Passive-aggressive behavior is very toxic, and can be common in folks with borderline personality disorder (BPD). As someone who has BPD, I know it is actually a very hostile way of interacting with people, but once you understand what it is, you can work to stop engaging in it.
People with BPD who engage in passive-aggressive behavior often live on an emotional roller coaster. With their families, friends and work colleagues, they are often very friendly one day and then withdrawn and distant the next. They will often procrastinate or stall, stonewall you or shut you down whenever you want to have any kind of in-depth, emotional discussion. People with BPD who are passive-aggressive often use something called an “angry smile,” which is one way they try to cover up their unresolved feelings of anger that may be due to trauma in childhood. They may smile when they are seething inside because the smile is a way to try to cover up the underlying feeling of rage they may feel.
Why is this?
One reason may be because they are afraid of intimacy because they do not have good communication skills. But once someone recognizes the passive aggressive behaviors, they can take steps to correct them and banish this kind of toxic behavior completely.
Here are some typical things a passive-aggressive person will say:
1. “I’m not mad.”
Often people will say this because they want to deny their angry feelings. This is classic passive-aggressive behavior. A person with BPD may do this because they are extremely uncomfortable with having the angry feeling and they want to push it off. It is often impossible for them to express the words, “I feel angry about…”
2. “Fine” or “Whatever.”
These words are usually tied to outward expressions like sulking or withdrawing from the person with whom they are having contact. They use words like this as a way of shutting down any type of honest discussion or emotionally honest communication when they feel overwhelmed.
3. “I’m coming!”
Sometimes a person with BPD who acts in a passive-aggressive way will usually be recognized as someone who complies verbally with a request but delays its completion. Children often display this behavior — you ask your child to come in from outside and they yell, “I’m coming!” but don’t actually show up for another 10 or 20 minutes. This kind of passive-aggressive behavior gives the appearance of compliance without the follow-through.
4. “Did you mean right now?”
Folks who engage in passive aggressive behavior have mastered the art of procrastination. Even though most people like to put things off, a passive-aggressive person will use procrastination as a way of avoiding certain tasks they find distasteful. This allows them to get away without having to do it without actually having to verbalize a direct refusal or engage in a negotiation.
5. “You always want everything I do to be perfect.”
A passive-aggressive person who is not able to use procrastination may resort to a more sophisticated strategy which involves carrying out a task in a completely unacceptable way. This might entail things such as a student turning in sloppy work with multiple errors, a man who goes to the grocery store for his wife but comes home with only half the list or a wife who shows up half an hour late to a dinner at a restaurant she did not want to go to. In each of these examples, the passive-aggressive person gives the appearance of complying with the requested task. In every single one of these situations, the passive aggressive person gives the impression of complying with the request but sabotages it by carrying it out ineffectively or inefficiently. If they are confronted with this, they tend to vigorously defend their work or will return an accusation of the other person being overly perfectionistic or having standards that are too high.
6. “I thought you knew.”
Often a person with BPD’s passive aggressive action will have more to do with omission rather than commission. They will express their hidden anger in a covert manner by refusing to share information or intimacy with the other person if they perceive that doing so will cause a problem for them down the road. They will then claim to be innocent as a way of defending their inaction while at the same time deriving pleasure in the other person’s irritation over the situation.
7. “Sure, I’d be happy to.”
The person who cheerfully says this but then doesn’t follow through is most likely engaging in passive aggressive behavior. They are attempting to ameliorate the situation as a way of pacifying you when they have no intention of granting your request. So, they appear to be cooperative but they may be hiding an angry, sullen smile on the inside.
8. “I was only joking.”
This is classic passive aggressive statement because it is often filled with hostility. It usually takes the form of some kind of backhanded compliment or is said sarcastically as a way to deflect blame in socially acceptable language. This is the queen of indirect speech. Usually the person will say something which sounds innocent like, “Why can’t you take a joke?” when what they said really was no laughing matter.
9. “Why are you getting so upset?”
And then when all else fails, a passive aggressive person might ask, “Why are you getting so upset?” They appear to be shocked when other people react to what they have said or done. In many situations, they will take perverse pleasure in the other person’s outrage.
So how can you stop acting in a passive aggressive way?
The first part of the answer to this question is that you must start to become aware that this is your mode of communication. You do this by gauging the responses of the people with whom you are interacting. You can ask for feedback. The second thing you need to do is give thought to your words before you say them. Weigh what you really want to do if someone asks you do something. If you don’t want to do it, be honest and open about saying no. Learning how to say no is a wonderful way to free yourself from this kind of behavior. And lastly, you need to take a good, hard look at your motivations for your passive aggressive behavior. Are you doing it because you are a people pleaser who just wants everyone to love them? If that is the case, you need to realize that this kind of behavior actually pushes people away from you instead of drawing them closer because they will learn to no longer trust you.