Dear Patti,

I met Jasmine a year ago when we started high school together and liked her a lot. But now it seems like every time I see her I leave feeling angry. She’s always putting me down in front of our friends “as a joke.” Last night she said she’s gained 10 pounds but it was OK because she’s still 20 pounds lighter than me. I was so mad I felt like punching her! She says things like this all the time and it drives me crazy. If I confront her, I know she’ll just say that I’m too sensitive and she didn’t mean anything by it. What do I do?

  

— Mila

Dear Patti

My brother-in-law is a great guy in a lot of ways. He adores my sister and their kids but he can be frustrating to be around. He constantly gives these backhanded compliments. He’ll comment on how nice our house is, but then point out how the windows could have been installed better, how the kitchen is cozy but isn’t up to code, there’s a crack in the wall, and on and on. Recently after the tenth negative comment, my wife couldn’t hold it in any longer. She lost her temper and told my sister off about her husband’s comments. My sister insisted that he did nothing wrong and now my wife and sister have stopped talking. How do we keep from blowing a gasket every time this guy starts nitpicki

— Alexander

Dear Mila and Alexander,

First, let’s look at the difference between anger and aggression. Anger is an emotion one experiences in his/her body in response to feeling pain or threatened. Anger is resentment against being hurt. If one’s anger is consistently repressed, anxiety or depression may occur. Aggression, on the other hand, is an impulse and/or behavior of striking out toward another when angered. Importantly, one can experience and process anger and an aggressive impulse without being outwardly aggressive.

Passive-aggressive behaviors are those that involve acting indirectly rather than directly. A passive-aggressive person realized long ago as a child that it was unsafe to acknowledge or express anger or aggression to one’s self or others. Instead, they learned to strike back at others in an indirect way.  After interacting with a passive-aggressive person, you might not be able to explain exactly what happened. You just know that you end up feeling angry. This anger may be directed toward the passive-aggressive person or even toward yourself, leading to self-attack. Examples of passive-aggressive behavior include avoiding direct communication, evading problems or competition, making excuses, blaming others, feigning compliance with requests, sarcasm, and backhanded compliments.

A well-timed witty comment among friends may be good humor. A knowledgeable comment about how to re-enforce your home could be helpful. But comments that make you feel inferior and attack your self-esteem mask anger lurking beneath the surface and constitute passive-aggressive behavior. After being on the receiving end of these remarks, it’s not uncommon to feel as angry as if someone aggressively assaulted you.

Often it is healthy to “say ouch when it hurts” and speak up for yourself. However, passive-aggressive behavior cannot be addressed in the same way you might handle aggressive behavior. When dealing with someone who is consciously or unconsciously seeking to make you angry, it’s not wise to express those emotions to them directly. Although you should never lie to yourself about what you feel, it will be more productive to vent those feelings to a therapist or trustworthy friend after the experience. Remember, the underlying purpose of passive-aggressive behavior is to make you respond back in anger. The less likely the person is to achieve that goal, the more likely there will be a reduction in their behavior. Instead, try indirectly confronting them, using “I” statements instead of “you” statements, and remain very calm. There may be times when you do need to speak up and assert boundaries. For example, you might say “In the future, please don’t make comments about our home, positive or negative.” The passive-aggressive person may retort that your request is ridiculous because they were only trying to help. Without anger just repeat your boundary: “I understand, but it’s best that we leave comments about our home out of the conversation.” Try not to give into acting out aggressively  and stoop to the other person’s level.  


Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has an office in Pasadena. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email pcarmalt@aol.com. Visit her website, patticarmalt-vener.com.