How to Deal with Passive Aggressive People

The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

Music in this episode is “Watch Your Back” from The Coathangers

How to Deal with Passive Aggressive People

You walk into the office after a much-needed vacation, feeling rested and ready to get back to work. “How was it?” says Camille, your questionable coworker. “I’m so glad you got to go, instead of staying to help us finish that project.” 

She’s mad at you…right? But then again, her sweet tone of voice and wide grin doesn’t seem to match that impression. So you thank her and keep walking, wondering why the whole exchange left you feeling defensive and icky. 

If you’ve been on the receiving end of a “nice remark” like this, you’ve experienced passive aggressive behavior. Passive aggression happens when we can’t or won’t express negative feelings directly, and instead resort to covert hostility as an outlet for our anger, jealousy, or resentment. 

When you have a passive aggressive person in your life, whether it’s a coworker, friend, family member, or romantic partner, you’ll find yourself questioning your own perceptions, and wondering whether you’re just being sensitive, or if there’s actually some antagonism beneath their pleasant exterior. 

Doubting yourself like this can be absolutely crazy-making, leaving you unsure about how to respond. That’s why I wanted to create this episode of the podcast for you: so you can recognize passive aggressive behavior, understand where it’s coming from, and deal with it in a compassionate, assertive manner that’s healthy and fair for you. 

My guest is Kathleen C., a therapist and life coach here at Growing Self. Kathleen has helped many people set healthy boundaries with passive aggressive people or redirect their own passive aggressive impulses so they can have healthier, more authentic relationships with everyone in their lives. 

We’re talking about what causes passive aggression, why it can be so damaging to relationships, and how you can deal with your own Camilles — without losing your cool, or your sanity. 

I hope you’ll tune in, on this page, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen. 

With love, 

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

How to Deal with Passive Aggressive People

The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

Music in this episode is “Watch Your Back” from The Coathangers

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How to Deal with Passive Aggressive People: Episode Highlights

Passive aggressive behavior is confusing, exasperating, and damaging to relationships. When someone says everything’s fine, but their behavior says otherwise, that’s a form of gaslighting whether it’s intentional or not. The sooner you can get clear about what’s actually happening in a passive-aggressive dynamic, the better. 

Understanding what passive aggressive behavior is about (hint: It’s not you!) will help you deal with it. Just recognizing passive aggression can be a big relief and can help you respond in a confident, emotionally healthy way. 

Examples of Passive Aggressive Behavior

Passive aggressive behavior can take many forms, but it always involves expressing negative feelings indirectly rather than out in the open. 

When you’re on the receiving end of this veiled hostility, it can feel confusing because there’s a mismatch between the passive aggressive person’s words and their actions. They may tell you they’re not angry, but then slam the door as they exit the room. 

Here are a few other examples of passive-aggressive behavior: 

  • Giving a compliment in a sarcastic tone. 
  • Sabotaging someone else’s plans. 
  • “Forgetting” to do something you agreed to do. 
  • Giving someone the silent treatment when you’re upset. 
  • Excluding a coworker from an important meeting. 
  • Talking badly about someone behind their back, while being polite to their face. 
  • Sulking when you don’t get your way. 
  • Speaking to someone in a condescending tone. 

Behaviors like these aren’t always passive aggressive, but they can be, especially when they’re part of a pattern. If you’re unsure whether someone is being passive aggressive, tune into your own feelings about what’s happening between the two of you. If a “friendly” exchange leaves you feeling confused or mistrustful, you might be picking up on some covert hostility. 

Reasons for Passive Aggressive Behavior

People behave in passive aggressive ways when, for whatever reason, they don’t feel able to express their emotions directly. 

People with a tendency to “people please” are often prone to passive aggressive communication. When you have a strong fear of being disliked, it can feel impossible to confront others directly. Instead, a people pleaser may try to get some emotional relief by being hostile to the person they’re upset with while maintaining plausible deniability about it. For this reason, many self-identified people-pleasers are experienced by others as quite passive aggressive. 

Others may become passive aggressive because they have anxiety about conflict, they don’t believe anger is an acceptable emotion, or because they have low self-esteem and worry that if they’re assertive and direct, they’ll have no friends

Whatever the reason, passive aggressive behavior erodes trust, builds resentment, and leaves issues in a relationship to fester. 

How to Deal with Passive Aggressive People

If someone is chronically passive aggressive toward you, particularly if you’re not close to this person, the best way to deal with it is to distance yourself as much as possible. You could do this by choosing not to be around the person, or by simply not engaging with them to the extent that you’re able. Certainly don’t react to their behavior in the way they’re most likely hoping you will — by getting angry, upset, or defensive. 

Keeping your cool signals to the person that you’re not going to engage in the passive aggressive “dance” anymore, which makes treating you this way a little less gratifying. 

