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Passive-Aggressive to the Max!

October 24, 2010

If you have ever wondered what the term “passive-aggressive” meant, just think about the sugar-coated email message  Justice Clarence Thomas’s wife Virginia left on Anita Hill’s voice mail, reportedly delivered in a “sing-song” saccharine voice. Here is the full text:

“Hi Anita. This is Ginni Thomas and I just wanted to reach across the airwaves and the years and ask you to consider something. I would love you to consider an apology sometime and some full explanation of why you did what you did with my husband. So give it some thought. And certainly pray about this and hope that one day you will help us understand why you did what you did. OK, have a good day.”

Mrs. Thomas calls this “extending the olive branch” and a gesture motivated by kindness and a desire for healing and reconciliation.  In fact,  it is a blunt accusation of perjury, a demand for confession, and for an apology.  She reaches out with one hand and slams home a dagger with the other, with an anger and resentment she completely  disavows. Everyone can see and feel  her aggression but her. That is the essence of passive-aggressive behavior: hostility expressed or acted out in a  disguised, hidden,  buried, covert manner.

(‘disavowal’ basically means one admits the facts but denies their obvious signficance)

This is a textbook example of passive-aggressive behavior:  an expression of frustration, anger, hostility, and vindictiveness disguised as something friendly, well-meaning, and helpful.   Passive-aggressive people are filled with anger but cannot admit it. The must pretend to themselves it isn’t in them. When confronted on their behavior, they plead innocent and insist their motives and feelings have been misinterpreted by others. Their “sneaky” aggression can be very frustrating to others and hard to deal with.  Often they were raised in an environment that gave them a lot to be angry about but forbid them to express that anger directly or from being assertive in a direct,  “clean”, healthy way.

Martin Kantor, in his useful book Passive-Aggression: a guide for the therapist, the patient, and the victim  (Praeger, 2002) suggests the roots lie in deep conflicts over issues of dependency, control, and competition.

The diagnostic category Passive-Aggressive Personality Disorder was dropped with the DSM-IV and subsequent revisions of the DSM. That doesn’t mean passive-aggressive behavior doesn’t exist (it clearly does). It just means the American Psychiatric Association couldn’t agree on the exact diagnostic criteria or whether it was a pervasive personality disorder or simply a maladaptive personality trait.


But if you want a clear-cut example of passive-aggressive behavior, Ginni Thomas just  showed the world a dandy!

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