Perspective Self-Help

The Psychology of Passive-Aggressive People + How to Disarm Them Once and For All

The Psychology of Passive-Aggressive People + How to Disarm Them Once and For All

It is this kind of mind that is quick to unhinge, the one who is most insecure and easily unraveled, that succumbs to passive-aggressive behavior.

If you’ve lived long enough, you’ve certainly come across passive-aggressive people (PAP). This term in itself is an oxymoron, so you can only imagine the mindset of those who actually live in this perpendicular, polar opposite universe of inner-conflict and contradiction. One of the most important aspects to understand when seeking to disarm a PAP is that this state of mind is ingrained in a person’s overall personality. It’s their mindset, method of operation and most definitely their lifestyle. It’s what fuels their motive to act. PAPs are aggressively self-seeking, but afraid and timid to make their actual motives and thoughts known. They have a level of embarrassment/shame for the thoughts or feelings they have in getting what they want, largely due to their awareness of it being arrogant, unacceptable, selfish or harmful to others. Simply stated, they’re scared of the one who is more outspoken, courageous, creative, authentic and accepted. The one they aggress is who they actually desire attention from, want to outdo or to be like.  Hence the term Passive-Aggressive. I already know what you’re thinking…yes…exactly. It can be exhausting to even attempt to grasp that type of mindset. Therefore, understand that when you’ve identified a PAP, know for sure that’s who they are and expect nothing more or less. With that said, here are 5 types of PAPs and surefire ways to disarm each. You’ll notice that the names given are a special tribute to their self-contradictory (smile).

1| The Competitor who is actually an Imitator…when they’re “competing” (AKA The Shadow turned Troll) – This PAP is one who tends to imprint themselves on you. Not like a cute baby duck, but more like a nasty parasite. They secretly admire you, but also envy you. They seek to one-up you every chance they get especially in group settings. They begin attempting to step where you step. They’re lurking somewhere close by watching what you do, so they can do it, seeking to reap the attention they interpret you receive from the work you do. On social media they have your tweets on notification to watch you even closer. You know this because they retweet you immediately. Or they casually comment on their page making innuendos about your posts, so you know they are on your timelines. Or they take aspects of your posts as if it were an original thought of theirs.  Sounds creepy doesn’t it? That’s because it is. They make failed attempts to nail a certain style or look of yours, attend events you’re a regular at, or literally do the same kind of work you do. This PAP can be coined as a copycat. Yet, in their mind, they believe they’re competing with you. A good friend of mine said this regarding his PAP, “You can only compete when you bring something of equal or greater value”. I definitely cosign and endorse that perspective!!! However, these PAPs are convinced they are your competition, when in fact they’re riding on fumes. The truth is: They are always steps behind in their observation of you. I once had a PAP make multiple failed attempts at this. What they don’t realize is that it makes them appear insignificant, uncreative and quite loathsome.

Here’s how to disarm this kind of PAP: Simply outwork them. I know, you were expecting something deep right? Nope. When someone is imitating you, they are attempting to be what is natural for you but unnatural for them. They will exhaust themselves. They will get frustrated at the lack of progress on their end, because they’re always playing catch-up. What you do is continue working at a steady yet excelling pace, and eventually you’ll put more and more space between you that your shadow / troll. They will eliminate themselves. Also, they may very well expose themselves. Others will begin to notice their lackadaisical efforts, which is the last thing a PAP wants… to be found out.   

2| The Smartest Person In the Room…or Nah? (AKA The Deluded) – This PAP is a piece of work. Similarly to the Shadow/Troll, they want to one-up you or everyone in the room. Their sense of self-worth and value is rooted in what they know or what they want others to believe they know. They are constantly trying to prove themselves to be the smartest, which in my opinion, if they have to do that then they may not be. Just a thought. This PAP has uncontrollable urges to verbally express that they “know a lot”. They are the show-off, the one who is the student but wants to always teach others, usually on limited information. I once heard The Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan caution people who think they know-it-all to realize that what they have may not actually be knowledge but simply information, and yes there is a huge difference. This kind of PAP can regurgitate textbook and Google facts, usually when no one asked for it. They also will attempt to insult other people’s intelligence in order to keep up their illusion of intelligence. I recently had a PAP make a failed attempt at this by pretending they couldn’t find a setting on a device of a certain brand. So they said, “Don’t you have one of these?” I responded, “No”. “Didn’t you used to have one of these? Did you forget how to use one of these?”, they continued. The setting they “couldn’t find” was the power button. Go figure. They were so busy being a PAP that they actually depreciated their own intellect.