How to Fix a Passive Aggressive Relationship

If it’s a relationship you value, you can try talking to the passive aggressive person about what you’re noticing, how it’s affecting you, and where your boundaries are

You may say something like, “I’ve noticed that you make jokes at my expense in front of our friends sometimes. When you tease me like that, I feel embarrassed and hurt. I’m not going to spend time with you if you continue talking about me like this.” 

This response is both vulnerable and direct, a combination that can sometimes disarm passive behavior. Either way, their response will tell you a lot about how emotionally safe you can feel with this person, and whether they’re actually a friend you can trust and count on

And if your goal is to improve the relationship, it’s important to be an emotionally safe communicator yourself. Refrain from blaming, accusing, or lashing out in anger at the passive aggressive person. Instead, focus on your own observations, feelings, and boundaries. 

How to Stop Being Passive Aggressive

Have you ever asked yourself, “Am I passive aggressive?”

We often don’t realize when we’re being passive aggressive, so it’s worth taking a look at your own behavior and being honest with yourself about your motivations. 

Notice if you’re feeling angry, jealous, insecure, or threatened around a certain person, and how you might be acting those feelings out in your relationship with them. You might find yourself talking about them behind their back, being disingenuous with them, or being unsupportive of their success. 

If you notice these things, don’t beat yourself up. Just think about why you may be feeling this way and what needs you’re trying to meet. By treating yourself with compassion, you can find better ways to get your emotional needs met, without resorting to passive aggressive behavior.

Episode Show Notes:

[1:59] The Passive Aggressive Patterns

  • Passive aggressive behaviors leave us in a place of self-doubt due to a lack of clarity about the person’s intention. 
  • The classic passive aggressive pattern is mixed messages, for example, when someone's words and tone don't match.
  • Intentional “forgetfulness” toward crucial promises is another example of passive aggressive behavior.

[11:23] How to Deal with Passive Aggressive People?

  • Understand why they act that way.
  • The root of passive aggressiveness is insecurity.
  • Passive aggressive behavior can keep us from having close, meaningful connections.

[21:29] Passive Aggressive Relationships

  • If someone's being passive aggressive toward you, that's a reflection of their feelings, beliefs, coping mechanisms, and communication skills, not of you. 
  • Sometimes, it is ideal to disengage and ignore the passive aggressive comments.

[32:16] How to Handle Passive Aggressive People?

  • Set a positive precedent by modeling vulnerability when confronting passive aggressive behaviors.
  • Create a space that encourages authentic and meaningful communication.
  • Disengage if the person doesn’t feel emotionally safe to communicate with.

[43:44] Am I Passive Aggressive?

  • Are you honest with yourself about your motivations when you communicate?
  • Find other ways to get what you need, without resorting to passive aggression.

Music in this episode is “Watch Your Back” from The Coathangers

You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here: The Coathangers. Under the circumstance of use of music, each portion of used music within this current episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, i.e., Fair Use. Please refer to copyright.gov if further questions are prompted.

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby: Today, we are talking about a topic that I know so many people wrestle with. I, myself, have encountered this, which is passive-aggressive people. They're everywhere. They can show up at work, in our friendships, in your relationship with family members, and it can be really frustrating and difficult to know what to do in these situations. Also, this is just an exasperating experience. 

You know that type of thing where somebody is sunny, and pleasant, and fun to your face, but then you know they're saying or doing things behind your back, or maybe even somebody making those ambiguous comments that can be taken a few different ways in your presence, but knowing them and their history, you know what they're talking about, but you can't really confront it directly. 

It's just so hard to know what to do in these situations without making the situation worse. That is why I enlisted the support of my dear friend and colleague, once again, Kathleen S., who is a therapist and coach here on our team at Growing Self who has so much experience in helping people develop truly healthy relationships with healthy boundaries, healthy communication, high degree of emotional intelligence. I'm hoping that she can shed some light on this phenomenon to provide you some direction for this situation. 

Kathleen, thank you so much for being here with me today. You are just such a joy to talk to. You're one of my all-time favorite podcast guests because you always are just so generous with your information and ideas. I'm confident that you will be able to shed light on this for us today too, so thank you.

Kathleen S.: Oh, thanks. Thanks for having me. I do hope to give some helpful information today to help us all deal with, I think, this experience that we all share like you said.

The Passive-Aggressive Patterns

Lisa: It happens. So many examples — this can take so many different forms. I mentioned a couple in my intro. But when your clients, your counseling, or coaching clients are describing this experience to you, what are some of the patterns, or ways, or even your own life that this passive-aggressive behavior tends to show up? Because it can take many forms.

Kathleen: So many. As I was always thinking about this preparing for today, I was struck by how many versions of this there are. You’re right — iy can come up at work. and certainly also closer to home, in your friendships, or even in your family or in your romantic relationships. I think the hallmark is that kind of like you were alluding to — that it leaves us feeling confused, and disarmed, and embarrassed or doubting ourselves and disempowered kind of.

