Quick, is there anyone who comes immediately to mind when you read the title of this story? Conjure an image of their face in your mind.
Now, imagine that everyone you know is reading this post simultaneously. What are the odds that your face graces the imagination of a friend, co-worker or family member?
In other words—are you, at times, passive aggressive, manipulative, gossipy, or duplicitous?
If you answered quickly with a resounding, “No! Not me—but let me tell you about my boss, mother-in-law, sister, or friend,” you can stop reading right now. These words will most likely be a waste of your time. And I estimate that it will take the average reader about 12 minutes to read them all. But it’s your call.
The danger in writing about this issue, and other dysfunctional personality traits and behaviors, is that, if I’m not careful, I can set the ball rolling in the blame game—a contest that has no winners, a contest that makes victims of everyone. And self-appointed victims are perhaps the most cray-cray of all.
The first time I encountered the term “Crazy-maker,” was back in the early ’90s. Julia Cameron, in her book, The Artist’s Way, devotes more than 2000 words to the topic in a chapter entitled “Recovering a Sense of Identity.” This placement in the book is very telling. Crazy-makers are aptly named. They can make us forget who we are as we struggle to make sense of their oh-so-subtle jibes, demeaning behaviors and insinuating gossip. It is maddening.
Cameron describes crazy makers as those personalities “that create storm centers” and then step back feigning surprise as everyone scrambles for cover. The American Psychological Association, until the mid-nineties, listed it in the DSM, as a distinct mental illness—though it wasn’t called crazy-making disorder. It was known as PAPD—Passive Aggressive Personality Disorder. (It is now lumped under broader diagnostic criteria and appendicized as NEGPD, Negativistic Personality Disorder.)
PAPD, not unlike narcissistic and borderline personality disorders with which it shares many behaviors, is difficult, even for professionals, to treat. We laypeople are even less likely to “cure” anyone (but ourselves perhaps) of this relationship-ruining dysfunction. And the reason is the same for both professionals and non. Those afflicted believe the problem is not with them, but with everyone else. They see their behaviors as warranted.
Of course, I slammed the dishes around while you were watching tv. (Subtext: You know you should have been helping.) Of course, I gave you the silent treatment. (You pissed me off, and I didn’t feel like talking to you.) Of course, I was a little late again. (I have a life, you know! You’re not the center of my universe.)
Certainly, all of us—all, even you, dear reader, and definitely me—resort to such immature behaviors from time to time, (I will fess up to my most ridiculous PA behavior in a minute), and though it may feel “right” in the moment, for those who are more self-aware, it feels icky in the aftermath. We have a sense that we have just tried to manipulate others with covert hostility. The dishes didn’t suddenly become too heavy to manage quietly; You didn’t suddenly become invisible to me; the time-pieces in my house and on my arm didn’t suddenly stop working.
It should feel icky. Passive aggression is cowardly and dishonest, and intended to punish. The bigger problem arises when those behaviors become habitual enough not to feel icky anymore. It becomes your modus operandi, and it destroys relationships.
For those deeply entrenched in passive aggressive patterns of behavior, there is nothing in this article that will resonate with them. This is especially true if this maladaptive approach to conflict dates back to adolescence, or even before. Most true personality disorders do.
But for the rest of us, there is hope—both for changing our own counter-productive behavior patterns and managing our responses to the passive hostility of others. (Spoiler alert, “A” is much easier than “B.”)
At the risk of sounding all Jeff Foxworthy-ish (You Might be a Redneck if…) I ask you to have an open mind while pondering these statements. Really. I, myself, am a bit embarrassed to admit that I checked off six behaviors/comments on these lists. (I’ll let you guess which ones.) When I broke it down and really considered what I was expressing in lieu of what I meant (the absolute essence of passive aggressiveness)—e.g. sarcasm as an expression of contempt, or “venting” as an expression of martyrdom—it became crystal clear to me that I don’t want to be that person. I’ve even given my husband permission to gently call me out when I transgress. I do not want to be a crazy maker. What about you?
You might be passive aggressive if:
- You frequently use sarcasm—as clever or hilarious or spot-on as it seems in the moment—to deal with conflict. (contempt)
- You often feel let down by someone and make sure they know it by sulking or ignoring them, and then refuse to discuss your feelings with them. (disdain)
- You do, however, share those feelings with others, positioning yourself as the innocent victim. (triangulation and martyrdom)
- You “forget” or purposely delay replying to calls or texts—or “lose” your phone, or it “malfunctions” or “for some reason” you never got the message. (duplicity, i.e. dishonesty)
- You post “pointed” messages on social media, hoping your target reads them, then deny specificity.