How to disarm this kind of PAP:  You can disarm them in 1 of 2 ways. In the above case, I slowly repeated, “It’s. the. power. button…” and pointed. What they attempted to do didn’t have the effect they thought it would. It actually backfired on them. My response further shined the light the lack of intelligence they were exhibiting. In another setting I heard a PAP attempt to respond to a question out loud, but they got it wrong. It was a failed attempt at showing off in front of others. I just shook my head. They want to be right so bad. In scenarios like that, it’s best to let them hang themselves, because they don’t know as much as they think they do. So, just let them keep talking. Remember, they are deluded so convincing them otherwise is pointless. They have to experience it for themselves. In a family setting, simply walk out of the room, unamused and unimpressed. That really gets under their skin and saves you the frustration of witnessing the sideshow act.

3| The Insecure but Confident…but Insecure One (AKA The Confused) – This PAP uses their charisma (or attempt at charisma) and their “connections” to influential people (or groups of people) as a decoy for hiding their deep-seated insecurities. However, if anyone else appears confident, courageous and zealous in their presence, they become unraveled with rivalry. While trying to hide their insecurities they come across as condescending in their speech. They offer underhanded compliments. They are patronizing. On one hand, they want to be the life of the party but are afraid no one will show up, therefore they will dove-tail in on someone else’s event or ride the coat tail of yours in a similar fashion. This kind of PAP will attempt to steal your thunder and elevate their presence. They will call you for advice but refuse to bring you on board to actually be a part of their projects. The bigger picture for them is, “I need you to help me win, but I don’t want others to know you helped me win”.  They know that next to them you will outshine them, without trying to. Because of this insecurity, they are users in the worst way. They leach ideas from you and allow you to believe you will get credit or be an integral part of the team. On the day of the launch, when you’re ready to celebrate as a team member, you are left standing on the side wondering what happened.

How to disarm this kind of PAP:  One word: Boundaries. Setting clear boundaries about how you will be involved in events, projects, etc. is a must before you fully invest yourself. One way to do this is limit the information you offer until your role is solidified. That’s if you want to be involved at all. You don’t have to help if you feel that you will only be used and not appreciated for what you can offer. Refuse to be a doormat for someone else’s come-up. If you do help, do it to the degree that is comfortable for you. Eventually their true objective will come out when they try to get more from you. With each request made by the PAP, ask them in what way will you be expected to assist with the event or project. Their response will tell you everything. It will also expose their ulterior motive, which again is not what the PAP wants. When they see that you are a critical thinker and conscious of the help you give, they will likely lose interest in soliciting your help. At that point you’re making their task challenging and prolonging their end-game. At the end of the day, they’re after a quick come-up at your expense.

4| The Childish, Attention-Seeking…Adult (AKA The Forever 2-year-old) – This PAP is only after one thing and one thing only: attention. Any kind of response from you, whether negative or positive gives them the supply they need to feel some sense of importance. These are the ones who start arguments or debates over the most trivial thing for no reason, just to get a rise out of you. This PAP will walk in front of you if you have yet to notice they’re in the room. They’ll find a reason to bring attention to themselves so that you notice they exist. They will interrupt your conversations with others and insert themselves. They’ll offer advice or their opinion when you didn’t ask for it. They’ll speak or laugh loudly if you’re across the room consumed by more important tasks. They’ll attempt to sabotage a group assignment to cause a disruption. Again, they just want attention.

