It is not generally known that changing a light bulb can be used to distinguish various syndromes and cultural differences. The Irish mammy response to the light bulb changing dilemma captures the essence of passive/aggressive behaviour and if you imagine that you are just going out for the evening to enjoy yourself you can probably get even more of the flavour.
Question: How many Irish Mammies does it take to change a light bulb?
Answer: Ah don’t worry about me I’ll be alright sitting here in the dark.
Although passive/aggression is not uniquely Irish we do have a disproportionate amount of it culturally and Irish mammies are by far the most expert practitioners. Who can imagine an American, English, German or Russian mammy giving the above response? ¹
Passive aggression is a paradoxical behaviour that reverses the normal sequence of aggression and then the consequences of aggression which may be hurt, anger and retaliation. It is a devilishly clever strategy that by an astute reversal of the process severely limits the possibility of retaliation. Pathologically it is a perversion of aggression. A passive/aggressive person inverts the sequence by firstly exhibiting the hurt and then attributing the aggressive behaviour to the victim. It invokes in the victim, guilt, anger and an overwhelming desire to throttle the perpetrator but when the victim faces the perpetrator he is confronted by a look characteristic of a victim rather than the anticipated bully. The options then appear to be:
- Retaliate angrily against the implied accusation and accept the burden of guilt,
- Pretend that you misheard the veiled accusation, don’t retaliate, swallow the anger and develop ulcers,
- Sit down and attempt to have a rational discussion about the unfairness of passive/aggression and enter a maze of double binds and logical fallacies, (knowing that no matter how well one copes with the mental strategies one still has to deal with the question, “Don’t you know I never intended to hurt you?”)
- Smile sweetly, accept the slight on the supposition you may placate the passive/aggressive behaviour. ²
- Visit your therapist and tell him all about it. (I will explain in my next article with how the therapist can deal with the countertransference by hitting his own cushions after the client has departed.)
The passive/aggressive individual uses an arsenal of verbal and non-verbal techniques to achieve the goal of evoking guilt and anger in his/her victim.
- Never ask for something directly yourself, always ask if the other person wants what you want
“Wouldn’t you like to visit your Aunt and Uncle next weekend? They would like to see you.”
- Never say exactly who did what to whom. This is something the syndrome has in common with schizophrenia.
“It’s terrible what the world is coming to!”
- Never identify anyone precisely, vagueness traps the victim in a fruitless search.
“Why am I thinking about the fellow who wrote the book who was on that programme. You know who I mean?”
This is designed to drive the victim into a mental frenzy trying to identify which channel (from all the channels) on which programmes (from all the programmes) by which author (from all the authors).
- The Non-sequitor, designed to create confusion in the victim’s mind.
”Look, mother I don’t want you opening my letters anymore!” the victim complains.
“Now, dear, you will learn that sometimes you have to do things in this life that you don’t like doing.”
- The Double Bind – the most pernicious communication trap of them all.
Passive/aggressive communication is a manifestation of a double bind whereby mutually contradictory messages are simultaneously transmitted to the receiver who is impeded (for whatever reason) in consciously challenging the contradiction.
“Now, dear, you know I’m only doing this for your own good!”
While many verbal tools are used by the passive/aggressive person tone of voice is perhaps the most powerful because it conveys more than anything else does the degree of implied injury. With the aid of new technology the effect of repetitive playbacks on a telephone answering machine of a message that begins with a long pause followed in the meekest, most hesitant tone, saying: “...It’s only me, without leaving a name, can drive a sane person to distraction.³
Many people associate Sport with aggressive behaviour but it also provides a context for much passive/aggressive behaviour particularly of the non-verbal kind.
There is nothing like the ritual shake hands after a contest and the winner’s beaming smile to send shafts of anger into the loser’s gut. In fact the more considerate the winner is the more the loser has to swallow pride, hurt anger and the thirst for revenge.
