According to Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) IV, passive-aggressive personality disorder is « often overtly ambivalent, wavering indecisively from one course of action to its opposite. » Curiously enough, the new revision of the DSM does not describe Passive Aggressiveness as a mental disorder in its own right any longer.  The rationale behind this was that experts decided that passive aggressiveness was so common and so strongly related to a host of other mental disorders, that it did not warrant the status of ‘disorder’ by itself. Passive aggressive disorder has since been edited out of the DSM and is now commonly referred to as passive aggressive behaviour instead. Not classifying it any longer as a disorder presupposes that most of us are guilty of displaying passive aggressive behaviour occasionally in our day-to-day lives.

According to the Counselling Directory (2015), Passive aggressive behaviour can vary in severity, frequency and intentionality. When a person with a passive aggressive personality is given a task to do that they do not agree with, they will appear positive and agreeable, but inside they may be fuming or despairing. Instead of making a fuss, they will find other ways to vent their frustration. These include: intentional ineffectiveness, sulkiness, intentional lateness and forgetfulness.

Another area that looks into Passive Aggressiveness, although it does not quite use these terms is the work and research carried out by Eric Berne and Franklin Ernst in the field of Transactional Analysis. Ernst is at the origin of the Life Positions Model.

Eric Berne, the founder of transactional analysis, talked about the life positions as existential positions – one of which we are more likely to go to under stress. According to Ernst, these positions can change as we develop and grow. This is particularly important as we need to understand how we react in difficult situations and how these reactions can become sources of conflict.

The following example from Psychology Today (2015) illustrates the main ways to deal with a situation and sheds some light on the terms used in the Life Positions Model:

Your housemate persistently leaves his dirty washing up in the sink for other people to clean up. There are four different ways to approach the situation:

The passive/submissive behaviour: Ignore it, do nothing and hope he stops.

The assertive behaviour: Talk to him about it, let him know you don’t like it.

The aggressive person: Shout at him, threaten him with eviction and generally intimidate him into doing it.

The passive-aggressive behaviour: ‘Accidentally’ break his favourite mug. If he cares that much about it, he should wash it up and put it away.

Passive aggressiveness is more often than not, even more destructive than plain old aggression. Sometimes a quick, impulsive punch on the arm can be more easily forgiven than twenty years of quietly brewing resentment

Passive Aggressiveness is an expression of anger. When it comes to the emotion of Anger (considered by most scholars as a basic emotion, together with happiness, sadness and fear – some others add surprise and disgust to the list), we have not learnt effectively how to deal with it in our societies. Indeed, most adults would have learnt that Submissiveness is not a good option as we have internalised the notion that we need to stand for our rights and not have people walk all over us. Aggressiveness in its typical forms (be it physical and/or verbal) is also unacceptable, frowned upon and in most cases unlawful or downright illegal. The problem therefore remains of what to do with the anger when we feel it.

Nowadays, Assertiveness seems to be the acceptable way to go, but what we forget easily is that this is much more easily said than done. Indeed, being assertive, that is thinking of our needs and rights whilst also respecting the other person’s needs and rights sounds very reasonable and evolved. Indeed, recent neuropsychological studies would show that this is the Neo-Cortex response to anger that follows reflection and stems from our most evolved brain as human beings, as opposed to the other three options (Submissive, Aggressive and Passive Aggressive) which stem from our Reptilian and Limbic brains and are thus much more instinctive in their nature.

The problem with this is that Assertiveness is indeed a Learnt and Acquired Behaviour and requires a great deal of self-control and possibly training (this is what we learn in Conflict Resolution classes and follows the communication models of Sharon and Gordon Bower – called the DESC model of Assertive feedback or Marshall Rosenberg’s Non-Violent Communication theories). Not everybody will ever reach that level of self-awareness and development in their lives and cultural differences might also interfere with this.


Marcello Mereu holds a degree in Psychology from the UK and a Master in Human Resources Development from the College of Europe in Bruges. He has significant experience HR roles in the European environment. As a trainer and consultant for nearly 15 years he develops training courses and workshops aimed at increasing the performance of an individual, a team or a company. With ABILWAYS, Marcello currently trains EU Institutions staff members in HR and Communications.

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