Dr. Chad Sato
Hawai‘i Herald Columnist

I recently had the opportunity to spend some time with my older brother, who I consider to be one of the nicest guys around. He’s the type of person who does anything and everything for his loved ones, usually at the cost of his own well-being. He pulled his usual passive aggressive behavior with me, by not responding to me or communicating clearly what his plans were. As much as I was disappointed by his actions, I had to remind myself that I, too, used to do that. In the not-too-distant past, I was very much like him in the fact that I had no boundaries and had a difficult time speaking up and saying my truth. Instead of dealing with the uncomfortable feelings of disappointing a sibling, parent or close friend, I would use passive aggressive subterfuge that ended up disappointing them in the end. Over the past ten years, I’ve been working on my habitual passive aggressive behavioral tendencies and instead been more forthcoming and straightforward.

According to Merriam Webster, “passive-aggressive is being, marked by or displaying behavior characterized by the expression of negative feelings, resentment and aggression in an unassertive passive way (as through procrastination and stubbornness).”

Living on an island, one of the most important things to do is learn to get along. Being in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the furthest place you can go to avoid an irritating or toxic relationship or situation is the other side of the island. Also, the fact that everyone knows everyone, we learned ways to “get along.” One of these strategies is, unfortunately, being passive aggressive. It’s truly amazing how this type of behavior is almost too commonplace, and we’ve been conditioned in accepting that it’s OK. My focus of this article is describing how passive aggressive behavior is created, how to identify it and ultimately, by tuning into your body, learn ways to either shift this pattern or deal with others who exhibit this type of behavior.

Creating passive aggressivity

There are many contributing factors such as family upbringing, your state of mental wellness, repeating situations and avoidance behaviors, to name a few, that lead a person to exhibit passive aggressive tendencies. The strongest, I feel, is family patterns of upbringing. When I was raised, I learned quickly that if I expressed my feelings of disappointment or frustration I was quickly scolded or told to be quiet. If I continued, then the “yellow stick” was employed to silence me. Corporal punishment for not knowing my place and speaking up to my parents was an accepted means of discipline back in my day. Researchers have theorized and discovered that when an individual feels they cannot express their true feelings openly to an authoritative force, he or she will find ways to passively channel their frustrations and anger. Adding to the constant reminder from my parents and grandparents to not bring shame to the family name further instilled my eventual inability to express how I truly felt and learned to shelve my feelings in the deep recesses of my being. Over time, the “monkey see, monkey do” approach further entrenched passive aggressive behavior as my go-to. Family functions or work settings, where I was called upon to put on a “good face,” became my norm instead of vocalizing what didn’t sit well or feel right.

Identifying passive aggressivity

The American Psychological Association defines passive aggressive as “behavior that is seemingly innocuous, accidental or neutral but that indirectly displays an unconscious aggressive motive.”

Many times, you feel when someone is being passive aggressive, but tend to ignore this feeling and usually end up befuddled or frustrated with the person. So here are some telltale signs you are dealing with a passive aggressive individual: they won’t respond to texts or voicemails, become radio silent, create excuses instead of telling you how they really feel, procrastinate, wait to do things until the last minute, indirectly not do what you ask them, use sarcasm and/or backhanded compliment. When you ask them if they are angry, they will deny being angry and say they are fine, even though clearly you can sense they are fuming. Emotionally, they will shut down and all lines of communication ends. Avoidance is their strategy big time, and you may find yourself confused by their actions and what you should say or do. Sarcasm is their shield and weapon along with not following up on their end of the bargain. Can you relate to this and identify certain individuals who do this? Recognize that a passive aggressive person exerts control by not confronting but using other indirect means of manipulation.

Addressing passive aggressive

I’ve discovered along my journey of dealing with my conditioned passive aggressive behavior is to increase my self-awareness. In life, the most vital strategy to develop is your own personal awareness of what you see, feel and ultimately do. I’ve experienced firsthand how not disclosing how I really felt and expressing my wants and needs led to a buildup of resentment to family members, significant others and friends. Not dealing with my underlying anger and frustrations eventually led to some major and uncomfortable life changes in the past. So, this is where I learned to practice feeling and expressing my emotions. It took me a few years to get a little more comfortable feeling my emotions, but it has helped me tremendously to express more clearly and be more assertive.  

Here’s where creating a stronger connection with your body comes in. As I mentioned earlier, we often feel something physically in our bodies when dealing with a passive aggressive person. It’s like something feels off, and I bet you feel some tightness in the pit of your stomach or feel muscle tension in your neck, shoulders and back. Once you sense this physical discomfort then the first thing to do is to keep your emotions in check and then you can point out what the person is possibly feeling in a non-judgmental way. By avoiding blame, it will potentially make it easier for the person to open up and at the same time show them that you are not going to let things go but rather to address the issue. Further, by recognizing the signs of your body when you feel angry, sad or frustrated will help you tremendously to identify when you are being triggered, and now you have the power to choose how you want to act instead of just reacting and detaching. Taking ownership of where you are exhibiting passive aggressive behaviors can also help you deal with these types of situations as well. If you are passive aggressive, be kind to yourself and to others because it takes time to make shifts in a behavior pattern that has served you and the passive aggressive individual well in the past.

In closing, many of us would like to believe that we don’t react in a passive aggressive manner, but most of us do under certain circumstances. Anytime you choose not to express how you clearly feel because of timing or out of respect is an act of passive aggression. Increasing your physical, mental and emotional awareness will assist you in navigating situations and relationships in a healthier manner. Let’s learn to live together in harmony without having to do so in a passive aggressive way

Dr. Chad Sato graduated from UCLA in 1995 with a bachelor’s degree in biology and earned the Doctor of Chiropractic degree with honors from Life Chiropractic College West in 1998. Sato founded his practice, Aloha Chiropractic (drchadsato.com), in Mänoa valley, O‘ahu, on Oct. 1, 1999. He is a sought-after educator, speaker, author and mind-body specialist who helps people reach new levels of empowerment when it comes to their health and wellness by staying present with their body signs, making appropriate life choices and utilizing stress instead of managing it.



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