Lisa: There's that. I won't use this term because we have clean language on this podcast, but kind of like that “mind-f” experience where you're like, “Did that just happen? I felt like that just happened. Did it? If I say that out loud, then what will happen?” It totally just puts you in this precarious situation interpersonally.

Kathleen: You feel threatened in a way and intimidated for sure. Then, unable to trust yourself, and therefore unable to really directly address it, or do anything about it because you start to doubt, “Am I seeing this clearly? Is that really what that meant? Did that really happen? Or am I interpreting…?” We tend to personalize, “Am I interpreting this in a faulty way because of my own insecurities?” 

That's part of the reason why passive-aggressive behavior works because it does kind of leave you without clarity, and stuck in that place of self-doubt — unable to assert yourself. That's kind of one of the… We can talk about the different ways people are passive-aggressive so you can identify it. But then also when you recognize it's happening, not personalizing it, and recognizing what it's really about and that it's really about the person who's doing it — that leaves you in more of a space to take care of yourself.

Lisa: Okay, that sounds like a fantastic plan. I would love to start with, just as you were suggesting, what it actually looks like. Because I think even just having that conversation would be so incredibly validating to so many of our listeners because there's that confusion, that unknown. What does this look like from your experience in action? What are the types, if you will?

Kathleen: We have your classic mixed messages where maybe someone's words and tone don't fit. Maybe they're complimenting you, but their tone has an edge of sarcasm or sickly sweetness. Or perhaps their nonverbals their body language don't match their tone or what they're saying. Maybe, even they say they're going to do one thing, and they don't follow through. All of those messages or contradictions.

Lisa: I see that the ladder in couples counseling, honestly — in couples, it's so hard for people where their partner will say they'll do something, and then they don't. Then, the other person is left to figure out if that was like an intentional forgetfulness to wound them, or if they actually forgot — because that also happens.

Kathleen: When you start to see patterns because forgetting is definitely can be a passive-aggressive technique. If you start to see patterns where, “My partner is really good at remembering these things, but conveniently forgets the things that are important to me or the things that expressed are important to me.” 

Making excuses or procrastinating, and sort of in ways that don't make sense where there doesn't seem to be a strong logic for why I didn't follow through this time, or, “I've been procrastinating. I don't remember us talking about that. That's not what we said. We were on the same page, we had the same conversation, and now it's different. That can be, so I'm glad you brought that up. 

That's just one way in couples and relationships that we can experience passive aggression. It's not to say that that's always the case. Sometimes, we do forget things. But if you see a pattern of that, especially along with other passive-aggressive types of behaviors, and I think you can feel it sometimes too. Trust your guts. 

Lisa: You're saying the mixed messages where people are saying one thing, but you feel icky. It just flashed in my mind when you're saying that. You're from the South, so I'm sure you'll know if somebody says, “Bless your heart.” It's actually not a good thing.

Kathleen: A condescending tone can also be a marker of passive… That's a good example of that, “Oh, bless her heart.” But you can feel icky. Trust your gut — if you feel this person is being kind, but they don't feel safe, or they're complimenting you, but you don't feel close to them. They're telling you something is important to them, and that they're hearing you, and they're going to follow through, but you don't trust it. These are all just good, I think, markers. 

There isn't one, unfortunately — I can't say, “Here's the stamp. We can stamp this person as being passive-aggressive to you. You can be 100% sure.” I think it's more of a pattern of experiences and feelings.

Lisa: You know what? One is coming into mind, and I don't— I'm not sure if this counts or not. But just as we're talking about this, have you ever had the experience where someone might set rules, or limits, or something, boundaries, with you that you know for a fact they don't set with other people? 

It's not that the rules or expectations or boundaries are necessarily inappropriate, but that it feels like they're just for you. Have you ever experienced that, or is that just my life that we're talking about right now?

Kathleen: Listen, I haven't experienced that one personally, but it's a great example. I can imagine it at work in particular — like unnecessary red tape, making things unnecessarily difficult for you and you being the exception to that, chronically disagreeing with you — these are different ways that… Holding you to different standards whether those be boundaries, or, let's say, work standards in a professional setting, and then other people. 

That's a good example — stonewalling. Whether it's the silent treatment from your partner, or maybe it's in a social setting talking to everyone in the group, but not looking at you, or at work — not responding to your emails, or including you in a business meeting that you should be included in. That kind of exclusion and silent treatments which can look those different ways and take those different forms. That can be a form of passive-aggressive behavior. 

Guilt-tripping is another big one by holding you responsible for their feelings, playing the victim — that kind of thing — or even being in the victim role themselves and sort of guilt-tripping you around that, or sabotaging themselves, believe it or not. This can happen a lot in romantic relationships. I've actually heard it said before, “I will do this to myself and I will be so unhappy, then they'll finally see how much they hurt me.” This is passive-aggressive… 

Lisa: Like that emotional blackmail. Passive-aggressive way of expressing…

Kathleen: Of expressing your feelings because that's part… It's not the only reason we're passive-aggressive but it’s one of the reasons is when we feel like we don't know how, or we can't — we're not allowed to directly talk about what we need or how we feel. We can’t sustain that, stuffing that forever, so it can come out in passive-aggressive ways. That's just one reason that we can behave passive-aggressively. When that is the motive, sometimes it can look like playing the victim.

