How Your Passive Aggressive Parent Impacted Your Life and How to Change Course
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 mistrust people because you think 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 child of a passive aggressive parent. Growing up in a home where issues were handled indirectly (or not at all) may have left you ill-equipped to deal with the world as an adult.
Passive Aggressive Behavior and Tomato Soup
One day during my 80-year-old mother's visit I asked if she wanted a grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup for lunch (one of my favorite combinations on a cold day), and she said yes. After eating the meal, she then commented on how tomato is her least favorite of all soups. She doesn't like it at all, she continued, but ate it any way so she wouldn't offend me. When my husband came home from work, she proceeded to told him the story of how I made her tomato soup and she doesn't even like it. Then, when my teenage sons arrived home from school (you guessed it), you told the tale of the dreaded tomato soup once again.
Knowing this pattern all to well, I knew she would repeat this anecdote to everybody back home in her retirement community. I would be turned into the horrible daughter who serves her long-suffering mother soup she doesn't like. As with so many of my mother's recollections throughout the decades, she would make me the perpetrator and herself the martyr.
If this kind of interaction with a parent sounds familiar, you may have a mom or dad who's passive aggressive. Without realizing it, their behavior has influenced you in a negative way. It's not too late, though, for you to become aware of its impact on your life and change course like I did.
What Are Passive Aggressive Behaviors?
A passive aggressive person shows hostility indirectly rather than overtly. They avoid people they don't like, procrastinate over tasks they don't want to do, ignore requests for favors, arrive late to events they don't want to attend, and gossip about people rather than discussing issues face to face. We all do these behaviors from time to time. Passive aggressive people, though, do them often as a way to avoid open and direct communication, making it hard to have relationships with them.
Do You Use the Silent Treatment Instead of Expressing Your Emotions?
My parents never yelled, argued, or even disagreed 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 dad, she'd take off in her car and drive around for hours before coming home. This was then followed by a couple days of the "silent treatment" to teach my dad a lesson.
My siblings and I grew up thinking this was a normal dynamic between a husband and wife and how problems got handled in a marriage. Years later when I was a newlywed, I slipped into my mother's pattern and started giving my husband the silent treatment instead of expressing my anger and frustration. If I wanted to stay married, though, I knew I had to stop this childish behavior and start acting like a grownup.
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, and retreat, we reveal that we have low self-esteem just as our passive aggressive parents did. We lack the confidence to express our feelings and articulate our thoughts. We worry that our "ugly" emotions will cause us to be disliked and rejected. We, therefore, avoid direct interaction and retreat into childish behaviors.
Andrea Brandt, a therapist and author of 8 Keys to Eliminating Passive-Aggressiveness, says some women avoid conflict because we can't deal with intense feelings, especially anger. Once I was aware of why I used the silent treatment, I started embracing my emotions by writing them down in a journal, talking about them, and dealing with them through exercise, meditation, and prayer. After decades of ignoring my inner-world, I became a much happier and healthier person and my relationships grew stronger. I worked hard to improve my communication skills and people began to compliment me at work for my straightforward no-nonsense style.
Do You Distrust People, Thinking They're Gossiping About You?
I grew up in a home where my mother gossiped and badmouthed people all the time, especially our family members, neighbors, and friends. As a teenager, I listened as she told tales about my older sister—how messy her house was, how her kids wore wrinkled clothes, and how she neglected her husband. I enjoyed listening as it made me feel like her confidant and favored child, superior to my sister. Unfortunately, growing up with a passive aggressive parent who gossiped left a destructive legacy that's been hard for me to shake all these years later. I worry that other people are talking behind my back, making harsh judgments about me, and being unkind.
My mother gossiped to me because she was upset about my sister's poor housekeeping, thinking it reflected badly on her. Instead of dealing with her concerns in a direct manner, she talked about my sister to me. While this made my passive aggressive mom temporarily feel better, it did nothing to solve the problem. It also made me concerned that my mom was badmouthing me to my sister as well as other people. I often think my mother's gossiping is to blame for my sister and me never having a close relationship .
How to Change Course?
It's important to realize that you're being used when people gossip to you. Don't think it's flattering as I once did. It's actually insulting that someone would think you're open to listening. To set things straight, you should shut it down firmly but politely.
Albert J. Bernstein, a clinical psychologist, recommends “whenever gossips say something negative about someone, say something positive.” I have found this piece of advise extremely useful with my mother. When she starts to gossip and criticize my sister, I'll immediately cut in and state: “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.” Once my mom realizes I'm not receptive to the gossiping and bad mouthing, she realizes she has no audience and stops.
Gossiping Is a Passive Aggressive Behavior, a Betrayal, and a Way to Feel Superior
Do You Struggle With Expressing Anger?
I grew up in an uptight, conservative home where feelings were tightly constrained, especially anger. I learned from watching and listening to my mother that this was a taboo emotion, especially for females—ugly, unladylike, and just bad. While it's a normal and natural feeling that we all experience, it was treated like anything but in my family. While my dad showed it on a regular basis, my mom never did. But it came out of her in covert ways—passive aggressive behaviors that I adopted such as sarcasm, the silent treatment, avoidance, and sulking.
My inability to deal with anger came to a dangerous climax when my 4-year-old son was diagnosed with autism. I had kept my emotions in check for so many years, but now my fury became all-consuming. I was angry at God for letting it happen. I was angry at my mother for not helping my son and me. I was angry at the doctors, therapists, and teachers who only saw the deficits in my boy and not his value.
My inability to deal effectively with my anger ultimately led to a crash, sending me into therapy and getting me put on anti-depressants. My therapist said that depression was anger turned inward, and that was certainly true in my case. I had stuffed that emotion for so long, causing me to spiral downward into a deep despair that I couldn't fight without a lot of help.
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 and learn to express them in a timely and constructive manner. When I'm mad now, I let in out and deal with it by talking, exercising, and writing in my journal. I've learned how dangerous passive aggressive behavior can be to my health—physically and emotionally—and I'm never going down that road again.
Did you grow up with a passive aggressive parent?
If so, how do you best deal with that legacy?
I Love This Book and You Will, Too!
Reading this book was worth every minute of my time. It brilliantly illuminated my childhood, helping me see how my family's passive aggressive behaviors shaped my life. Without even realizing it, I had incorporated so many of them into my repertoire, causing me to struggle in relationships, become depressed, and often feel lonely. When I read this book, it all became clear to me, and I was finally able to break free of my passive aggressive tendencies and become more direct and well-spoken. Now people compliment me on my communication style. I'm much happier, more confident, and welcome each day with a new-found enthusiasm.
Questions & Answers
© 2018 McKenna Meyers