Aggression and Passive-Aggression

Thank you to all the comments and stories from the the recent post about gift giving as they helped me understand more about my in-laws’ behaviors.  Shortly after, I read the book, Emotional Vampires, by Albert J. Bernstein, Ph.D., where he briefly discusses acts of kindness and gifts as a passive-aggressive behavior.

“Your BiL’s gifts to your husband went beyond passive aggression and entered the zone of ‘insult gifts.'” ~CS (@ Caliban’s Sisters).


It was hard for me to pinpoint what was happening when my in-laws’ gifts looked so harmless.  The nicely wrapped box with the bow on top disguised something all together more primal – aggression:

“To a psychologist, aggression refers to a continuum of thoughts and actions that have to do with imposing your will on the world.” ~Bernstein

Bernstein further outlines that at one end of the continuum are simple attempts to act in our own self-interest and at the other, assaultive behavior.  This continuum exists in all of us.  At one end, when I stand up for my needs by directly expressing them to the person I need it from that is a form of aggression (assertiveness).  But at the other end, I have thought of duck-taping my sister-in-law’s mouth to stop her from speaking and at really difficult times, I have thought of B613-ing her (for fans of the TV series, Scandal).  DH has said he has wanted to stick his foot out to trip his co-worker whom he can’t stand.  Most of us don’t act on this aggression, however enticing it is in our minds.  The one thing that stops us is ‘impulse control’.

On the other hand, passive-aggression involves poor impulse control of aggression involving two circumstances: (1) where there is conscious awareness of anger and aggression or (2) where anger/aggression is denied all together (thereby the aggression is not under conscious control).  Under both circumstances, the aggression is expressed indirectly.

With the first type, when I was angry at Lydia (former friend) I purposely did not capitalise her name when I wrote an e-mail to her but capitalised everything else – “I” and “TR”.  Yes, I did that consciously.  As for the later, I have realised (in hindsight) that I handle my anger poorly through selectively listening and in many other indirect manners (still discovering).

When it is regarding those that give until it hurts (you), the passive-aggressiveness is due to the later.  This type of severe denial is a form of splitting, where one accepts the loving and giving parts and denies the whole aggression continuum (a symptom of childhood abuse, as a child does this to protect against psychological pain of the abuse).

This denial which starts out as protective can lead to the belief that one has no inappropriate impulses to act on.  This law of nature, then, does not come to fruition:

“Everybody takes…Everybody wants something, and everybody gets angry at not getting it.” ~Bernstein

Continued denial of this is often found in people who behave consistently with the behavioral patterns of Passive-Agressive Histrionics.  Their giving may be sincere but they give and give and give until we get the hint that they want something from us.  They believe in the binding contract of quid pro quo: “If they do unto others, others are supposed to do back.” ~Bernstein.

“Gifts are either passive aggressive or have strings attached.” ~Kitty (@ Brave New Kitty)

The problem with the binding contract is that you are not aware that you are signing one.  AND the payback is more than you signed on for!  Reading the fine print is a must.

FiL said (about Christmas gifts): “I figured that will bring in dividends throughout the year, ya know.”

Bernstein wrote about pathological givers: “…, in their own minds at least, their accounts payable look great.”

How funny that Bernstein would use similar accounting terminology?  His true intentions with his ‘acts of kindness’ became more apparent with his neighbors at his retirement community:

When I helped FiL sort through some clothes, he wanted to give ‘new’ clothes (clothes with tags still on, never been worn) to his neighbors.  The woman who got them was very grateful.  The woman said to FiL (paraphrasing): “Thank you so much, I have a wedding to go to and I needed something, let me know if there is anything you need.”  FiL immediately responded: “Just make me dinner.”  The ‘payback’ dinner was not only ONE dinner, I found out later that this had lasted once a week for six months.

Since FiL doesn’t believe in the law of nature that everybody takes, he has no conscious control of it and therefore, it is not under self-regulation.  He can only see the ‘good’ aspects of himself which are reinforced by his need to foster as much gratitude.

“…it seems to me that Ns want a lot of appreciation for their gifts and get angry if you don’t like them…” ~Kara (@ Through the Looking Glass)

A simple “Thank you” is not enough for FiL.  He is a master of highlighting what he does for us and others so often that the need to feel appreciated is exaggerated and when this exaggerated need is not met, he gets angry – passive-aggressively (like mentioning it over and over again).

