Passive Aggressive? Moi?

Headbutting DiscourseAre you one of those people who sometimes gets accused of being passive-aggressive? I am, unfortunately.

But, irrespective of the now common purgatorial and pugilistic derogatory intention behind this particular descriptive, I can actually accept; people’s individual opinions (about me) are valid, if not always necessarily factual or correct.

Unlike the seemingly increasing cohort of people who don’t, I tend to speak as I find. It’s a personal trait but also one of those behaviours that can sometimes attract a frosty reception. Not that this usually concerns me. I tend not to be overly fearful of any response that may be forthcoming.

OK, I can see how some may perceive my views as airing towards a ‘passive-aggressive’ stance (sometimes) but, aggression is and never has been an intention of mine, be that overtly or covertly. And additionally, why should I be offended or upset, if I was and I am not? Because, if you happen not to like or agree with my comments, observations or opinions… it’s only my viewpoint. And that’s OK too. What you choose to think and decide to believe is your property, for you to own.

Likewise, when you ask me a question or seek my opinion, I will answer, I will give you my personal view, how you choose to respond and deal with my opinion is your choice, not mine. Do with it what you will – agree, disagree or ignore it. Life often dictates that you won’t always get the response that you expected or even wanted to hear, your agreement (or not) is optional.


Despite the fact I would tend to disagree with this particular observation [about me] I did think, when the ‘accusation’ was levelled at me again recently… perhaps a modicum of self-reflection would be a good thing. Time examining your own behaviours, traits and the way in which you interact with others, and the world around you, is never wasted.

Passive-aggressive behaviour can be intensely frustrating for the target because it’s hard to identify, difficult to prove, and may even be unintentional. Passive-aggression can lead to more conflict and intimacy issues, because many people struggle to have a direct and honest conversation about the problem at hand. (Psychology Today)

Defining ‘Problems’

The above is mostly true so, what do people actually mean when they say… “that’s a bit passive aggressive” or, “I don’t like your passive aggressive tone” – I’m not always convinced they actually truly understand the content of what they have said.

First stop wikipedia, despite it not being the most reliable source for science-based fact, it’s actually where many people arrive, at least in the first instance, thanks in the main to Google.

Passive-aggressive behaviour is characterised by a pattern of indirect resistance to the demands or requests of others and an avoidance of direct confrontation. It may also be used as an alternative to verbalising or acting out their own anger. (

Examples of passive-aggressive behaviour might include; avoiding direct or clear communication, evading problems, fear of intimacy or competition, making excuses, blaming others, obstructionism, playing the victim, feigning compliance with requests, sarcasm, backhanded compliments, and hiding anger. (

Some of the above might be evident (in particular the sarcasm) within my persona, at least in some part, however; that doesn’t automatically mean I hold some covert intention to offend or upset you. If that was your specific belief, you are likely to be way off the mark.

We all have people we can or can’t agree with and that is (mostly) healthy; diversity of opinion and differences in persona are usually good things. As is the ability to engage in ‘constructive’ debate however; to benefit from that process you also have to be accepting of the fact that sometimes, your opinions could actually be wrong, irrelevant to the discourse or, at least not compatible with those held by others.

Next, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), that handbook for health care professionals in the United States, and (unfortunately) elsewhere in the world, is an authoritative guide for the diagnosis (or labelling) of mental disorders.

Labelling ‘Problems’

I say unfortunately because; Americans tend to be fixated upon labelling people and their behaviours, to find ’cause’ behind a particular ‘condition’ or state of mind. I believe that any labelling of people is usually both problematic and counterproductive, at least for those individuals who may require some support.

If the USA was a little less prone to the use of (often stigmatising) medical labels; perhaps some people could also be a little more inclined to examine their own behaviours. Rather than instantly rushing out to purchase a diagnosis, if/when something might not be what it could/should be.

But, as that process is actually a cornerstone of the American commercial health-care industry, I wouldn’t see anything changing any time soon, probably much to the relief of the American medical profession.. The industry needs a ‘customer-base’ and often those ‘customers’ are more able to attribute a blame for their condition, when it has a label. All the better if that ‘illness’ can be attributed to any external factors… “where there’s a blame there’s also a claim!”

And, the quicker a patient (customer) can be defined as having an ‘illness’ with a label, the sooner Big-Pharma and the medical profession can devise (hopefully appropriate but often costly) treatment options or cures. Unfortunately, medicine is increasingly about pure business economics, rather than purely clinical considerations, particularly but not exclusively in the USA.

After all, when you can provide a fix for a problem, be it perceived or actual, you can also create a valuable commercial opportunity, with hopefully developing retail possibilities. It’s the pure economics of the demand and supply chain, that is increasingly evident within the commercial health-care business… too cynical?

Perhaps not however; this is also a causal factor behind so many people’s current concerns around the NHS, too closely mirroring the USA health-care system. But, back to the topic in question.