- You are chronically late—just a little, enough to make it clear that you’re kind of above it all. (arrogance, bad manners)
- You equivocate with plans, assignments, favors and duties—waffling between apparent compliance, shoddy work and negligence—concocting excuses and assigning blame as you go. (unreliability, stonewalling)
- You often bring up controversial issues in casual conversation. (shit-stirring)
- You are often aggrieved—feeling offended, wronged, misunderstood. (victimization)
- You are resentful—and will not own it. (denial)
Here’s another little list to think about. You might be passive aggressive if you say things like:
- “I’m really worried about so-and-so.” Fill in the blank with any adult you want to gossip about.
- “You know, I just adore so-and-so, BUT…” Again, fill in the blank with that “friend” or family member you’d like to bad-mouth.
- “Fine. Whatever.”
- “I was only kidding (teasing, yanking your chain, etc.)”
- “Sheesh, you’re so sensitive.”
- “That’s just me.”
- “You just need to relax.”
- “It’s not all about you.”
- “I’m sorry you took it that way.”
- “I was only trying to help.”
- “Bless your (her/his) heart.”
- “I’ll pray for you.”
All of these behaviors and statements can be benign or malignant. (How could offering to pray for someone be a bad thing?) The mutation occurs with the underlying attitude, the subtext that is being insinuated—”I’ll pray for you,” you faithless, unenlightened heretic. Or “I was only trying to help,” you incompetent, lazy nitwit. Master passive aggressive manipulators will NEVER admit their thought bubbles (even to themselves as they read this article), which is where the crazy-making intensifies. Interactions with them leave us feeling sullied, a little dirty, and confused, when all they really said (out loud) was “Bless your heart,” all they really did was show up 14 minutes late for a sixty-minute appointment—again.
But “crickets” seem to be the single most effective—and I’ll add, subversive—tactic employed. Refusal to communicate. Radio silence. Unwillingness to talk through a problem to reach some kind of détente. I once had someone tell me in a text—after I asked that she call me to work out a sudden conflict she had with me—that she would not be “bullied” into talking to me. Ha! Resolution of grievances is counterproductive to those who feel they must, for whatever reason, maintain their victim status.
And this is where it gets very tricky. In the above scenario, is it then prudent for me to continue to beg this person to communicate with me? Or is it time to employ some crickets of my own? And am I now playing PA games myself—tit for tat?
I have an opinion about this—but it is very complicated. And I’ll have to fess up to my own embarrassing foray into crazy-making, to explain it to you.
Years ago, I found a lump in my breast. Of course, I was instantly terrified, and I finagled an appointment with my doctor the same day. She too was concerned, and immediately scheduled an ultrasound—first available, nearly two weeks out.
Seemed like two years to me. I was a mess. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, talking about it, crying about it. My husband was scared too, though his way of dealing with scary shit is to fix it, and if that is not an immediate option—to compartmentalize it. Which is what he did. Ted is very logical. Since “thinking about it, talking about it and crying about it” did nothing to solve the problem—perhaps even exacerbated it in his mind, he tried to put it away until after we had information we could work with.
This hurt my feelings. I was already scared and in poor-pitiful-me mode, and true to that psychological phenomenon that I wrote about last month—I entered a two-week long “refractory period” where I could only relate to information that confirmed the scary emotions I was already feeling.
Finally, after fourteen days of fretting, it was time for my ultrasound appointment. And this is what I did—or didn’t do:
I didn’t remind Ted. I didn’t ask him to accompany me. I didn’t even tell him I went—until, days later, when for whatever reason, he cracked open that scary compartment in his brain and asked about it. I had gotten a friend to go with me, and even with the good news that the lump appeared to be a benign cyst, I had withheld that info for days, until he asked. And then I answered with an exaggerated nonchalance. It’s fine (whatever).
This happened more than fifteen years ago, and this is the first time I’ve been able to write about it. I am ashamed of my behavior, and please don’t try to defend me. I was wrong. I was being a crazy-maker, and poor Ted was my unwitting target.
For you see, with just one simple reminder—Hey honey, my ultrasound appointment is tomorrow at 2:00—Ted would have dropped everything and been by my side. But no. I set him up. I set him up to fail.
Why? What kind of person am I? Well, in this instance, an immature, relationship-sabotaging, self-pitying brat. Sadly, it is family relationships that are most often fraught with such subversive behaviors because we seem more likely to get away with them with people we are “stuck” with.
Seem, being the operative word. We don’t actually get away with anything—even if the person being manipulated never utters a word in protest—especially if they don’t. Resentment builds. Relationships fracture. This happens. Sadly, I know this to be true.
And sadly, if you’d told me at the time, when I was behaving so poorly—passively abusing a person I love—I would have given you a thousand reasons why my behavior was justified.