Their ego is starved, therefore, even negative attention is a supply to them as much as positive attention. When you are obviously consumed with something else besides them, they turn up their attempts, similarly to how a child has a temper tantrum. To others this looks like the PAP is outgoing and excited about something. To the trained eye, it’s clearly obvious this person is attempting to draw attention to themselves. They’ll come to sit at your table, uninvited, when they were initially sitting somewhere else. They’ll find any reason to say something to you (revisit example in #2) to get you to acknowledge them. In truth they see you as important and by accomplishing even as little as your eye-contact is supply for them. On the other spectrum they believe that sabotaging you will make you seem less important or accepted by others. They’re only interested in what you’re doing if others are giving their attention to you. Like a child who wants the toy you have but didn’t care about it 5 minutes ago when it was unoccupied.

How to disarm this kind of PAP: Hardcore ignoring. A girlfriend of mine said that this response is a super power, meaning an acquired response. Sometimes it is difficult to do, because they are provoking annoyance out of you. However, ignoring them – not giving them the time of day – can be done with practice and soon it can kick in like second nature. By doing the total opposite of what they want deprives them of the supply they need to feel important. They can get that sense of importance in other ways, but not at your expense. Straight up ignoring this kind of PAP is like depriving them of oxygen. Yes, more than likely they will turn up and be more aggressive in getting your attention. So, by understanding what it is they are doing/their motive, smoothly pivot in the other direction. Leave that “child” in the middle of the floor kicking and crying. You have to utterly leave this PAP hanging in the wind. If you do happen to make eye contact, be unamused as if you were looking past them.

In a family setting, simply get up and start a conversation with another family member. No matter what, don’t give in to their scheme. If they become disrespectful such as a bully, bring someone else into the situation and call attention to the negative behavior. This diffuses the situation, because now the PAP is on blast, exposed and now more eyes are paying attention. They will be less inclined to repeat that mistake or at least think twice about it.

5| The One Who Feels Superior but has an Inferiority Complex (AKA The One Who Overcompensates) – This PAP can be very disruptive especially to a group. They always have something to prove. They are overbearing and intrusive, because they feel they have the “authority” to do so. They’ll attempt to show off in front of you as if they are more important in status. They’ll brag or make known that they know something you don’t, as if they are keyed into some exclusivity, which likely only exists in their own mind. This is the one who takes every opportunity to flex or throw their weight around in settings that involve decisions such as hiring, firing, event planning, family reunions, how money is spent, or who can be “in charge” of something.

This PAP usually does this when they feel threatened by someone else who has an authentic sense of authority or influence. They are easily frustrated by someone else who can execute with minimum effort and maximum participation from others. To them this is power that they want and believe they deserve. Therefore, this PAP will attempt to undermine the efforts of another person, usually in the presence of their superior. This PAP will even go to the lengths of lying to boost their status and reduce that of others. They are quick to casually throw others under the bus with minimum to zero remorse. The truth is: This PAP is terrified that they will lose their position or status to someone else who is more qualified, therefore, they slander the other person to others hoping it will change the light others see them in.

How to disarm this kind of PAP: Although frustrating, this PAP requires endurance and strategy. In the words of Jay Z, “… don’t argue with fools. Cause people from a distance can tell who is who”. Your work will speak for itself. When someone attempts to lie on you and bad-mouth you, those who are lending an ear will more than likely, if they have any kind of sense, be able to see the discrepancy in what the PAP is stating. It never fails, when you are vindicated it will be unmistakable. It will happen perfectly with the greatest satisfaction.

Another friend of mine said that when he deals with PAPs, he ignores them and doesn’t feed into their madness. “I don’t feed the beast. I starve them out and feed my work”. He went on to say that people like that cancel themselves out, so it’s best to remain in control and allow the PAP’s emotions get the best of them.

