My Trigger? Passive Aggression


You know you’re not having a good parenting day when you urgently look up mental health articles at Psychology Today. In my case, I was googling strategies for dealing with passive aggression in kids—you know, the foot dragging, procrastination, selective hearing and snarky defensiveness that ensues when you ask kids to hang up their coat.

That morning, after a few, um, discussions, my breathing was getting faster and my sense of panic increasing. I can’t put up with another eyeroll without blowing my top, I thought.

Enter Psychology Today.

But as I was scrolling through tips, I realized the panic and breathiness I was feeling had more to do with the past than this particular child. Because not that long ago, I was looking up passive aggressiveness in relationships with adults, not kids. And my current search triggered old emotions, mostly panic. Back when I dealt with adults, I felt as though I was googling “escape quicksand” while I was neck-deep in a quagmire.

Passive aggressive people express anger indirectly, “through acts such as subtle insults, sullen behavior, stubbornness, or a deliberate failure to accomplish required tasks.” Sometimes they are not even fully aware they’re angry or lashing out at you—and thus, when confronted by their behavior, will react in surprised indignation, blaming you for being too sensitive or demanding.

In other words, if you confront the behavior, you get stonewalled. If you don’t confront the behaviour … you also get stonewalled. It’s super-fun.

My kid’s pushback reminded me of a deep, desperate helplessness. For a long time, I assumed the passive aggressive people in my life were right—that I was a controlling harridan for asking them to change their behavior or step up to the plate. I assumed I wasn’t communicating clearly or responding appropriately to their stonewalling. I needed to be nicer and more flexible. But bending over backwards like an emotional contortionist didn’t improve things. It just made me resentful and angry.

Full disclosure: sometimes I handled my anger with passive aggression too. It’s an equal-opportunity problem.

Fast forward to therapy. One day I described a passive-aggressive interaction to my counselor, Lola. Someone I was in relationship with responded with latent hostility when I said no to them. That hostility paralyzed me, but I had to interact with this person regularly because of my kids, so I ended up feeling panicky around them all the time. It was like being trapped in a cage with a tiger eyeing you, waiting to pounce.

I would ride out the panic until they thawed, and then we’d “go back to normal,” but with me still feeling guilty about saying no, fearful of the next go-around, angry at being pressured, and under pressure to give in to next time.

“You need to name the dynamic,” Lola said, simply. “When they’re hostile, tell them you feel hostility coming from them. If they give you the silent treatment, say, “It seems like you’re refusing to speak to me right now.”

I interrupted her, exasperated. “But they’ll just deny it.”

“Wait—I’m not done,” she said, patiently. “Then you have to tell them that you can’t interact with them or participate in shared activities until you’re able to resolve the problem respectfully.”

I gaped at her. “But—that would be really awkward.” I could not imagine having the moxie to tell the person I would not engage with them—and then to do it. It would be a nuclear bomb.

“And it isn’t awkward now?” she said. “Maybe they need to bear some of that awkwardness too, and not just you.”

Lola told me I had to name the symptoms of the problem without blaming, hostility, or being punitive. She told me to state my case calmly, respectfully and with regret, and to reiterate that I was happy to resolve the issue any time they were willing to be respectful in turn.

“And if they come at you with more passive aggression, you keep naming it and saying no to it until they interact with you appropriately,” she said.

Quite honestly, when she described this template, I felt even more panicky. Her way of dealing with latent hostility was so—direct. So raw. I’d have to unmask hostility while hoping its sharp teeth didn’t snap at me. Instead of running from a monster, I had to face it with my heart vulnerable and open. It sounded like the worst possible idea ever.

But it worked.

Over time, naming passive aggression and asking for respect, changed everything. I stopped interacting with passive aggressive people according to their rules, and started loving them according to mine.

Distance or respect—it was their pick. Veiled or open hostility no longer worked on me.

The day I was scrolling through Psychology Today, I recognized a few things.

One, passive aggression meant I needed to make more room for my kid’s anger. I knew from experience how hard it is to own my anger and express it respectfully—so I needed to model how to do so for their own well-being.

Two, I realized how hurt passive aggressive adults are. They probably were shamed or belittled for their needs, desires, and emotions—no wonder they masked them.

Three, I can recognize how passive aggression triggers me without losing my cool. The more I felt compassion for my kid navigating emotions that bewilder grownups, the better I could talk to her about how we might partner to solve disagreements.

Here’s the thing about triggers: they tell us a lot about what we really need—respect, safety, healing, courage. And if we’re willing to pay attention to the interactions and words that scare us, we can learn what the next right step towards wholeness is.