How a Passive Aggressive Parent Can Negatively Impact Your Life
The Legacy of a Passive Aggressive Parent
- Do you loath conflict and go to ridiculous lengths to avoid it?
- Do you get turned off by assertive people, thinking they're too loud and forward?
- Do you have a string of failed relationships behind you caused by your weak communication skills?
- Do you distrust people, thinking they're gossiping behind your back?
- Do you have trouble expressing your emotions, especially anger?
If you're nodding your head consistently, you may be like me—the adult child of a passive aggressive parent. Growing up in a home where conflicts were handled indirectly (or not at all) may have left you ill-equipped to deal with the world as a grownup.
Adult Children of Passive Aggressive Parents Often Struggle in These 3 Areas:
1. Communicating directly
2. Trusting others
3. Expressing anger
Passive Aggressiveness and Tomato Soup
When my 80-year-old mother was visiting, I asked if she wanted a grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup (one of my favorite combinations on a cold day). She replied "yes." After finishing the meal, she then explained that tomato is her least favorite of all soups and that she only finished the bowl as not to offend me.
When my husband arrived home from work, she told him the story of how I made her tomato soup and she doesn't even like it. Then, when my teenage sons entered the room, she told the tale once again. Without a doubt, I knew she would repeat this anecdote to everybody back at her retirement community. As with so many of her accounts throughout the years, she would come out looking like a martyr and me the bad guy.
If this kind of interaction with a parent sounds familiar, you may have a mom or dad who's passive aggressive. Their behavior has influenced you in many negative ways that you may not even realize. It's not too late, though, to become aware of its impact on your life and change course like I did.
What's Passive Aggressive?
Passive aggressive folks show hostility indirectly rather than overtly. They avoid people they don't like, procrastinate over tasks that they don't want to do, and ignore requests for favors. They arrive late to events they don't wish to attend and gossip rather than discuss issues face to face. We all do these behaviors from time to time. Passive aggressive folks, though, do them often as a way to avoid open and direct communication.This makes it very hard to have a relationship with them.
1. Communicating Directly
My parents never yelled or argued with one another when I was growing up, but ours was anything but a happy home. There was always an undercurrent of hostility and frustration conveyed by my mother's deafening silence. When mad with my father, she'd take off in the car and drive around for hours before returning to our house. She'd then give the silent treatment for a couple of days to punish him.
My siblings and I grew up thinking that this was normal husband-wife behavior. Years later as a newlywed, I slipped into my mother's silent treatment routine instead of expressing my anger and frustration to my husband. If I wanted to stay married, though, I had to stop this childish behavior and start communicating directly like a mature adult.
Some suggest that passive-aggressive behavior may stem from being raised in an environment where the direct expression of emotions was discouraged or not allowed. People may feel that they cannot express their real feelings more openly, so they may instead find ways to passively channel their anger or frustration.— Kendra Cherry, author of "Everything Psychology Book"
How to Change Course?
When we give the silent treatment, pout, or retreat, it shows that we suffer from low self-esteem just like our passive aggressive parents. We lack the confidence to express our emotions and articulate our thoughts. We worry that our "ugly" feelings will cause us to be disliked and rejected. We, therefore, avoid direct communication and retreat to childish behaviors.
I learned how to turn this around by reading . This illuminating book by Andrea Brandt, a long-time psychotherapist, helps us understand how our parent's indirect hostility shaped our communication style. Moreover, it gives us advice on how to become stronger speakers. Dr. Brandt defines passive aggressiveness as "a coping mechanism people use when they perceive themselves to be powerless." Therefore, to liberate ourselves from these behaviors, we must take charge and talk in a forthright manner. 8 Keys to Eliminating Passive-Aggressiveness
2. Trusting Others
I grew up in a home with a gossipy mother who badmouthed family members, friends, and neighbors. She frequently targeted my older sister, complaining that she was a lousy housekeeper, a permissive parent, and a neglectful wife. As a result of her rants against my sister and others, I developed a deep distrust of people. I became paranoid that folks were talking behind my back, making harsh judgments, and being unkind.
My passive aggressive mother gossiped because she was too scared to speak bluntly and then deal with the fallout. Instead of expressing her concerns to my sister, she talked behind her back. While this made her feel better at the moment, it didn't solve the problem. It was also poor role modelling and made me suspicious and cynical of others.
How to Change Course?
When passive aggressive folks gossip, they're using you instead of dealing with the problem directly. Moreover, they're insulting your integrity by thinking that you have low character and are open to such talk. They're hurting you in the long-run by making you less trusting. That's why it's essential to your own well-being to shut it down immediately.
Albert J. Bernstein, a clinical psychologist, recommends that “whenever gossips say something negative about someone, say something positive.” I use his advice with my mother and find it quite effective. When she starts to criticize my sister, I respond with something kind and supportive. I'll say, for example, “She's a devoted mother who does so many fun activities with her kids” or “She's juggling so much right now with work and night classes.” My affirmative comments let my mother know that I'm closed off to any negativity and gossip.
This video explains how gossip is a passive aggressive behavior, a betrayal, and a way to feel superior
3. Expressing Anger
I grew up in a home where my dad often displayed anger, but my mom never did. I learned from watching and listening to her that it was a taboo emotion, especially for females. It was ugly, unladylike, and to be avoided at all cost.
Because angry feelings can't be bottled up forever, though, they emerged in many covert ways. She used passive aggressive behaviors such as sarcasm, the silent treatment, avoidance, and sulking. When I became an adult, I adopted these as well because I thought they were safe and appropriate for a woman.