How to Deal with Passive-Aggressive People?

Lisa: You know what? I did actually want to ask you about it, and I certainly want to talk about how to deal with passive-aggressive people. But I was actually interested in hearing more about this perspective as well like why people do behave in passive-aggressive ways just to illuminate it. 

I have compassion for it even, but what you just said was super interesting is that people tend to engage in these behaviors or communicate in this way when they don't feel able to express their feelings in more direct ways. Is that it? 

Kathleen: It's one of the reasons, yes. I actually think the first step in being able to deal with passive-aggressive people is to understand the reasons why people act that way because it helps us with that lack of clarity and that confused feeling. It kind of  — that proverbial facing your fears, like “look the monster directly in the face”. Then, that scary threat shrinks, and becomes something a little less scary and more manageable. 

If we can understand why people are passive-aggressive, then we can go up. That's what's happening there. And be a little less scared. Then, we're able to think clearly about what we want to do with that. It's an important piece. Having beliefs that it's not okay to express your feelings, to ask for what you need, to take up space to have conflict, which are — we talked about it when we talked about people-pleasing, a lot of us have learned that. 

What are we left with, then? To either completely neglect our needs, or try to get them met by beating around the bush in a passive-aggressive way because we feel scared or insecure about actually being vulnerable, and authentic, and direct in our communication. That is one big reason. 

Lisa: Interesting. I never really thought about this in the same way until you brought this up that it's on this… We had that marvelous conversation about people-pleasing that I think so many of us can identify with too. But what I'm hearing you say now is that maybe that people-pleasing tendencies and passive-aggressive tendencies are actually two sides of the same coin.

Kathleen: They definitely can be. We might have to the best of intentions, and then do things that or express ourselves in ways that you're not happy with for sure. 

Lisa: If you're people-pleasing, and you're sort of doing things that don't feel good to you, and you feel like you have to. That even though you're not maybe talking about how you feel in the moment, it's still coming out sideways, and it's likely to be in those passive-aggressive kinds of…

Kathleen: sideways. 

Lisa: Yes, like your nail polish kinds of…

Kathleen: Then, you're really thinking, “You didn't invite me to go get your nails done with you, but you invited Sarah or whatever.” That's one reason. But there are other situations too. If I had to pick one root for all the different ways that passive-aggressiveness can show up, it would be insecurity for sure. I would say all passive-aggressive behavior is rooted in that, but it can come from, “I feel too insecure to be — we were just saying — to be clear, and authentic, and direct. I shouldn't do, I shouldn't be upset”, that kind of thing. 

Or it can be, “I feel like I don't have power and control in this situation. I need to figure out — I feel like I need to get that to be strong, to be competent, to be respected.” Or it can be “I feel threatened by you or jealous of you, And then I might handle that with passive-aggressive behavior which is sort of another way of feeling like I have some power and control there.” 

Rooted in that sense of, “I'm not secure here”, but can have slightly different motivations. Not everybody who is passive-aggressive is always fully aware that they're doing it, and not everybody comes from a place of, “I really want to tell you how I feel, but I'm scared to.” Some people are just being adult bullies. It depends very much on the situation and the person. 

Lisa: Totally. What I'm thinking of right now as you're sharing this — I know you're familiar with Brené Brown’s work around the role of vulnerability and having the courage to talk about things like, “That hurt my feelings”, or “That made me feel left out”’ or like “You don't care about me”. That is so scary, that passive-aggressive behavior is sort of the opposite of that. Those feelings in a highly defended form, basically, is what you're saying that people aren't expressing.

Kathleen: Absolutely. That’s it.

Lisa: Anti-vulnerability. 

Kathleen: Absolutely. We've talked about having sort of a continuum for maybe we have aggression on one end, and passivity on the far end of that continuum, and assertiveness, if it's in the middle of those. I have always said its assertiveness is our pathway to genuine connection. It should open up communication. It is vulnerable to be assertive, actually. It can be scary, but it's also very authentic and can lead to intimacy — just like Brené Brown talks about. 

I would definitely say that passive-aggressiveness which might be, depending on the version of it, sort of closer to either end of that continuum, a little not quite aggression, but near it, not quite being passive, but somewhere near that. It’s just another version of not being authentic and vulnerable — protecting yourself from how scary that can feel. But it keeps us from having closer, more meaningful connections at the same time.

Lisa: It's so easy to hide, I think, in that passive-aggressive place because if somebody does dare in the phase of that passive-aggressive moment or communication to say, “I feel like you're upset with me right now. Is something going on?” So easy for people to be like, “I don't know what you're talking about. It's a joke.” Whatever that it can look like.