Contestants can be very innovative in devising the subtlest tactics to upset their opponents without infringing the rules. I remember a client who played competitive table tennis. He came for treatment to control his temper. There was one competitor who could enrage this opponent by rubbing the table tennis ball on his groin just before serving it at his opponent. You can just imagine how often my client failed to return his serve. It took the client a long time to work out that if he picked his nose before serving it had a similar effect. (4)
Passive/aggression serves as a function in families where more explicit aggression cannot be contemplated due to an ideological prohibition against such behaviour. Children can be very good at modelling it when they rush to Mammy or Daddy and say “Look what brother/sister did to me.” Brother/sister know they are in trouble when the sibling rushes off in the direction of the parent and the wail of injury is inversely related to the distance from the site of the injury and positively correlated to the distance to the parent.(5)
Mythologically the syndrome has strong parallels with the Christian myth where the Son of God comes down from Heaven and dies on the cross for our sins. This makes Christians feel permanently guilty because God sacrificed his son for their as yet uncommitted sins.(6) The idea that the son of the Almighty, who could with one swipe of his Divine wrath eliminate all existing and potential sinners from the planet, should decide instead to sacrifice himself and make us permanently grieve for his death has elicited an eternal guilt.
Passive/aggression is also an effective tactic in politics. The Hunger Strike is a potent political example of the syndrome.(7) In this case the perpetrator, in order to elicit the guilt of his opponents, decides to make them responsible for his life by refusing food and/or water if the do not capitulate to his demands. His opponents are then in a dilemma. If they refuse his demands and let him die they will have posthumously created a martyr whose sacrifice will indict them as tyrants on a wider political stage.
If they surrender to the demands they will create a hero who can defeat the forces of the state without weapons. Which result, posthumous martyr or living hero, emerges from the conflict depends on the personality of the opposing political leader. Female leaders whose animus predominates (a la Margaret Thatcher) will let the person die while male opponents whose anima predominates will opt to let the perpetrator live and suffer the consequences of living hero worship subsequently.
Gandhi who was so closely associated with passive resistance could be regarded as a great Eastern precursor of the syndrome .
In more contemporary political circles. Feminist workshops and meetings occasionally produce examples of the syndrome. Another client came to me as a result of attending such an event. He naively attended a meeting to show his solidarity with some Feminist cause. He was aware of being the only man there. His self-consciousness became acute when there was a sudden shriek of horror from a woman who declared to the whole gathering that she didn’t feel safe because there was man in the crowd. With all eyes looking at him they unanimously voted that he should not be allowed to stay since his very existence was felt by some to be threatening. He slunk from the meeting feeling the entire weight of the sins of the male gender upon him. Truly in that moment he felt he was the son of Man. He vowed never to return again. Since then I have noticed a version of this behaviour in men’s groups when some man who has studied feminist tactics begins to cry that another man is upsetting him and seeks the meeting s sympathy.
Recently I encountered a client suffering from the effects of passive/aggression . He was a middle-aged man who was devoted to his elderly mother and wanted to celebrate her birthday. The client learned not to give her non-consumable birthday presents because he once did a count of all the presents he had given her and what she did with them. She gave every one away to someone else who needed them more than she did. He decided to take her out tor a meal. He called out to visit her and as soon as she greeted him he began to feel the symptoms:
“Thank you for calling to see me, dear. You’re great to give me some time in your busy day,” she said.
“I’m delighted to call to see you. Mother . Let’s go out for tea and celebrate? ”
“Ah no dear, you go an enjoy yourself. Leave me here, I’ll do with a boiled egg!”
“Please Mother, I called to take you out to celebrate your birthday”
“Well, only if you want to then dear! Wait till I get my coat and bag.”
Past experience taught him that he should pick a middle market restaurant with a selection of traditional meals on the menu. Tea and bread must be an option with all meals. He pulled up outside one – a hotel restaurant. He went inside first to check the menu to make sure it would match her preferences. He returned to the car to invite her to come in. Once seated he proudly showed her the menu and sat back. While perusing the menu she said:
“What was the restaurant we went to once?”
He searched his memory for all the restaurants.
”What restaurant? Where?”
“Ah you know dear!” she said with a sweet smile.
He finally managed to work out that there was another restaurant on the outskirts of the town to which he had brought her once.
