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Psych Cents

Passive Aggressive Personality Traits

What Does Passive Aggressive Mean?

Passive aggressive personality disorder has been categorized in the DSM IV (1994).  There has been controversy as to whether it constitutes an actual personality disorder since it has been seen as a defensive pattern of relating that is a part of many personality types and disorders.  For purposes here, it will be described as a set of traits or as a personality type.
The DSM IV describes this personality type as having passive resistance to demands for adequate performance in social and occupational settings (DSM IV p. 733).  It has also been referred to as a negativistic type of personality that involves more than just a passive resistance to demands.  Included in the behaviors are fault-finding, moodiness, vascillating behavior, temper outbursts, sulkiness, with alternation between hostile assertion of self-autonomy, to dependent repentance or contrition.
Passive aggressive types are characterized by their ambivalence about themselves and others.  They have difficulty making decisions, are uncomfortable with having to make them, and often leave their decisions to fate or chance, rather than having to accept the finality of a decision. 
In addition to their ambivalence, they also exhibit a self-centeredness in that they need to have as many options open as possible, in order to not feel restricted or controlled, no matter what effect this has on others.  If ever pinned down to making a decision, in a romantic relationship for example, they may vaguely state what they believe their partner wants to hear, only to take it back gradually, in their actions.  If they are confronted about this behavior, they may exhibit anger and act as if they have been attacked and victimized, rather than own up to their ambivalence.  Their goal is to postpone decisions, with the hopes that something will  happen to decide for them.  However, if the decision is made for them, they often backtrack to try to undo the finality of that decision.
According to some theorists (Pretzer & Beck, 1996), persons with this personality view themselves as being self-sufficient but feel vulnerable to control and interferance from others.  They believe they are misunderstood by others, a view that is exacerbated by the negative responses they receive from others for their vascillations.
A primary conflict for passive aggressive types, is dependency.  They fear the power of those on whom they are dependent, even if those they depend on never exert power or are not aware of the conflict.  Rather than work on their own problems with this dependency, they vascillate between submissiveness and deliberate rebelliousness.  Their relationships suffer because partners, friends, and/or family members cannot decipher or understand their evasiveness as attempts at independence.  Often the passive aggressive person is not entirely conscious of his/her behavior. 
Sometimes the passive aggressive person (PA for brevity) is acting against internal pressure rather than real expectations from others.  The PA imagines everyone in his/her life to be making unreasonable demands.  Often the PA is correctly perceiving that significant others have expectations of them, which triggers the dependency vs self-sufficient conflict, to which they act out accordingly.  With so much internal conflict and energy spent on battling with the feelings that are generated (feelings of imprisonment real or imagined, feelings of limitations from making decisions, feelings of entitlement, etc.), there is little energy left to look at the self. 
The underlying conficts typically are rooted in childhood, where one or both parents did not allow the child to win any battles of self-assertion or power.  The child only had the option of asserting him/herself via passive, hidden tactics.  Since children "know" on some level, that they are dependent on their parents, openly asserting themselves when their parents have worked against this, would not be an option. 
On a preconscious level the child, who is too intellectually immature to question his/her parents, would pick up on behavioral ques, even if the communication from the parents was not overt.  The impressions or conditioning the child would receive regarding assertion, aggression, individuation, would mold the child into picking other options for self-assertion.  Since all living beings need to assert themselves, inhibiting that to a great extent assures alternate routes of expression to be found, whether they are adaptive or not.  Displacement of this anxiety or conflict, onto present-day relationships of the adult PA, keeps the PA involved in the struggle with individuation, that could be resolved if the original conflict were addressed.
Being PA does not mean one is not as aggressive as openly aggressive types.  It means that the aggression is hidden, not open, but still expressed.  PAs can be even more aggressive while preserving their own belief in their passive nature.  The aim of the behavior is to aggress while hiding and appearing passive. 
Some theorists have considered that the PA may have been constitutionally more aggressive or sensitive as a baby.  A parent might naturally try to curb aggressiveness in a toddler without considering future behavioral consequences.
Passive aggressive behavior has been confused with narcissistic behaivor since the PA behaviors can have a narcissistic self-serving quality.  However, PA behaviors exist in different personality types and not exclusively in narcissistic types.

Scott Wetzler, Ph.D., has an interesting book on coping with hidden aggression in relationships called:  "Living With The Passive Aggressive Man"