is a subtle type of revenge that is manipulative but not aggressive.
Not surprisingly, men and women process anger differently. Men are taught to be more visual, external and aggressive, while woman are taught to suppress their anger and to vent it in more subtle and diffused ways. You would think that the perfect candidates for passive aggressive behavior would be women. But this does not seem to be the case. Because women verbalize more than men about their emotions, they can, in fact, find suitable outlets of expression that don’t lead to aggressive behavior. Conversely, men aren’t always allowed to express aggressive anger, repress the feelings and find passive aggressiveness as way to cope with the anger.
But what about HSMs? Because we tend to be less assertive and certainly less aggressive, would this make us candidates for passive aggressive behavior? On the surface that would seem logical, but thinking about one of the hallmarks of HSPs, empathy, it would seem less likely that this behavior would be likely to be implemented.
Empathy is a powerful force in its own right. Manipulation of another stems largely from a lack of empathy towards the other. Having the sensitivity to react to our reactions, makes us more likely to consider the outcomes before implementation and our empathetic and sensitive nature makes it unlikely that we would feel good about this strategy.
Now with that said, it is not impossible to imagine an HSP using passive aggressive tactics in desperation, but as a long range strategy, it just doesn’t feel right. It does require some disconnection from the “what I say” and “what I do” of the behavior to enact passive aggressively. And this would be the point where HSMs would struggle.
Let’s dig a little deeper into the HSM personality that might lead others to label HSPs as passive aggressive. Because HSMs tend to be more connected to their emotional state and are aware of the emotions of those around them, do we tend to get more defensive when emotions run hot? The answer is a resounding yes. We are very sensitive to criticism and as a result this often leads to people pleasing behaviors, some of which are inauthentic. This becomes a point of incongruity for our internal compass.
This can be become a disconnect in our communication with others, as we pursue an often idealistic goal of continual peace and harmony with the world. As Dr. Elaine Aron states, “…(HSPs) are naturally more influenced by feedback, and it may even be why we are more emotional generally.” We take that feedback to heart, process it, and at some point take action. The time lag may appear to others to be a form of passive aggressive behavior (shutdown reaction, quiet, not saying what we feel, etc.)
We hurt more easily, too. HSPs are not angels. We do have a dark side as well. As men, we still have a drive to act aggressively, even if it is not our nature. Can we formulate strategies to react less aggressively, but still showing passivity and milder aggressiveness? Perhaps, we do show signs of hypercritical evaluation, self flagellation, indecisiveness, irritability, moodiness, need for solitude, naivete, and eccentricity, but taken as a whole is this passive aggressive? I can see where the non-HSP world could see that. But its not, and the key is the motive. Manipulation and revenge are the key motives of passive aggressive behavior and are not major drivers for HSPs.
In fact, Dr. Aron points out, “Generally, the research does not point out or show increased activation in HSPs in areas of the brain related to ‘primitive emotion’ …Rather than ‘getting all stirred up’ more than others, we tend to process emotional experiences more in ‘higher’ parts of the brain, the ones designed precisely for emotional regulation.”
Anger a swift moving emotion, helps us to set boundaries and protect our rights. For HSPs, this highly charged emotion can leave us in a processing overload. Our reaction are not often swift enough, and hence boundaries can be lost. This is upsetting even for HSPs and can lead to coping strategies that may not be best for our personality type. Sometimes, the non-HSP world see this is passive aggressive without truly understanding what that term means.
Slow to anger does not mean the anger is not present. Because we HSMs tend to suppress some of the aggressiveness of anger, we still have to process our reaction to anger. At some point, it will come out. Assertiveness training is helpful and the use of assertiveness strategies is in alignment with HSP values. Most of us never get this type of education. Unfortunate. I know for myself at some point a eruption point occurs and like a volcano the anger explodes unexpectedly. Bad strategy, and for that we get bad labeling.
So what can we do? If you show passive aggressive tendencies or what the non-HSP world describes as such, here’s some ways to deal with that:
Thanks for dropping by, until next week…
Bill Allen lives in Bend, Oregon. He is a certified hypnotist and brain training coach at BrainPilots.com. He believes that male sensitivity is not so rare, but it can be confounding for most males living in a culture of masculine insensitivity which teaches boys and men to disconnect from their feelings and emotions. His intent is to use this blog to chronicle his personal journey and share with others.