We all like to think that we are not passive-aggressive. Even if we are not sure what that term means, we are pretty sure it does not apply to us. “Passive-aggressive” doesn’t sound like something a nice person, a loving person, a person like us, would do.
Even as you are thinking this, however, a recent incident weighs on your mind. Last night your mom called asking if you could watch her twin dachshunds while she and your step-dad went on a mini-vacation. The problem is that you know that your mom knows that her dachshunds get along like oil and vinegar with your basset hound.
And you know it too.
So why were the first words that popped out of your mouth, “Of course, Mom – no problem!”
Not to mention that, no sooner had she sweetly thanked you – for the third time this month – than you proceeded to volley off a series of conditions upon which the dogs could stay, including specific times your mom must drop off and pick up her babies, provision of an ample amount of food (because we all know how much dachshunds can eat and your basset Harry doesn’t need to starve all weekend just because your mom doesn’t want to pay to kennel her pets) …. you get the picture.
But you are not, would never act, in passive-aggressive ways towards your mother whom you love. Right?
The trouble with passive-aggressive behaviors is that they signal an uprising within – an inner conflict that is so immediate and unexpected that we do not feel like we have time to stop, investigate, and address the source of the conflict prior to interacting with the instigator of the conflict. To compound matters, since passive-aggressive behaviors most often arise when we are interacting with individuals we are familiar with and know fairly well, the stakes get even higher and cycle becomes more vicious over time.
So how do we change the flow of passive-aggressive language and behaviors?
Internal Family Systems (IFS) is one way to begin to uncover hidden motives and messages that are causing us to engage in passive-aggressive interactions. IFS is a unique therapy model that encourages students to think of themselves in terms of aspects of self rather than a single unified personality. IFS teaches us that we have not one single “personality”, but personalities within ourselves. All of these personalities have our best interests at heart, but each perceives that achievement of our best interests can only be obtained through conflicting means. This is why getting to know each of our parts or personalities, and then getting them to dialogue and work together, is the goal of IFS.
To illustrate how this might work, let us revisit the issue of your recent interaction with your mom regarding her dachshunds, Winnie and Sue.
In this example, there are at least two aspects of you interacting with Mom when she makes the request to kennel her dogs at your house. There is the Pleaser (for more on the Pleaser see this previous Monday Motivator), who automatically says “yes” to every request your mom makes. The Pleaser likes – drum roll please – to PLEASE. This aspect of you enjoys making others happy, and fears their displeasure with the same intensity it fears abandonment because of displeasure. The Pleaser has been convinced through past experiences that saying “no” equals displeasure, which equals abandonment. To the Pleaser, a “yes” ensures your social survival.
Underneath the Pleaser, however, there resides another aspect of you. This aspect, the Rebel, idolizes James Dean, the Fonz, and any other character who regularly chooses to go against the flow. The Rebel has her own assessment of the mother-dachshund scenario. In the Rebel’s opinion, your mom is taking advantage of you for free kenneling. The Rebel resents your mom for continuing to ask you to care for her aggressive, whining, bottomless pits when she knows that you know that she knows that you are inconvenienced more than a little by the repeated favors. To make matters worse, the Rebel remembers every single past experience you have had when you have been taken advantage of – only to find out after the fact, to its horror and disillusionment. The Rebel has vowed to do whatever it takes to uphold your integrity and respect by refusing to let those close to you use you as a doormat yet again.
This is why, even as your Pleaser is saying yes, yes, yes, your Rebel is yelling at the Pleaser – and at you – telling you not to be a pushover. Your Pleaser is afraid of social annihilation and your Rebel wants to annihilate your Pleaser, the requester – and Winnie and Sue.
And you are caught in the middle.
Using IFS, you can begin to dialogue with the Pleaser and the Rebel, hearing each part out, commiserating and empathizing and then introducing a third perspective – balancing out each part’s needs so that all three of you together can accomplish your shared goal – to safeguard your own wellbeing even while maintaining valued relationships with others in healthy, self-affirming ways.
If you are frustrated by persistent internal and external conflict in valued relationships, and you are at your wits end for how to handle the interactions of your Pleaser and Rebel, IFS and Southlake Counseling can help. Contact us today at www.southlakecounseling.com to find out how to say “no” to passive-aggressive behavior and YES to collaboration, partnership, and positive relationship skills.