Archive for February, 2009

Passive-aggression 101: The List

February 24, 2009

There seems to be a widespread phenomenon which I’ve come to call The List. We’ve probably all seen it in action. Its one of the most popular passive-aggressive tactics.

Some background: Life brings us a steady stream of issues, large and small, throughout our days. Boundary issues, pet peeves, quality of life issues, lots of names have been applied to them.. Somebody’s music is too loud, somebody squeezes the toothpaste from the middle of the tube, somebody doesn’t do their share, we feel unappreciated about something, somebody puts a wet spoon in the sugar. Every human being encounters these things all the time, with every other human we come into contact with for any length of time. Its part of life, as inevitable and constant as the need to urinate.

When one of these issues comes up, the Good Communicator addresses it directly and without delay, approaching the person involved, explaining the situation and asking for what is wanted to improve the situation. A good communicator also knows there may well be issues coming the other direction too, so is prepared to reciprocate and negotiate. This principle is the bedrock of any healthy relationship, social or professional.

By contrast, when one of these issues comes up, the Passive-Aggressive says nothing, just quietly, stoically adds it to his List.

The passive-aggressive person resists discussion. He knows he’s Right, and the other person could not possibly have any valid points of their own, so must therefore be deficient (evil, a liberal, a martyr… insert your favorite hate-label here), so theres obviously no point in any discussion. (it certainly has nothing to do with any fear that discussion might turn up inconvenient facts that might then have to be taken into account.  shhh)

Passive-aggressive logic dictates that the problem is not whatever issue is at hand. The Problem is a person. If only that person could be eliminated, things would be so much easier.

One day, the passive-aggressive finally snaps, reels off The List and Deals With the Problem – throws somebody out of the house or the relationship or the jobsite, or maybe throws a punch..

(… or comes in to work with an assault rifle…or signs the order to have one of his squads pick up the offender tonight at midnight.)

Among people truly committed to taking their passive-aggressive lifestyle to its extreme, the List is never even delivered – the offender is obviously so annoying, so against god that he doesn’t even deserve to know why he’s just been clobbered. Hangin’s too good for him!

Perversely, American mainstream culture rewards passive-aggressive tendencies, while stigmatizing clear communication.

The conscientious communicator gets labeled as the Loud One -the troublemaker- high maintenance. The passive-aggressive gets called the Quiet One, the strong silent type, the good girl.

Quiet = good.  loud = bad

Mainstream Americans are raised in what is essentially a passive-aggressive culture.

Inevitably, it is a culture of distrust, because when dealing with passive-aggressive patterns, you can never really know where you stand, never know how long the next person’s List is, never know how close they are to the boiling point. “He’s got a file on you..”.

Some sub-cultures and cultures associated with certain minorities are considerably more loud and direct. They are generally vilified for this, even though their tendencies are more healthy than those of the uptight white people who berate them. This is one of the worst manifestations of cultural insensitivity.

Mainstream American culture preaches that clarity and negotiation are too much trouble. Its so much easier to bitch about people behind their backs, sabotage friendships, instigate long chain-reactions of drama, divide up the friends, generate legal battles, mafia hits (or shooting wars, if you happen to be the president), create life-long enmity…

Those crazy people who want to *talk* about stuff instead – they’re so high-maintenance. They’re ‘soft on _X_’ (insert favorite designated-enemy-label for X).

No price is too great, when the goal is ducking responsibility for your own communication. That’s the overwhelming message of the American mainstream.

So, in addition to the considerable degree of difficulty of developing the skill of healthy communication, we Americans can also look forward to being stigmatized in almost direct proportion to our mental health. (sigh)

But its well worth it.

A sane pariah has a far better shot at happiness than does a herd-animal. Good communicators are, by definition, good problem-solvers. This problem, too, can be solved. (hint: support networks of good communicators are helpful.)

People trapped in passive-aggressive patterns don’t comprehend the problem, much less have the skills to resolve it. Passive-aggressives have been trained to be proud of their own lack of communication skills – a vicious cultural trap.  They’ve pretty much swallowed the Red Pill and taken their place in the Matrix.

Such people don’t understand that when we do this, we inexorably drive genuine trust and love from our lives.  Many will never know why they are unhappy.



February 22, 2009

There seems to be a lot of confusion in the world about what boundaries are, and how they are formed.

That is very unfortunate (and hurts a lot of people), because this is one of the few topics in which theres no room for grey area. Why? Because ambiguity is what creates bad/nonexistent/dysfunctional boundaries. If there are grey areas, then –by definition- they are not boundaries. They are, at most, suggestions. Far more often, they are unexpressed, half-hearted or conflicting desires.  A half-built dam won’t hold water.

Boundaries need not be set in rude, aggro-fueled or adversarial ways. Healthy boundaries generally aren’t. What they must be – to qualify as boundaries at all – is clear and consistent.  That means clear to others, not just to us in our own heads (or to old friends who we’ve had a thousand conversations with, or who will take our ‘side’ regardless of facts).

A lot of other things seem to get mistaken for boundaries.

A desire unexpressed (or partly expressed – inaudibly, inconsistently, incoherently) is just that – a desire.  It is *not* a boundary.

Hiding from someone, avoiding or cutting off contact (including when used as a technique to “win” an argument) is not a boundary.

Acting annoyed, and assuming s/he must be able to figure out why, is not a boundary.

Telling someone to f— off because s/he did something you didn’t like –that s/he didn’t know you wouldn’t like- is not a boundary.

Telling someone to f— off because you did something that you later decided you regretted is not a boundary.

Getting someone fired, or kicked out, or getting your boyfriend to beat him up, or getting your friends to talk bad about him is not a boundary.

People with passive-aggressive tendencies sometimes talk about boundaries as if they were a sort of supernatural force-field, like auras that magically emanates from them with no effort, forethought or communication required to create or maintain them. This erroneous belief is part of a terribly destructive pattern, leads inevitably to all sorts of conflict and drama, can retard or arrest development.

If I have not done the work to know and understand what I want, then, by definition, I do not have a boundary. How can I express something that I don’t know?

If someone doesn’t give me what I want – when I didn’t spell out clearly what I want – they have not violated my boundaries. I have failed to establish boundaries – and that is my fault, my responsibility – not theirs.

Clarity and consistency – the definers of boundary – often require effort and practice. The ability to set good boundaries is a skill –an absolutely essential survival skill for all human beings.  But its  not taught in most schools. To people who grew up in cultures that punish clarity and reward passive-aggressiveness (like ours in the USA), the effort to establish good boundaries can seem nearly insurmountably difficult.

Can’t I just hire somebody to do that for me? Or get my boyfriend or my Mom to do it?

No. You can’t. (You can try -many do- but the result will most assuredly not be healthy boundaries.)

No one can take responsibility for your boundaries but you. This is not because people are unkind or out to get you (some are, some aren’t). Its not even because some folks wouldn’t gladly set your boundaries for you if they could. (But they can’t).

Its because its physically impossible. No one can read your mind. No one can speak for you, but you. And no one should.

Boundaries are 100% the responsibility of the individual.  I am responsible for establishing my boundaries.  You are responsible for establishing yours.