Passive-aggression: a cynical view

DSM-IV previously labelled passive-aggressive behaviour as a ‘personality disorder’ saying; that it was a; “pervasive pattern of negativistic [sic] attitudes and passive resistance to demands for adequate performance in social and occupational situations”. However, DSM-V (thankfully) no longer uses that phrase or label. It is not one of the ten listed and defined (previously 12) specific personality disorders. Thank heavens, I’m no longer sick… praise be, I was cured by an American book, who’d have thought it possible… I must be blessed?

Whoops, there I go again with my sarcastic and cynical comments. But, in general, Americans tend not to be very understanding (or accepting) of Sarcasm, from a social perspective, never mind my clinical one. Could that be one of the reasons why passive-aggression was previously labelled as a personality disorder? But, more importantly for me, do I actually have a personality disorder? If so, how/why/when is that classified as being problematic? By who and for who?

Personality ‘Disorders’

Personality disorder: A person with a personality disorder thinks, feels, behaves or relates to others very differently from the average person. There are several different types of personality disorder. (The NHS)

It has been suggested that; “Professionals in psychology and related fields have long looked upon sarcasm negatively” (see here), particularly noting that sarcasm tends to be “a maladaptive coping mechanism” for people with “unresolved anger or frustrations.” One Psychologist Clifford N. Lazarus described sarcasm as; “hostility disguised as humor” [sic].

Personality disorders are a type of mental health problem where your attitudes, beliefs and behaviours cause you longstanding problems in your life. (

Apparently, whilst the occasional sarcastic comment may ‘enliven conversation’ Lazarus suggests that; if/when we use sarcasm too frequently it can “overwhelm the emotional flavor of any conversation”. Who measures and quantifies what constitutes ‘too often’ might be a relevant question here. I’m sure some will find his latter comment an important impact to consider, others may not. His book – The 60-Second Shrink – might have some relevance here [sarcasm]?

Vive la Difference!

In this example, I am mostly talking about individual traits and ‘personality’ and usually, diversity of personality is something we should surely be celebrating. It’s what makes us all the individuals that we are. But, if/when personality traits become problematic issues I can accept and agree; it’s probably the opportune moment to examine those issue(s). Perhaps a little more deeply than we tend to do however; who are these ‘issues’ problematic for? The individual, or somebody else? Often, the latter is evidently the case so… who’s responsibility is it to address those ‘problems’ in reality?

The word ‘personality’ refers to the pattern of thoughts, feelings and behaviour that makes each of us the individuals that we are. We don’t always think, feel and behave in exactly the same way – it depends on the situation we are in, the people with us and many other things. (

Theory & Commerce in Labels

This often prominent passive-aggressive labelling is mostly applied to the academic and clinical discourse, around how we should (or shouldn’t) communicate – mostly within our working environments and/or domestic relationships.

Both areas are actually interpersonal skills and forms of communication. They are always worthy of some in-depth examination however; often the desired goals, post treatment or after any adjustment by the individual, aren’t always clearly defined. Some of those ‘goals’ could be seen as pure aspiration, designed to facilitate and enhance personal opportunities for personal gain, or perhaps for the enhancement of commercial assets.

American Thinking

The [American] resource, provides some additional guidance about Understanding Passive-Aggressive Behaviour in the Behavioural Psychology section of their website (see here).

Passive-aggressive behaviours are those that involve acting indirectly aggressive rather than directly aggressive. Passive-aggressive people regularly exhibit resistance to requests or demands from family and other individuals often by procrastinating, expressing sullenness, or acting stubborn. (

Prof Berit Brogaard, a Danish and American philosopher and the Director of the Brogaard Lab for Multisensory Research at the University of Miami, who is a highly respected mind in the field of Cognitive Neuroscience says; The Most Subtle Yet Insidious Forms of Passive Aggression are; “microaggressions that should not go unchecked.” Could the fact that Brogaard has “extensively worked as a freelance writer” (since 2009), for many popular media outlets, have any relevance here?

Preston Ni, a Professor of ‘Communication Studies’ (in America) suggests there are 12 Common Failures of Passive-Aggressive People, which create “common life setbacks” for the individual who might possess those personal traits. Perhaps it’s.time to see what ‘score’ I get there? But, as with much that originates in America, I’m always minded to question; could there be any ‘commercial’ interests in play here? There often is, particularly within the fields of (paid for) therapy.

American’s tend to be very astute at the monetisation of thoughts and beliefs. They are constantly devising methods by which they can carve out a living from selling their ideas, ones that often by themselves, aren’t necessarily cash generating. Those thoughts are then turned into ‘assets’ and can become lucrative streams of revenue. Especially but not exclusively since the arrival of social-media.

But, to be fair, I doubt this is actually the case here, at least probably not with Brogaard, however; when you consider the cash that can clearly be made from ‘treatment’ and medicines (in America) I do tend to wonder. When you understand how people make money from ideas, the cynic within me will always come back to my limited knowledge of Latin… Cui bono?