“Did you notice how they are ignoring us here? If they’re slow to serve us here we could go to that other restaurant.”
He wanted to say: “Why didn’t you say you wanted to go there at the start?”
But he didn’t. He surrendered immediately. He kept consoling himself that it was worth the effort to keep her happy.
“Okay we’ll go there.”
They left the hotel restaurant and drove to the one she had chosen. After finding a parking space they went inside only to be told that the restaurant didn’t open for an hour. Back in the car, he drove until he came to another restaurant that he thought would appeal to her. They went inside and found a table. The waitress came almost immediately and gave them menus.
“Don’t worry about me, I only want very little. You have whatever you want. Why don’t you have a big steak?”
When they were ready to order, he gave his first.
His mother leant over conspiratorially to engage the waitress’s attention and in a whispering voice said:
”I’d like a small hamburger.”
The waitress was seduced by this modest request from such a gentle elderly lady.
My client wanted to start disappearing into the ground as he recognised the “small hamburger” tactic. The most common passive/aggressive tactic is the “I’m insignificant” theme that attracts sympathy and attention of everyone around. Very soon the chef was at the table checking out should there be onions and whether they were to be cooked or not?
When the meal arrived the hamburger bun was too big for the small hamburger.
“Oh it’s too much! Far too much!”
The waitress hovered throughout the meal supplying side plates and napkins and about five “Is everything alright?” enquiries.
When his mother consumed three quarters of the meal, she lifted her plate and with her knife pushed the remaining contents onto her son’s plate without asking if he wanted it and irrespective of the fact he was eating fish and didn’t want the remains of a hamburger. Suddenly he got a familiar dustbin feeling.
“You eat that dear, it ‘s too much for me, ” she said.
Dessert followed its usual pattern:
“Oh never mind about me, dear! You have what ever you want. “
Just when his dessert arrived:
“I wonder could I have a small… “
Half way through the coffee when the waitress brought the bill she delivered her coup de grace. Surreptitiously like a drug dealer passing the deal, she moved a closed hand across the table and left a crumpled twenty-pound banknote and said:
”You pay for the meal, dear. Pity we didn’t come here first and we could have saved ourselves all that trouble.”
My fist pounded the cushions before the client reached the door at the end of the session. However I’m afraid that his prognosis isn’t good because when he arrived home he found his wife in tears. The house had been burgled and all the hi-fi equipment, television sets and computer taken. He couldn’t console her:
“But Darling “, she wept, “The beds weren’t made when they broke in!”
Training in passive/aggression has been completely neglected by the potentially human movement. There has been far too much emphasis on Assertiveness Training which is a much inferior strategy for getting what you want out of life compared to passive/aggression strategies. I therefore recommend that those of us who are involved in training should introduce Unassertiveness Training with a curriculum based on the verbal and non-verbal techniques outlined in this article. If you are a feminist reading this article you may by now be experiencing anger and rage. Your gender barometer may have noticed that I have attributed most passive/aggression to mothers and used examples where females have demonstrated the behaviour. You have to remember that I am my Mammy’s boy and I’m still only learning. I wouldn’t deliberately hurt anyone and anyway don’t mind me.
1. It is debatable whether American, English, German or Russian mammies exist at all but there are definitely Jewish mammies.
2. Apologies to Virgina Satir for sugessting that it is the mother of all her categories.
3. I am currently investigating passive/aggression on the Internet and I would be grateful for any examples from the medium.
4. A complete list of techniques will be presented in my new book on the subject entitled “When I say yes I feel guilty.”
5. The exact mathematical formula can be supplied on request.
6. I realise this is a pathological interpretation rather than a theological interpretation of the myth.
7. The connection between passive/aggression behaviour and the Death Instinct becomes clear in this context and maybe suicide is its ultimate expression.
Jung, C.G., Collected Works, The Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious, Pantheon Books, New York, 1959.
Satir, Virginia, Conjoint Family Therapy, Souvenir Press, London, 1994
Smith, Manuel J., When I say no, I feel guilty, Bantam Psychology Books, 1977.