What to say to a passive-aggressive person

Deconstructing Shame, Uncategorized

When someone speaks in a passive-aggressive way, it creates a chain reaction in you (reactive reaction) that might look something like this:

Other person: “Passive-aggressive statement directed at you.”

You: Confusion–> Anger and/or Fear {varying degrees} –> Shame –> Spinning –> Apologizing –> REPEAT
You: Anger/Fear–> Shame –> Attacking –> REPEAT
You: A combination of the above.

Let’s unpack this:
See beyond the obvious: Part of the message is the delivery of shame TO you FROM them. It’s hard to be the object of someone else’s vitriol and can leave the recipient feeling a bit crazy and questioning what they did wrong. It’s a destabilizing feeling.

Understand the underlying cause: When you are attacked verbally, you will naturally want to defend yourself. I am not talking about defensiveness but about literally trying to protect yourself from the daggers being aimed by the other person. As you see above, the reactive cycles of protection are messy and a huge energy suck. They are also destabilizing, until you understand what is really going on.

Suss out what’s personal and what’s not: The passive-aggressive speaker is the one who is being defensive—but you, as the recipient, are the one who unwittingly took on, absorbed and acted out the other person’s defensiveness, rage and, shame. It got dumped on you. It happens. It’s not personal to you but it’s personal for you, and that’s what matters.

Understand where the shame fits and doesn’t: Passive-aggressive behavior is a kind of parasitic variant. The other person needs you to respond a particular way (reactively) to justify their continued lack of desire for agency over their own experience/feelings/issues which includes, of course, shame.

Ways to reply to a passive-aggressive person

Grow awareness: Learning to recognize passive-aggressive messages, despite how personal they seemed to you, will help you detach from their destruction. When doing so, this is how you may reply instead. Note that you may still feel uncomfortable, but your reaction will be very different.

Other person: “Passive-aggressive statement directed at you.”
You: Confusion–> Anger and/or Fear {varying degrees} –> Awareness of the feelings evoked and reflection on your own feelings as a result –> Assessment of next steps –> Detachment –> Recognition that shame is not yours to hold –> Statement to diffuse and un-attach you from the interaction (see below) –> REPEAT

Next time someone tries to engage you in a passive-aggressive way, you might try using one of these statements to diffuse the onslaught. Keep your tone neutral. After you deliver your reply, refrain from engaging.

  • “I don’t agree with that.”
  • “I don’t see it that way. I’ve got nothing else to add.” (<– this can work well when the individual says something that feels more personal to you, or is personal)
  • “That’s a lot. I’ve got nothing to add.”
  • “I’m not going to discuss that with you.”
  • “I’ve never heard that before.”
  • “No opinion.”
  • “That’s too big to wrap my mind around.”
  • “Wow.”

Photo by S O C I A L . C U T on Unsplash

About the author 

Meredith Resnick

A licensed clinical social worker, Meredith is a member of the International Association for Journal Writing, the C.J. Jung Club of Orange County, California, and an associate member of the Trauma Research Foundation. She has a special interest in healing through the expressive arts.

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