I am the queen of passive/aggressiveness. I envy people who can speak their minds clearly when they’re upset about something. I’m one of those people who hold their feelings in, let them simmer, and then let them out at another time, usually at a person that doesn’t deserve it.
How did I get this way? It all started with my family. My younger sister Cheryl was developmentally disabled, and although she was able to walk, talk, eat, and dress herself, she had the mental capacity of a five-year-old—a very willful, very stubborn, very strong five-year-old. But unlike many families that handle the situation with grace and order, my family completely dropped the ball. It was chaos, disorder and at times, sheer terror. My parents were completely unable to handle her and were disinclined to seek outside help for her (or us). I tried to be the agent of change, pleading with them to put Cheryl in a group home where she could be taken care of properly and the rest of us could go on with our lives. I usually made these feelings known as my parents and Cheryl were literally battling with each other, Cheryl screaming, punching, clawing for attention or at unseen demons, my parents battling back. In the end, it took my mother dying of breast cancer to finally get my father to place Cheryl in a group home. He passed away several years later from pneumonia. Now it’s just me and Cheryl, and we have a great relationship. But looking back, I feel like I didn’t exist in my family. My opinion didn’t matter. My voice didn’t matter. I felt like I didn’t matter.
So here I am at 57 with the emotional capacity of a 12-year-old. When people look at me, they see a smiling, happy, well-adjusted woman. What they do not see is that I’m roiling with emotions that are simmering just underneath the surface. When I’m angry at someone, I do know enough not to go all 12-years-old on them and scream and tell them they have cooties. In my passive way, I swallow my feelings and just let it go. The only thing the other person notices is that I’ve become quiet. One time, a friend made an offhand comment about something while we were eating dinner that really got to me. Somehow I was able to hide my anger and get on with the rest of our outing, but as soon as I got home, I was seething. The next day, I gathered my thoughts and sent her an email about how I felt. It took my friend a few days to respond, and while she apologized for what she had said, she felt I was being “high school” by not expressing my feelings to her face.
But therein lies my problem. I just don’t know how to express anger “face to face.” In my house, anger was like a tornado that just wouldn’t stop. My parents would scream, curse, and say the meanest things to each other (and sometimes to me and Cheryl). I know that’s not the proper way to express anger. I know there is a middle ground. I just don’t how to express it. I don’t like confrontation. For me it’s just easier to be passive and let the other person have their way. For me there is no gray zone in anger. It’s all either white –not angry–or black–tornado angry. It’s easier for me to swallow these feelings than run the risk of hurting someone. I’m afraid of the consequences. I’m afraid that if I disagree with a person, they won’t like me anymore. I’m afraid that after 50+ years of holding it all in, all the angry words will just come out and never stop.
On a bigger scale, it’s been 10 years since I’ve been in a romantic relationship. After all, it’s awfully hard living with a passive aggressive person that’s always saying nothing’s wrong, when inside you feel like you’re ready to explode. In my last relationship, we had other problems that caused us to break up, but I know that one of our biggest issues was my inability to express my emotions. When my boyfriend said something I didn’t like, I would get passive, quiet and sullen and, just like Greta Garbo, announce that I wanted to be alone. I did tell him about my family history, and saint that he was, he understood my inability to fully express my emotions. After a while, however, I know this issue was the final nail in the coffin for us. I mean, who wants to be with someone who can’t healthily express all their emotions?
You may be wondering, “Does she EVER let go of all that bottled up aggression and express her feelings?” Yes…I have the “pretty way” and the “not-so-pretty way.” The “pretty way” is the aforementioned letter writing where I pour all my feelings into a letter explaining how I’m feeling. Also, with the assistance of my therapist, I’ve been TRYING to be brave enough to talk things out with someone if they upset me BUT this is only done several days AFTER the initial incident and ONLY with someone that I’m really comfortable opening up to. The “not-so-pretty way” is ignoring all phone calls, texts, etc. by the person who “did me wrong.” I’ve also been known to take my anger out on a poor, unsuspecting person, either by being in a bad mood or having a bad attitude around them. Also, I live in New York City, the passive aggressive capital of the world, where people walk, talk, text, and bump into each other, so god help the person who walks/texts and bumps into me on the street. Like a tea pot that’s been simmering too long, I give said person a look that would kill and instantly start whispering curse words under my breath in combinations that haven’t been written yet. I’ve also been known to give a pretty good middle finger at such times. (I told you it wasn’t pretty!) At home when I’m alone, I’ve also been known to punch a pretty good wall and slam a pretty good door (thankfully I haven’t broken any bones yet, nor antagonized any neighbors.)
In all seriousness though, as I’ve come to see it, passive/aggressiveness is really two sides of the same coin. In one version, you don’t have a voice in your own life. In the other version, your anger is a terrifying force that feels uncontrollable and can go on and off with the speed of light. In either case, you’re always a slave to your emotions. As I’ve come to learn, it takes a healthy dose of speaking up for yourself and being present in the moment that makes for a whole and complete person. And while at first, becoming whole seems like a daunting task, it is one that I refuse to give up on and I know is well worth the effort.
Read more of Elaine’s work.