If this type of behavior was habitual for me, I might not be married today. For that is not the way Ted rolls. He is pretty direct and (as I mentioned earlier) quite logical about things. But this hurt him. It made him feel terrible—which may have been my point. Passive aggression is almost always intended to punish or demean. Yes, even when you’re “only teasing,” “didn’t mean it like that,” or “forgot” to communicate responsibly.
For most of us, knowing that our actions have hurt someone we love is a powerful incentive to change. A close friend confided in me that her son complained that her little sarcastic wisecracks really hurt his feelings. She didn’t reply with any of the above excuses (Sheesh, you’re so sensitive, I didn’t mean it that way etc.). No, she changed.
But for those deeply entrenched in “Negativistic” personality patterns of behavior, change is not an option they consider—except perhaps for the target of their resentment. And then, even if their prey does change, it will never be enough. They need their “tormentors” to continue to torment so that their victim status remains intact.
And this is why it is nearly impossible to have a healthy relationship with a chronic crazy-maker. Even if we do manage to break through their sullen silences, they need us in the role they’ve assigned to us—the role of “bad guy.” Any attempt we make at resolving conflict will either be twisted around and interpreted as coercion (I won’t be bullied into talking to you) or will be met with further passive aggressive responses (Bless your heart, I’m sorry you took it that way).
It’s maddening. And for people like me, extremely toxic. I, for better and for worse, am a bonified, card-carrying “people pleaser.” I am a perfect target.
Until I’m not.
It has taken counseling (Thanks, Kitty) and prayer and research and soul-searching for me to understand that I am not obliged to participate in these types of relationships. For, to be honest, any time I have found myself embroiled in passive aggressive interactions, the very worst in me comes out. It makes me want to respond in like manner, in ways that conflict with my own values—to “defend” myself with bad-mouthing or gossip of my own, to reply with “whatever” to shut down a conversation, to “forget” to return that text for three days.
I am not doing anyone any favors by perpetuating these interactions. I have been known to chase people around to get them to communicate with me. This is utterly counter-productive for all involved. If someone truly cares about our relationship and wants to resolve a conflict (and they are mature adults and not mentally ill or alcoholics/addicts), they will be willing—no, eager—to sit down with me. And talk.
And if not, that is their right. I have to accept that.
It’s hard. I am learning to walk away sooner than later from new or casual relationships once that PA pattern begins to emerge. But in the case of the more obligatory work or family relationships, crickets are tougher to enforce—and the question remains—Am I, myself, behaving passive aggressively, by eventually refusing to engage?
Maybe so. Maybe no. If I have made an honest attempt to understand, if I have opened a true channel of communication, and that offering has been rejected or ignored or met with any of the PA retorts listed above, I not only allow myself to step back, I require myself to disengage to whatever degree is possible. It will eat me alive if I don’t.
With most of my loved ones—friends and family alike—the occasional mismatch between what is said and what is being done, does not warrant a psychological diagnosis. But I believe such behaviors, even if not yet habitual, should be addressed. Practice makes perfect. Practice makes permanent.
When the boys were young—starting during those tough “tween” years—the eye-rolling, one-word-answer, universe-hates-me years—we implemented a family rule. If what you just said to your family member is uttered in such a way that “You big dummy” is implied as a post script, we were all (parents included) required to own it and find a more respectful way to communicate with each other. It actually got to be pretty funny—especially on car trips, when one of us would mess up and say something dismissive or subtly demeaning. Everybody else in the car would simultaneously scream—“You big dummy.”
And that is my message to you—no, not that you’re a big dummy. I actually think you’re pretty smart if you’ve made it nearly 3000 words into this story. Ha! No, the point is to own it.
And then find a better way.
The word “whatever” when used as an adjective, literally means “in any amount; to any extent.” Is that truly what I mean when I’m not enjoying the direction a conversation with my husband is taking and I want to be done? No. I usually mean the opposite. I lied. I just wanted to shut him down.
The big dummy.
Please feel free to share this little story–but ONLY if you can personally “own” a cray-cray-maker behavior or comment yourself. Otherwise you’re just being–well–passive aggressive. Ha!
The featured image is me at my piano when I was about 15 or so. The crazy-maker in my life was a boyfriend who made constant subtle jabs regarding my looks. He eventually broke up with me, essentially, because I wasn’t quite pretty enough. I ran into him, like 35 years later, and immediately sucked in my stomach and tugged on the hem of my skirt. Ha!
“Vices” is now available on Kindle and other eReaders for just 5.99. You even have the option of “gifting” the digital version by clicking the “Give as a Gift” on Amazon.com and entering the email address of the recipient. Of course, the paper version (still my preference) is available at the buy-three-get-one-free rate from this website (Shop).
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