Kathleen: “I’m just teasing you. I’m just messing with you.”

Lisa: You can hide forever in that place.

Kathleen: That's the thing about it — it's veiled. It’s sneaky, and that's what makes it so confusing.

Lisa: Over time, in your experience, what does that passive-aggressive communication style — because it is a communication style. People are being passive-aggressive — they're communicating something. What does that do to relationships over time, both in that space between people, but also for the sort of recipient of the passive-aggressive behavior, but also for the person doing the passive-aggressive behavior — what do you see this turn into over time?

Kathleen: I think it creates almost an ever-growing, not even a gap but like a wall between the two of you. It definitely erodes trust, I think, on both sides because when you're trying to get your needs met, but you're doing it in a passive-aggressive way, you're not going to get… At first, you might get some satisfaction, let's be honest. Seeing the other person be affected, “This is what I wanted, and I don't know how else to do that.” 

But with time, you don't actually get those needs met, you don't feel seen and heard, you don't feel like you're on the same team, you don't feel safe and trusting — even if you're the passive-aggressive one. 

Lisa: I could see it pushes people just further away from you, and if you're really trying to be cared for and understood, it's like the opposite.

Kathleen: “I can't trust you, I can't trust what you say, I can't trust that you're going to be honest and transparent with me, which means I don't have a way to keep this relationship healthy and growing.” Then, even the person being passive-aggressive begins to feel hopeless as well. We kind of almost create these deep grooves that we get stuck in this — of a relationship dynamic of mistrust and resentment. Does that make sense? 

Lisa: That it's impossible to have the kind of emotionally safe, authentic, courageous conversations that are required to keep our relationship healthy. It's like that just starts to feel impossible after a while.

Kathleen: The more that we have those, and that we are heard and safe when we have those, the closer we can get, and the safer that we feel, and the more we trust, the more we open up and so on and so forth. It can go, unfortunately, in the opposite direction as well. The less often we have those conversations, the more unsafe we feel.

Passive-Aggressive in Relationships

Lisa: Well, I'm glad that we're talking about this. If we were to shift a little bit into — your advice for if someone is recognizing that they're caught in this kind of loop with someone that they wish to maintain a relationship with because I think that that is a piece of it. I know, I have encountered in social situations or situations where you do have the power to kind of distance yourself from people because I'm an extremely direct person most of the time. I don't know how else to be. 

When I feel that energy, I separate myself from that person when I have the power to do so. But I've also — and I know that many our listeners and our clients have had experiences where that's like a family member, or someone that you are connected to in perpetuity, but don't have like even enough of a relationship to be able to… Like your wife's brother or something like that, sort of an extended family, or even like a parent, or in the worst-case scenario, a spouse, but like a sibling. 

When you have to deal with this, how do you even begin to mend that? I heard you say — understanding what it's about.

Kathleen: That's sort of the first step. But you're talking about someone that you have to have in your life who can't really cut off ties, but you're not close enough where they're not safe enough to be really vulnerable with them basically. That could be a boss too or a co-worker. Yeah, yeah. Or work. situation. Yeah.

Lisa: A workplace situation. But that's even good advice that they're kind of like different categories of people. Maybe for some people that you do have the opportunity for more intimacy with you, you can have more meaningful healing. But there's like that separate category of people that you're sort of stuck with. I think the hardest thing in those situations is that like with a co-worker, or a boss, or like an extended family member — whatever I say or do, they're just going to be defensive and deny, and I'm going to look like the idiot, and it's going to make things worse. It's such a bind.

Kathleen: Yes, let's kind of look at this in levels I suppose, and you can kind of get a sense of which categories of people in your life some of these levels of addressing passive-aggressive behavior would apply to or not. If we start the beginning like we said — understanding this is about them, not you. It's not your fault. So don't get too caught up in the content of the comments they're making because you're not doing anything wrong. 

If someone's being passive-aggressive towards you, that's a reflection of them and how they're feeling, what they believe, their coping skills, their communication skills. We talked about Brené Brown — she talks about how vulnerability combats shame. By understanding, “Look, this is what's happening. This is about them, not you.” We can kind of decrease the intimidation factor and the embarrassment or the shame factor a little bit. 

Level one of dealing with somebody in your life like this is kind of to, like you were saying, when it's possible to avoid it and to distance yourself if you can — ask to be put on a different project at work, or don't be caught alone in the room with your mother-in-law or whatever, whoever it is. Have an escape plan prepared ahead of time and make that a boundary for yourself, “I'm not going to be cornered.” 

Sometimes, we do have to just not engage — ignore or pretend we didn't hear the question or the comment that was was made. This is all part of our avoidance strategy here. It's kind of like — somebody once used this term to me, and it stuck and that like, “Not letting them put the coin, the quarter in the pinball machine. Not reacting in a way…” 

Lisa: Getting activated. 