Irrespective of any of my personal [cynical] observations above, Brogaard has written about many contemporary psychosocial dynamics. She is credited with being the first researcher to show that; our consciousness comes in degrees and that there can be borderline cases of consciousness (see Is Consciousness a Gradable Adjective). In my opinion that can only be a good thing. Looking at behaviours on a spectrum often gets lost within our now commonplace binary examinations and labelling processes.

By offering her knowledge, Brogaard has helped us to understand and deal with many of our daily issues like; the consequences of work-place gossip, using reverse psychology to handle undesirable work environments, and some of the common emotional warning signs between partners in a relationship.

Undoubtedly her ‘guidance’ has been useful for those who toil at the coal-face of clinical practice however; how many people outside the field will have read those words, as part of their own self-reflection process? As with a myriad of academic research and theory, perhaps even more so within this enormous field of psychological expertise, it often takes some time for guidance to form the bedrock of practice and outcomes.

You only have to consider the mountainous science-based evidence for addressing problematic substance use issues. When you compare the rafts of guidance, with the outcomes we are currently witnessing, you can see time is a significant factor in any system and its process.

Conflicting Opinions

Additionally, today’s discourse and differences of opinion (about almost everything) are sadly and too often way more adversarial than perhaps they once were. Often, our conversations are turned into vitriolic verbal combat, where the combatants believe they have a right to come out on top, the right to be victorious.

The political debacle that is the UK General election is a case in point. More overt than covert but with a good smattering passive-aggression. As one recent article reported in, there “has been a bewildering mess” of vitriolic racism and yes, “no one expected Queensbury Rules or a genteel campaign” but, “few were ready for the level of hellfire and vitriol that would be unleashed” (read more). Can we honestly expect our academic discourse to be any less acidic or so different?

Changing Minds (and Behaviours)

But, as Brogaard has previously espoused; the cognitive mechanisms of all minds, academic or otherwise, are subject to underlying, constantly developing and transient external factors. Those change factors have undoubted impacts upon the internal process of cognition and subsequently, any displayed behaviours.

Additionally, the consciousness we have (around the choices we make) comes in degrees and along a spectrum of change. It’s worth remembering; we have borderline cases of consciousness within our cognitive process. Actions and behaviours are often automatic, rather than intentionally chosen. Additionally, all of those actions and behaviours (chosen or automatic) can be altered by the prevailing philosophical content of our minds and in turn, can have a correlation to the language that we hear and use.

Brogaard’s philosophical theory suggests that we are also impacted by Transient-Truths whereby the contents of propositions can change in time. Truth-values can be different as a result of associated changes in the world.

That philosophy also suggests a broader view in that; some types of representation have a determinate truth-value, one that is only relative to features of the subject who does the representing. If her view is correct, successful semantic representation require us to keep an eye on our own place in the world.

OK, so I’m not a scientist but I read the above as saying; people, personalities and thinking is subjective and also subject to change. Change that is often but not exclusively conditioned by external factors that can (possibly) be beyond our own personal control. We can only change those things that we actually control. And finally, before arriving at any opinion about others, are we always sure we have examined ourselves first?

I’m not Perfect But, Who is?

I wouldn’t for one minute have the audacity, or be so arrogant as to believe, I’m in any way perfect… In reality, who is?

I don’t actually think there is (or can be) such a commodity as the ‘perfect’ human being. If that was the case, there would be a stampede of (predominantly American) ‘shrinks’ rushing about desperately trying to secure therapy for themselves. Hey, maybe that’s not such a bad idea? Shrinks selling therapy to shrinks, clearly a business model to be explored… in a country that can sell therapeutic services for family pets, it must have mileage and some possibilities.

But, putting all flippancy and sarcasm aside; I believe we are all ‘flawed’ in some way, even more so if/when you chose to sit under any label of ‘convenient’ diagnosis. Whether or not that ‘flaw’ becomes ‘problematic’ is mostly and often subjective, a matter of semantics and (again mostly) Your Personal Choice!.

Differences rather than perfections are what make us all the people we are…individuals. And, long may that diversity continue. We should all endeavour to embrace our distinct differences however; we still owe it to ourselves (and others we interact with) to be the best version of a person that we can can be. Sadly and a little too often sometimes, some people don’t even try.

To differing degrees, we can all show tendencies towards blame-shifting, seeking solace in the fault of others however; when you fail to work on yourself, to address those personal issues or traits that you’re not particularly happy about, you simply store those issues up for the future. They can turn into far greater problems. When you have any dislikes about yourself, be they actual or perceived, try doing something about them… perhaps with a little support if necessary.

I’ve always believed, and continually remind myself and others; the causal factors behind our behaviours are rarely found within external factors or the people we seek to blame. It’s usually more about how we perceive any given set of circumstances, and we chose to react to those factors or the people involved in them.

Epictetus Quote


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