Subtle Bullies: Coping with Passive Aggressive People

How to maintain your sanity when dealing with passive aggressive bullies

two angry girls on a couch
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Dealing with a passive-aggressive person is complicated. Their actions are complex, confusing and often used as a way of coping with stress, anxieties and insecurities. People who are passive aggressive often deny that they are hurt, angry or offended. Yet, they will lash out in subtle and puzzling ways.

For instance, they may give people the silent treatment, ostracize people from the group, use passive violence like slamming books or doors, or engage in subtle forms of relational aggression.

But the person on the receiving end has no idea why this behavior is happening. After all, the passive aggressive person denied she was even angry.

Many times, passive aggressive people are sarcastic, even when sarcasm is an inappropriate response. And when confronted about their mean behavior, they will pass it off as a joke often accusing the victim of being too sensitive.

These bullies also tend to seek out people who will not address their actions or hold them accountable. Consequently, they prey on people who are afraid of conflict or who engage in people pleasing. By doing so, they do not have to be honest about their feelings or take responsibility for their actions, but they can still express their hostilities without ever having a real fight.

Common Passive Aggressive Behaviors

It's not always easy to spot this type of bully. Some passive aggressive bullies sabotage others quietly when no one is watching and then act innocent when confronted.

Others will be sullen and argumentative. The irony is that beneath this bully's exterior lies low self-esteem, feelings of insecurity and inadequacy and an inability to express anger in a healthy way.

In fact, passive aggressive bullies may not even realize they are angry or feeling resentment because their feelings are repressed.

Due to this fact, they often complain that they are misunderstood and victimized. They also believe others are holding them to unreasonable standards when they are confronted. Here are some behaviors to watch out for in passive aggressive people.

Denial of truth. The passive aggressive person rarely says what she is really thinking, which can be confusing for people on the receiving end. For instance, when a passive aggressive mean girl is confronted about acting mean, she will feign innocence or deny that she was cruel even though her actions say something completely different.

Blaming. The passive aggressive person rarely takes responsibility for her actions. If she doesn’t blame you for what happened, then she will blame her teacher, her boss, even the weather. The passive aggressive person cannot ever accept that she is at fault. If something happens, it has to be someone else’s fault. As a result, she engages in minimization and victim blaming on a regular basis.

Mixed messages. Passive-aggressive people hide their resentment about being asked to do something by being accommodating.

As a result, they may agree to do something but really are angry about having been asked. To relieve some of their resentment, they may give the person making the request the silent treatment. Or, they may talk about the person making the request and even spread rumors or gossip. Other times, they may simply never follow through with what was requested.

Never showing anger. Passive aggressive people often stuff their anger. They may even appear happy and accommodating on the outside most of the time. But beware. They will act on their pent up anger by sticking it to someone in an under-handed way. By doing so, they are letting out some of their anger without ever admitting that they are upset. The passive aggressive person often feels she is treated unfairly. She also feels taken advantage of and resentful. As a result, it is not uncommon for passive aggressive bullies to engage in victim-thinking. If someone gets upset because of something she did, then in her mind you are bullying her. She could never see herself as a bully.

Boundary issues. Passive aggressive people tend to lack boundaries and gravitate toward others without boundaries. As a result, they often make those who are conflict-averse the focal point of their hostilities by creating drama.

Coping with a Passive Aggressive Bully

Confronting a passive aggressive person at school or at work is a matter of being honest. Calling the behavior out with no apologies and setting boundaries is essential. Remember, passive aggressiveness is a form of hostility and should be treated as such.

What’s more, passive aggressive people do not openly discuss issues that may be bothering them. As a result, when confronted they may make inappropriate remarks and mumble under their breath. Do not let this keep you from confronting their behavior.  Here are some other ways to overcome the negative effect of dealing with passive aggressiveness.

 

Be direct. When dealing with a passive aggressive person, be sure you are assertive and clear about your expectations. You also want to establish boundaries where needed. Make sure everything you say is factual and not emotional. Being clear and level headed are the best defenses against a passive aggressive person.

Control your response. Focus on staying calm, keeping your voice neutral and holding your emotions in check. The less you react to their actions, the less control they have over you. Remind yourself that while you cannot keep a passive aggressive person from slamming doors and pouting, you can control your response. Make sure you respond in a healthy way to their unhealthy behaviors. 

Recognize that you cannot change a passive-aggressive person. While confronting a passive aggressive bully about her behavior is a positive first step, there is no guarantee the person will accept what you are saying. Instead, focus on what you can do to improve the situation like setting boundaries or communicating honestly about how their actions affect you.

Avoid feeling offended. Remind yourself that a passive aggressive person’s anger stems from her background and is not your responsibility. You do not have to appease the passive aggressive person. Stick to what you know is right regardless of their underhandedness or demands.

Be empathetic. It is challenging to be compassionate and empathetic toward someone that is so difficult to be around. But in the end, it can be very effective. You could say something like: “It seems like you are frustrated by what happened at practice yesterday. That must be difficult.” Remember, passive aggressive people feel misunderstood. So if you can try to understand where they are coming from, it can go a long way in helping you deal with their behaviors.

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