If they are in a circle of influence, then they are only brining more attention to the awesome work you are doing! We call that free advertisement. The Most Honorable Elijah Muhammad says that every knock is a boost. All of the incredible men and women of history were lied on at some point, including Jesus, and sooner than later they rose above their adversaries and opposition, leaving them in the dust. It’s definitely difficult to withstand being lied on, and the natural response is to defend yourself. If you are ever given the opportunity to do so, go ahead but with calmness and evidence; not emotion and finger pointing. The item that is on trial is your credibility; that’s what the PAP is attempting to attack. Your credibility will be defended by your work. Therefore, just as it was explained here and in #1: outwork that PAP and your amazing work will testify of yourself.

In a family setting, this can be a little tricky depending on where the fabrication is coming from. Nevertheless, it can be addressed with civility. The Most Honorable Elijah Muhammad also teaches that we bring all parties together, and from there we can find out where the inconsistency is. When all parties are together, say: “I was told that you said this about me. Is this true?” Now regardless if they admit to it or not, you’ve put them on notice, and again you’ve brought other eyes to the situation to expose the PAP. This can actually be done in any scenario.

BONUS – The Sorry…Not Sorry One (AKA The Unapologetic Apologizer) – “I’m sorry if you feel that way, but…” Or the “If you feel that way, I don’t know what to tell you…”. We’ve all heard at least one of those or some rendition of the above. It’s the PAP who wants you to feel that something must be wrong with you for the clear offense they made, but don’t want to own up to. They’ll acknowledge that you feel offended and attempt to appease you without actually standing in the light of blame or accountability. Yes, this kind of PAP can send the logical one spiraling into pure rage, while they stand there calmly blinking like a Peanuts cartoon character. They lack empathy for others in pain or discomfort when it’s clear they’re the ones in the wrong. NOTE: This isn’t to be confused with someone who is unaware of an offense or the magnitude of their offense and once you bring it to their attention is then remorseful. Nope….this PAP is compulsively dodging accountability like Deontay Wilder dodges jabs and uppercuts in the ring! I once had a PAP apologize to me for something they did 17 years ago, but they refused to acknowledge their wrong from the day before. Yes…I know…

So here’s how you disarm this PAP:  First understand that what they’re offering is clearly insincere. Therefore, simply refuse to accept their apology. It may seem counterintuitive seeing as though they are in the wrong, but they are attempting to make you feel wrong for feeling offended. They want to turn the blame on you for feeling offended for their wrong. So, instead of taking their disingenuous apology, refuse it.  Say: “I don’t accept your apology.” Yes, it’s just that simple. This gives you your power back and in turn causes the PAP to stand in the light of accountability whether they want to or not. The PAP has to now think about their initial wrong that was unacceptable just like their “apology”.

Now, if they turn up and become disagreeable, you have the right to table the conversation and ask them to leave, or if you’re in their home or company, respectfully depart. I would highly advise not to get into a back and forth with a PAP, because they can, with any amount of leverage, find a loop hole and reverse the blame.

The Reverse Apologizer – This PAP is one who will offer a fraudulent apology when their objective is to get you to apologize for something, usually an offense you are oblivious to. This kind of PAP is manipulative; will offer a seemingly sincere apology as a way to get you to lower your guard and once it’s down, they insert, “Remember that time when you ….? That made me feel ….” Thus, prompting you to apologize. This PAP can be unassuming in demeanor, but aggressive in getting their way.

How to disarm this PAP: I experienced a PAP like this a couple of years ago, and I was able to see where it was going. The whole set up seemed a bit off, so I paid close attention to what they were actually saying. That’s key in disarming a PAP like this. When it was clear that their apology was a decoy and they were attempting to be manipulative, I redirected the conversation using their words to address what they were using as the decoy. I kept the focus on what they were actually saying versus what they were attempting to manipulate. Therefore, we stayed on their apology, which is what they wanted me to believe the talk was all about anyway. I made it about them and how I appreciated their apology. It clearly frustrated them, because their plan backfired. If someone is trying to get you to apologize and they aren’t willing to communicate an offense openly, it’s likely that they’re merely being petty and they intuitively know it. People who are genuinely offended will find an authentic way of bringing it up to express it without insulting you and without forcing you to do what they want, especially when you’re not clear on what occurred.

Want to learn more? Check out other segments in ‘The Psychology of…’ series!

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