Kathleen: “…giving them the reaction that they're looking for.” Kind of making it not really fun or purposeful for them anymore by not getting upset, by not getting defensive, or explaining yourself if that makes sense. For some people in your life, this is how handle it.

Lisa: I always take the bait, I always have that tendency like, “I want to confront it.” That is what I'm hearing you say — not the right strategy. Okay. Lisa takes notes. 

Kathleen: I'm the same way. 

Lisa: Because that's what it feels like. 

Kathleen: I either want to confront it or I just want to be around it. But sometimes, we are in these situations where we have to navigate a little bit more subtlety, and when you have to have — to keep the harmony.

Lisa: Kind of expecting it like, “I know what this person does, I know how unlikely to feel in this moment, and I am in advance deciding that I am actually not going to react and make this gratifying for them, and I will try to minimize my contact with them to the degree that I can. If I can't, I am just going to smile and nod.”

Kathleen: Exactly. 

Lisa: Pass the salt. 

Kathleen: Know what this is, what's happening — and then just by being able to identify it and label it in your mind, be prepared to not engage in that dynamic with them. Sometimes, we can take it a little step up, and we can get into some broken record boundary-setting like, “Well, I'm not really going to talk about that right now. 

Or let's say somebody brings up something from the past, “I don't really care about that anymore.” Just kind of putting the big “stop” sign. It's a variation of the avoidance technique that we can use. It's just a way of saying, “I'm really not going to do that dance with you.” Sometimes, we can do that, and sometimes we can't. We have some other options. But when that's all you can do, sometimes it is what is best for you. 

If that's not possible, you can have, kind of getting out of the victim role. It is another way of not giving them the response that they might be looking for, but it's less avoidant when that's not an option. Just showing them other ways that you're not upset and it's not working on you like laughing with them when they tease you, “Oh, yeah, that's true. I am really bad at time management. Got to work on that.” 

Showing that you have the self-confidence that you're not going to be passive-aggressively bullied that you can laugh at yourself — that's not going to work if that makes sense.

Lisa: I think I'm hearing on this emotional level, you're also really shutting the door on any emotional safety or emotional intimacy with this person. It's like you're in a room, and there's a snake who's trying to bite you and just handle it like that. I think where a lot of people get roped in is feeling like, “This relationship has the opportunity for me to talk about how I'm feeling right now. Maybe, we can like do this differently next time.” 

What I'm hearing you say is like, there's a whole class of relationships where actually, “No, this isn't going to change. You shouldn't be telling people how you actually feel and just understand what this is and protect yourself.” 

Kathleen: There is a whole class of relationships like that.

Lisa: Good. That's good to know.

Kathleen: There are people, hopefully in your life, too, that maybe they don't — some people don't realize that they are being passive-aggressive, or it's something that they've learned to do, but they've never really had the kind of relationship that allows them to look at that in a safe space and be really vulnerable with somebody. 

For those people, maybe it is your significant other, maybe it is a really close friend who teases you sometimes when you're out socializing or something like that. Maybe it is a family member that we can use assertiveness techniques with them. Again, it kind of helps to have a plan prepared ahead of time if possible as far as, “These are the kind of things I've noticed happening. The next time it happens, or the next time I feel that way, here's what I'm going to do.” 

When I work with clients on assertiveness, we have different scripts that we use because in the beginning, it can feel really hard to think on your feet and it keeps it really simple. One of them, we kind of touched on earlier, and that is just pointing out those discrepancies, pointing out the mixed messages that you've noticed like, “Hey, you've been a really great friend to me in so many ways over the years. I've also noticed, though, that when we hang out with ‘so and so, and so and so’, sometimes you will make jokes at my expense, you'll tease me. I'm just wondering, what is that about?’ 

That might be a discrepancy strategy where we point out differences or messages that don't match, “You said you were going to get back to me by email by Thursday, and we agreed on the plan on how to deal with this issue, and you didn't do it, what's happening there?” This is just your basic discrepancy assertiveness technique. But when it's someone that we feel that we're closer to, and we really do want to have a close relationship with, we can get a little bit more vulnerable, and talk about how we feel, “When you tease me like that, I get really embarrassed and I feel really hurt.” 

I think like we talked about last time — how they respond to that is something that gives us information about how emotionally safe we can be with them. But people aren't perfect, it takes a little bit of time to open up. It's hard to not get defensive when someone points something out to you or tells you that their feelings are hurt. But if it's somebody that's really important to you, you can be a little bit patient, and try being vulnerable and honest, giving them the chance to let their guard down.

How to Handle Passive-Aggressive People?

Lisa: Like in those moments to kind of go into that with what you were describing — that compassionate understanding of why people might be communicating that way in the first place. Because what I'm thinking about right now is that sort of systemic impact that — like maybe they don't feel emotionally safe enough with me to tell me that they're angry with me, or that I hurt their feelings. That's why they're teasing me or doing whatever in the first place. Would you recommend trying to address that with somebody who has been behaving that way with you?

