How Does Having a Passive Aggressive Parent Affect Your Life and Relationships?
It's Washington, No Warshington, You Big Dummy!
My 17-year-old brother came home from high school that day in an agitated state and announced to us in an accusing manner, “It's Washington, not Warshington! We've been saying it all wrong!” Sure enough, each member of our family added an “r” when referring to our first president, the capitol of our nation, the northwestern state, and the process of cleaning clothes. My three siblings and I had always heard my parents say it incorrectly and they, in turn, had always heard their older relatives say it incorrectly. It was passed down through the generations until my brother finally pointed out our ignorance with disgust, embarrassed because someone at school had corrected him. From that day forward, we all became hyper-vigilant about never adding the “r” again.
It Was About More Than Tomato Soup!
This is just one small example of how we become insular in our own families— oblivious to our idiosyncrasies, flaws, and irritating behaviors. When you step outside your household and see it more objectively, you may feel humiliated like my brother did or you may feel motivated to change something negative about yourself. The latter is exactly what happened to me when my 80-year-old mother came for a recent visit.
One day during her stay 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 soup is her least favorite, and she doesn't really like it at all but ate it any way. Then, when my husband came home from work, she told him the story of how I made her tomato soup and she doesn't even like it. When my teenage sons arrived home from school (you guessed it), you told the tale of the dreaded tomato soup once again.
Needless to say, I was annoyed, knowing she would tell this anecdote to everybody back home as well. As with so many interactions with my mom over the years, I was made to be the perpetrator and she the victim. It was the same old song and dance, and I was sick of it.
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 a relationship with them.
What Are the Effects of Having a Passive Aggressive Parent?
Anyone who's taken psychology 101 recognizes this as classic passive aggressive behavior on my mother's part. Yet, even though I took several psychology classes in high school and college, I never recognized it in my own family until that day. Since I lived with passive aggressive behavior my entire life, it seemed normal to me. I thought all families interacted that way.
I got to wondering how my mother's behavior and that of other relatives in my family had shaped my personality, my relationships, and my own mothering. What is the legacy of having a passive aggressive parent? This is what I discovered and what I then set out to change in myself:
You Get Turned Off By Assertive People
Until quite recently, I've been turned off by people who communicate with me in an honest, no-nonsense, direct manner, especially women. While many people prefer this kind of straight talk, I was always repulsed by it, seeing it as aggressive and rude. I felt offended when someone talked to me in that manner, and it caused problems for me with friendships and with superiors at work. Once I realized that my mother and others members of my family were passive aggressive, though, I realized why I had such a strong preference for indirect, wishy-washy, nicety-nice talk. It felt familiar and safe since I had grown up with it.
After recognizing the passive aggressive behavior in my family, however, I've totally flipped and now love having forthright dialogues—both in my personal life and at work. They're quicker, more productive, and, best of all, no game playing is involved. Living in a household of males has helped me speak in a direct way because guys have little tolerance for passive aggressive bull-crap. They'll definitely call you on it. If I ever dare to pout and give my husband the silent treatment, he just tells me he'll enjoy the quiet and turns the television to ESPN.
You Don't Trust People
One way in which my family has shown passive aggressive behavior is through gossiping. It's run rampant through the generations—causing a lot of pain, misunderstanding, and distrust. At first I was surprised that it's considered a passive aggressive act but, in giving it some thought, I realized it most certainly is. Talking behind people's backs and spreading falsehoods hurts feelings and reputations. Instead of strengthening relationships, it weakens and sometimes even destroys them.
For years and years, I listened to my mom gossip about my older sister. She'd tell me how messy her house was, how her kids always wore wrinkled clothes, and how she neglected her husband. I just thought this was how women talked because I had grown up with my mom and aunts doing this all the time. They'd play amateur psychologists, picking apart and analyzing a person's faults and foibles until she was a mere skeleton. Not knowing any better as a child, I'd often join in— criticizing my siblings, cousins, and uncles right along with them. I learned through these women that cutting down other people made you feel superior...at least, temporarily.
But as anyone who partakes in gossiping knows, there's a flip side to it—the ugly, long-term reality. You know the people who gossip about others with you will also gossip about you with others. When you're not around, they're ripping you to the core and criticizing everything about you. When you're gossiping, you feel great in the moment—powerful, in control, and superior. But your punishment for doing it is immense as you lose trust in people, finding it hard to open up and be vulnerable. Realizing how passive aggressive gossiping is has helped me eliminate it from my life and now I only speak to people directly.
Gossiping Is a Passive Aggressive Behavior, a Betrayal, and a Way to Feel Superior
You Struggle With 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.
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.
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.
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© 2018 McKenna Meyers