Afraid to Rage: The Origins of Passive-Aggressive Behavior

by Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. in Evolution of the Self
Psychology Today

At one pole of communication stands passivity: not speaking out for fear of adverse consequences. At the other end stands aggressiveness: voicing negative sentiments without restraint or regard for their effect on others. In between passivity and aggression lies the golden mean: asserting one’s thoughts and feelings, wants and needs, while at the same time showing appreciation and respect for the other’s viewpoint. Assertiveness, the ideal compromise between the extremes of passivity and aggression, is part of our natural endowment–our “universal personality,” as it were. When we first come into the world, and even before we become verbal and can articulate what’s going on inside us, we possess the rudimentary ability to communicate. Innately, we know how and when to smile, to yawn, to express surprise, anger or trepidation and, indeed, to convey a broad variety of emotional distress through crying–even wailing (as many a parent can woefully testify). We’re not yet able to employ language to identify our particular frustrations, or consider the likely reactions of our caretakers, but we’re unconstrained in letting our feelings be known.

The Problem

If we grew up, however, in a family that couldn’t, or wouldn’t, attach much value to our basic needs and wants, our natural impulse to assert ourselves became suppressed. If when we talked directly to our parents about our desires, we were derided as selfish, of thinking only of ourselves, we learned that it simply wasn’t acceptable to want what we wanted, need what we needed. Similarly, when we repeatedly received the message that we were a burden (or “just another mouth to feed”), we learned that if we voiced our wishes we were endangering a parental bond already experienced as tenuous.

The same is true when we received the message that we were an inconvenience, or too demanding, or didn’t deserve whatever it was we were requesting. And if our parents were outright angry with us, yelling at us whenever we straightforwardly expressed our wants, the very thought of continuing to voice them may have filled us with anxiety. Moreover, if we communicated our anger at their denial and their reaction to such assertiveness was scary or punishing, we would have learned to keep our anger strongly bolted inside, afraid to express that which would surely come back to haunt us.

We therefore may have felt required to cultivate a certain attitude of passivity and acquiesce to whatever lesser role our caretakers chose to assign us. After all, as children we all struggle in one way or another to experience our bond with our parents as secure. Any behavior felt to threaten this bond would need somehow to be eradicated. Of necessity, then, we’d have to renounce many of our basic wants and needs. How could this not be the case when we felt criticized, attacked, maybe even rejected almost every time we asserted ourselves? It would likely have seemed that we had no choice but to give up what we wanted–or maybe even teach ourselves not to want whatever regularly led to our parents’ denial or disapproval.

But, of course, fundamental needs and wants–whether for comforting, encouragement, support, or some material item that might at least symbolize our importance to our parents–never really disappear. They simply go into hiding. Fearing the repercussions of making our needs known, we keep them tucked away, secret from those who might be disgruntled by our asserting them. While feeling compelled to censor their expression, however, we may nonetheless feel this deprivation keenly. But at least as frequently, we go from suppressing the expression of these needs to repressing them entirely. Because experiencing these wants and needs can itself get connected in our minds with parental disapproval or rejection, we may well feel obliged to obliterate even the awareness that they exist.

Passivity–or non-expressiveness–is the inevitable result. Tragically, we may forfeit all consciousness of our most basic needs just to avoid the anxiety linked to them. After all, when we’re young, asserting anything that might threaten our dependency on our parents would, almost literally, feel hazardous to our survival. And as children we intuitively grasp our profound inability, independent of our caretakers, to care for ourselves. On our own, we would surely die. So we have no choice, if we are to secure this most vital connection, but to adapt to their preferences–and repress our own.

Yet our needs–however unattended to, and however unaware we may train ourselves to be of them–persist. And somewhere inside us there is anger that our parents do not love us enough to make these needs the priority they can’t help but be for us. For nine months in the womb all our basic needs were addressed–automatically. How, then, could we not have entered the world with a certain sense of entitlement? So deep inside us we rage for that which we now feel deprived of. Although we may have repeatedly received the message that we didn’t deserve whatever it was we longed for, somewhere inside us we felt we did deserve it.

The (Pseudo-) Solution

So how does this unrelenting frustration–and this inexpressible rage–get resolved? As children, how can we safely discharge these powerful feelings of being denied what our infant self must feel is its birthright–in a sense, as entitled to as mother’s milk, made for its own nurturance?

Obviously, it’s not safe to vent such rage directly. We’d be called selfish, bad, out of control. And we’d likely be yelled at, or even punished physically–another reminder that our bond with our parents was fragile and easily ruptured by any blunt expression of anger. It’s only reasonable that we’d be afraid to overtly let our frustrations be known. For it’s way too anxiety-producing to take what feels like our survival into our own hands, to offend those on whom we most depend.

And so–and all of this could be unconscious–we’re emotionally desperate to find a viable way of letting out our frustrations, our hurt and indignation that our needs have been slighted or dismissed by those responsible for our care. Because it’s impossible to annihilate our anger, the felt urgency to release it only gets stronger over time, even as we endeavor to suppress it. Periodically, we must find a way of alleviating this negative emotional build-up without causing serious damage to a relationship already perceived as precarious.

This is where the loss of personal integrity–in a word, lying–enters the picture. And we lie to ourselves, as well as to our parents. In essence, this is what passive-aggression is all about: “acting out” our grievances, behaviorally protesting what is experienced as unfair, while yet contriving to protect the relationship we really can’t afford to jeopardize. Surreptitiously, we find ways to sabotage, undermine, deceive, betray. In a way, we retaliate against our caretakers by doing to them much of what we feel they’ve done to us. We disappoint, withhold, disengage, make up excuses, and blame others for our own mistakes and misbehaviors. In multiple ways we resist cooperating with our parents’ directives. We deny what they need–but always with an explanation that (at least partially) gets us off the parental hook. “We just forgot,” “we didn’t mean to,” “we really didn’t understand what was asked of us,” “we had no idea it’d turn out that way, “it was just an accident,” “it really wasn’t our fault,” and on and on and on.

Beyond this–unless our passive-aggression is a lot more passive than aggressive–we manipulate. Oh, how we manipulate! Like con-artists in training, we look for all the possible ways to address our needs and desires without coming out and requesting them directly. We become masters of indirection and subterfuge. Feeling so powerless in our relationship with our parents, we attempt to “grab” this power passive-aggressively. We might, for instance, sneak money from our father’s wallet to buy the school lunch we wanted, tossing into the garbage the dried-out baloney sandwich our mother prepared for us earlier.

At some point we may have to pay a price for our various “accidental” errors and misdeeds. But if we’ve covered our tracks reasonably well, our parents can’t be entirely sure just what happened, or what our actual motives were. So any punishment we receive is likely to be substantially less than had we been honest in the first place.

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