Kathleen: Absolutely. Right now I'm imagining someone really close to you, like a significant other, or very close friend, or maybe a sister — it depends. Someone you feel close to, a relationship that you value, then yes, I would say, “Why not say? Why not ask?” I would imagine that it's difficult sometimes to say they're upset with me, “Is that what's happening? Or is it something else? I just want to understand what's going on with you because I care about you.”

So setting the precedent modeling vulnerability, and that it is okay to be human, and to take up some space, and to have these big uncomfortable feelings, and to talk about them. Let's bring them out into the light of day, they're not that scary. Sometimes, we can sort of disarm passive-aggressiveness and change the relationship dance that we have with that person.

Lisa: Totally. This is so interesting because when we started talking about this, I was thinking about the passive-aggressive experience from the perspective of an individual who may be dealing with this. But as we're talking, I'm just starting to think about all of the couples I have worked with over the years where there has been — and I'm using my air quotes right now — “passive-aggressive behavior” in one partner, where the other partner doesn't realize, and this is very common and like a pursue withdraw dynamic.

I am going to gender stereotype with it. It is not always this way. It's sometimes it goes different ways, but it is a passive-aggressive appearing man and an angry woman who are married to each other. That oftentimes, what is actually happening in that relationship dynamic is when that guy says, “Actually, this is how I'm feeling”, or, “I don't want to do that”, or “I think we should do it this way”, it's like all hell breaks loose, and there are very severe relational consequences for his disagreeing in an authentic and vulnerable way, so he stops. 

I think looking at this through my couple’s counselor lens right now, the other piece of this I think we can extrapolate is how very important it is to be an emotionally safe person if you want somebody close to you to stop engaging in that sort of avoidant behavior because it's real easy to point your finger at somebody else for being passive-aggressive and not realizing that you're kind of scary, and then they might want to avoid having a conflict with you. 

To have that self-awareness — and that's me stepping into the couple’s counseling lens right now. But thank you for reminding me of that because I think that can be important and intimate partnerships. That's the thing.

Kathleen: Then, we're not really talking about what we really need and how we really feel. We don't really know each other anymore. Sometimes, it's not that obvious. Sometimes, it's clear — one of us is getting really angry, “What do you mean you don't agree with me?” We'll have someone shut down and just fall in back on passive-aggressive behavior because again, that's the only way I can communicate it all ear safely. 

Sometimes, it's more subtle than that. It's, “Oh, okay. Well, I'm still going to do it my way.” Or we have the passive-aggressive meets passive-aggressive pattern, “Oh, okay. Alright. Well, sure, I'll consider that. Then go and make the decision on your own, “Oh, I forgot. I didn’t say that.” Or, “I don't know how to do that, and so I did it differently”, or whatever. 

Either way though, when you start to feel like, “This person isn't a safe person for me to open up to either because they get angry”, or because, “I'm not heard and seen. My feelings are invalidated.” We kind of fall back on, “How can I be heard? Passive-aggressive communication might be our last step before we just stop trying to connect or make an effort at all sometimes.”

Lisa: Well, that's really, really good advice is just to try to talk about it openly, and compassionate, and emotionally safe way because your only other choice in some ways is to withdraw. Now, can I ask you about one other little facet of this or variable? 

Part of what is coming up for me too, as we're talking, and I will say this as someone who has, personally ADHD tendencies, in case you haven't noticed over all the years we've known each other Kathleen, and I have seen a dynamic in relationships where one partner actually does have trouble remembering things, trouble with task-based stuff, time management, and it is interpreted as being passive-aggressive when actually they have like thinking differences that make that kind of thing hard for them, and it can create so much hurt feelings in a relationship when it's being interpreted in a hurtful… 

People feel like their partner doesn't care a lot of the time when they are struggling with ADHD. Do you have any guidelines or recommendations to help somebody kind of differentiate, “Is this person being intentionally hurtful and passive-aggressive, or are they just sort of a mess, and that's why they're late or forgetting to pick up the whatever at the store?”

Kathleen:: I've experienced this with clients more than once and… 

Lisa: Probably with me. It’s been a really important moment for them in their relationships to be able to understand their partners in a different way. I think the reason that was able to happen is because you'll see other signs of ADHD outside of the relationship, “Does this person forget things? Do they forget what they said and conversations they had with other people too? Do they forget or have difficulty managing their time for themselves — doctor's appointments or whatever other obligations outside of their relationship with you?” 

You'll see it gets confusing too because… Also with ADHD, you have a difficult time regulating your emotions often as well, or can feel — well, we won't go down that. I would say the best path is to actually — there's a great book on this topic. There are two books — Married to ADHD, and Is It You, Me, or ADHD. Those are two great books. 

Or meet with a counselor, or a therapist, a counselor, either by yourself or with your partner to learn a little bit more about this because there are a lot of things that go into ADHD — hyperfocus is one of those things, difficulty with time management for getting things, losing things. But the point is that you'll see that pattern across the board with your children, with their friends, in their job, not just with you. Does that answer your question?