My inability to express my anger came to a dangerous climax, though, when my 4-year-old son was diagnosed with autism. My suppressed rage finally caught up with me, and I wound up in counselling and put on anti-depressants. My therapist said that depression is anger turned inward. I had stuffed my rage for so long that I had fallen into a deep despair.
Anger has many positive qualities: It tells us when something is wrong, it can help you in terms of getting you to focus, evaluate your values and goals and strengthen your relationships and connections.— Andrea Brandt, therapist and author of "Mindful Anger: The Emotional Path to Freedom"
How to Change Course?
Looking back at that time now, I realize that my son's diagnosis was just a symptom of a much bigger problem. I knew I had to come to terms with all my feelings, especially anger. and learn to express them in a timely and constructive manner. When I'm mad now, I deal with it by talking, exercising, and writing in my journal. I've learned how destructive passive aggressive behaviors can be to my health—physically and emotionally—and I'm never going down that road again.
Did you have a passive aggressive parent?
If so, how do you best deal with that legacy?
Questions & Answers
I grew up with a passive aggressive mother and people walk all over me. What can I do?
Being a doormat is your legacy as the adult child of a passive aggressive parent, but you don't need to stay that way. You had a role model, your mother, who didn't speak directly, couldn't handle problems head-on, and avoided conflict at all cost. While growing up, you adopted many of these behaviors and thought that this was how adults interact in the world. Today, though, your silence and inaction speak volumes and tell people that they can treat you poorly and you won't fight back.
As the daughter of a passive aggressive mother, the hardest thing for me was learning how to speak up in the moment. I'd grown up with a mom who suffered in silence, played the martyr, and bottled up her emotions. Throughout my 20's and 30's, I did the exact same thing. As a result, I stuffed my feelings with food, felt powerless, and became severely depressed. When I discovered how to become assertive and deal with things in the moment, I became empowered and my sadness dissipated.
My husband recently told me that he was taking a trip to visit his elderly parents in another state. In the past, I would have stayed quiet and felt wounded that he was going without me. I would have done some classic passive aggressive moves such as sulking, pouting, and giving him the silent treatment.
Instead, though, I immediately asked him why he was going alone. He explained that he wanted to discuss some private family matters with his mom and dad regarding their wills and medical directives. By being assertive and speaking up, I cleared up the matter, didn't feel hurt, and avoided a problem between us.
When I was growing up, my mother always said: “Discretion is the better part of valor.” Therefore, I got the message that staying silent was best. That, however, turned me into a perpetual victim. Today, I let my voice be heard and handle problems when they arise. If you start doing the same, your life will change in miraculous ways and you'll feel much better about yourself.Helpful 15
My father manipulates to get what he wants. What should I do?
All passive-aggressive behaviors—pouting, gossiping, procrastinating, sulking, giving the silent treatment—are manipulative. Like many other folks, your father probably started behaving this way as a child because it got him what he wanted. As a result, his behaviors are deeply ingrained and highly resistant to being altered. That's why it's crucial that you change yourself by refusing to become a participant in his manipulations. After all, it takes two for a manipulation to succeed.
Call out his behavior immediately and be specific. As a passive-aggressive person, he doesn't act in an honest and direct way so you need to be the one who's forthright in the relationship. Tell him that you see his actions as a manipulation and you won't fall for it. Then disengage. Don't reward his behavior with your time and attention because that may be exactly what he's wanting!
When I was growing up, my mother would manipulate me with compliments. It was her way of keeping me engaged with her problems and getting the attention that she craved. She'd tell me her marital woes, for instance, and I would give her input and advice (which probably wasn't worth much since I was a kid)!
Then, to keep me on the hook, she'd flatter me: “Oh, you're such a wonderful listener...You're so insightful and helpful...I'm so glad that I shared this with you and got your take on it...You'd make a wonderful marriage counselor someday.” Needless to say, this was heady stuff for me as a kid—just what I needed to hear to stay involved with her problems.
It wasn't until I was an adult that I realized how she had manipulated me all those years. Even at the point when I could see the dynamic clearly, I continued to be a willing participant because I wanted to stay close with her. I knew that she wouldn't want much of a relationship unless I continued to play that same supportive role. When I finally decided to stop, it was with that knowledge and acceptance that she would no longer want to spend much time with me.
Stand back from the situation and ask yourself why you let the manipulation continue when you clearly see it. What's the payoff for you? What will you lose when you no longer participate? Are you willing to accept that loss?
The change starts with you. I wish you well with that.Helpful 4
My father has made near constant passive aggressive comments about me and I'm only realizing now how much it's destroyed my self-esteem. How can I build myself up?
I’m glad that you’ve recognized your father’s passive aggressive remarks for what they are and acknowledge their negative impact on you. The author, Peggy O’ Mara, offered a cautionary note to parents by saying: “The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice.” Through the years, you have internalized your dad’s hostile comments and now need to reprogram your thinking. If you’re struggling to do that, cognitive therapy can help.
Focusing on positive self-talk and daily self-care will be invaluable as you heal. You need to replace your father’s negative words with your own kind, supportive ones. You need to develop habits such as exercising, meditating, and writing in a journey to promote your well-being. The good news is that this is all within your control.
There is no better way to build one’s self-esteem than by setting goals and working hard to achieve them. No self-help book, no assertiveness training workshop, no hours of therapy will be as effective. Our self-confidence increases when we do hard things and make ourselves proud. They can include losing weight through a daily exercise regime, signing up for classes to learn a second language, mastering a new style of cooking, or training for a marathon. Conversely, when we set out to reach a goal but then quit, we get down on ourselves and our self-esteem slips.
As you move forward, it will be important to limit contact with your father. Moreover, you’ll want to spend more time with friends and family who are positive and supportive. Best of everything to you!Helpful 6
© 2018 McKenna Meyers