No, that's great advice. I think, even if that is what it is, your original recommendations — like having an authentic, vulnerable conversation about how this is making you feel is also probably the answer. Even if it's a different origin, your partner needs to know that the way they're showing up in your relationship is not feeling good for you and that we need to do something a little bit differently, even if it's not intentional. 

I love just your advice for this compassionate, authentic, vulnerable — and I think that's one of my big takeaways from the conversation. It's that you have to be that person, you have to be the brave one almost — is that it? 

Kathleen: Absolutely. 

Lisa: In a relationship worth keeping.

Kathleen: I would say that's a really important takeaway from this conversation. If you want authentic, meaningful communication, you kind of have to create the space for that by doing that yourself, and being receiver of that, and being willing to receive that. Then, we can get the ball rolling in that direction in those safe relationships. Again, we're not robots, we can't flip a switch and say, “I'm not defensive anymore.” 

Or for people whose partners have had ADHD, they're not always aware of it, and they don't, and they can still get defensive — and so, “I don't know what you're talking about. That's ridiculous.” But are they open to looking into it? Are they open to even just hearing how these behaviors affect you, and looking at what they've tried to do about that, and if it's worked or not? Are they open to getting some help? 

Starting the process of having those scary conversations that are really, really rewarding in the end. When it's not someone who's safe or close, don't let yourself slip into the trap of trying to figure them out or argue with them, disengage as much as you can.

Lisa: That's really good advice. I love that idea. It's like if you want to have a different relationship, if you want to have an emotionally safe relationship and an authentic, vulnerable relationship, we can't tell the other person to stop being passive-aggressive. That's this moment when you need to show up in that really courageous way, and then that's the path of change. 

One last question, then I'll let you go there. There was a comment that you made earlier in our conversation that I thought was so interesting which was that many times passive-aggressive, or people like we should say — people who are engaging in passive-aggressive communication or behaviors are not always aware of it. Just for fun, somebody listening to this podcast, how would they know if they themselves are actually showing up in this way, and having this impact on others? 

Kathleen: That's a great question. 

Am I Passive-Aggressive?

Lisa: That's a hard question. I'm just curious, if you were doing passive-aggressive things, and you didn't realize it, what would be your clues? How would you look at this?

Kathleen: It does kind of go back to our conversation that we had about people-pleasing — check in with your feelings, and be honest with yourself about your motivations when you communicate, “Am I actually feeling underneath this — sometimes frustration or power trip feeling? I might actually be feeling scared, or hurt, or jealous?” 

Notice that those are emotions that you're experiencing, especially particularly around a certain person, “Am I feeling threatened around them, or insecure around them? Do they sort of push my insecurity buttons?” Are there…

Lisa: Or if I have to act certain ways around certain people even though I don't really want to. That would be a…

Kathleen: Am I different around certain people rather than others? Although I think sometimes when we learn to be passive-aggressive in order to communicate in relationships, it becomes sort of a habit. But I really honestly think slowing down — and I always go back to this — to being compassionately curious with yourself, “I am really annoyed by her. Gosh, you really get the EEG whatever. Gets on my nerves. Man, I really can't stand that — did you see with it? 

Do you find yourself talking about them behind their back? Do you find yourself being disingenuous with them? Or really being irritated with them? Slow down and check in with yourself, “Okay, what am I needing? What is this situation bringing to my attention that I need to do for myself?”

Lisa: Resentment or even that narrative around, “She asked me to pick up the whatever at the store, but she wouldn't do that for me. Besides, she was mean to me yesterday, so I'm just not going to.” There's that narrative in your head up. But I think in summary — again, we recorded that beautiful conversation about people-pleasing behaviors. 

Maybe, it’s if you really strongly identified with a lot of what we talked about and that people-pleasing episode, there is a chance, that unless you're working on that intentionally, you may be coming across as passive-aggressive to other people because even though you think you're hiding your anger or resentment, maybe you're actually not. Is that a fair way of saying?

Kathleen: I don't think people can successfully hide that too well. Well, I don't think they're really doing anything. They can’t do that for any significant length of time. If you're feeling that way, you're not addressing with assertiveness, with vulnerability, it's not going to go away. You're probably not hiding it as well as you think you are. 

It's an opportunity to face some of your fears, and maybe as a reward, feel more seen and heard than you have before. That's the good news.

Lisa: I love it. But that's the message is that personal growth, working on yourself, developing healthy boundaries, creating congruence in your life, having healthy affirming relationships is really the path out of both situations. What a positive note to glide to a stop off. 

This was such a fun conversation, Kathleen. Thank you so much. You just illuminated so many different aspects of this. I know that even myself talking with you today understood this in different ways because of our conversation. I'm sure that some of our listeners maybe have as well, and that they can use these new insights and put them to work in their life. Thank you for doing this with me.

Kathleen: Right, absolutely. Glad to be here. Thank you.

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