“A passive-aggressive gift is a real crazy-maker. It’s an insult that requires the receiver to appreciate/thank the giver.” ~CZBZ (@ The Narcissistic Continuum)

That is maybe one of the most frustrating things about receiving gifts or help from my in-laws.  There are two conflicting feelings making us feel crazy.  The double message: they are actually taking (time, money, emotional draining) in the act of giving (often to others it looks like they give so much, reinforcing the double message).  Such double messages work well in dysfunctional families.  

“In fact, when they (dysfunctional families) encounter an adult who does not communicate this way, they think something is wrong.  Thus, they shy away from people who communicate in healthy ways, and in so doing, manage to recreate the dysfunctional system they grew up in.” ~ J. Friel & L. Friel

 Further reading & References

Caliban’s Sisters: Passive Aggression, a Primer

Otrazhenie Reflections: Be Assertive!

Related posts @IBC: The Give/Take Ratio — Summin’ It Up

Bernstein, Albert J., Ph.D.: Emotional Vampires – Dealing with People Who Drain You (2nd edition), McGraw Hill, 2012.

Friel, John & Friel, Linda: Adult Children – The Secrets of Dysfunctional Families, Health Communications, Inc., 1988.


19 thoughts on “Aggression and Passive-Aggression

  1. One of the things I enjoy most about your posts is that they carry forward earlier themes and show progress in understanding the earlier experiences. Your in-laws, esp FiL has a great deal of aggression in forcing things on people. Food, boat trips, etc. And I remember your SiL’s silly cheerleader doll for you. For dysfunctional and narc families, gifts are NEVER neutral or simply given freely. Ever. The belt story is SO ridiculous. What could your BiL possibly tell himself about giving a gift so idiotic, a) because your DH already has that belt and b) the huge weight loss eight years ago. It’s just an insult, a way of saying ‘yeah, you know you’ll gain that weight back eventually.’ BiL is an asshole. Sorry.


    • Hi CS,
      Thank you. The progress is possible from help from you and the rest in the ACoN blogosphere.

      Very true – “FiL has a great deal of aggression…” – emotions are not expressed in DH’s FOO. The one emotion that is stopped and shoved back down your throat is anger. I have never seen FiL, BiL or SiL express anger/their needs – only through these means or triangulation.

      Hahaha, yes the belt. It is still in the closet. xxTR


  2. TR this is post is just what I needed. I’ve been working on a post about gratitude and how some people use gratitude like a whip. This post is one I plan to link to the post since it gives great examples of how this is done. Thanks for sharing.


  3. “For dysfunctional and narc families, gifts are NEVER neutral or simply given freely. Ever.” CS is so right about that. As I read this post, I remember all the times the “bill” came due. Well, not ALL of them because there are so many. I remember the times I finally recognized what was happening. I learned to question and learned to say ‘no’ and learned to put no emotional investment into what I was given because the price would always be too high. I also agree with CS about enjoying the way you share the progress. Great post, TR.


    • Hi Judy,
      Thank you. Yes! When it is time to collect, ugh – the interest is too high. That is wonderful you said ‘no’, that is a huge encouragement for I’m working on saying ‘no’ to gifts this year. xx


  4. This is a great post TR. It was helpful how you so clearly outlined your FIL’s behavior, especially in relation to other’s thoughts.
    I have been working on trying to understand how my NM thinks, in order to better be able to lay down boundaries and deal with her. This post helps me see that with my MIL. She is the type who gives and gives and gives and then expects you to do the same thing. She never says no either, and so we are not allowed to say no. Giving whenever asked and for whatever asked is how she believes she is expressing “love”. I hadn’t thought about how she is only focusing on the giving part and ignoring the taking part. Thanks for this.

    Again, brilliant post!


    • Hi Jessie,
      Thank you. I’m glad it helped. The never say ‘no’ part is an excellent point. It subtly puts the person who says NO in the family sort of in an entitlement position?
      I think that is true, that they believe they are expressing ‘love’ and being ‘generous’. I do think my FiL believes he is a generous, giving person. And in the beginning I felt that way. Then I saw how much ‘work’ DH and I do and the verbal abuse from him that it takes a toll on us. There was always a payback. xx


  5. Hi TR! What a coincidence! My daughter has been preserving family videos by converting them to digital CDs. So far, we’ve watched hours of Christmas gift-opening with my “family-of-creation doings” and my “FOO-do’s”, too. (sometimes you just have to go with the flow of your keyboard and FOO-do was close enough to “hypnotic spells turning you into a zombie” that I had to leave it.)

    Do you think there might be a passive-aggression motivation when someone NEVER gives a gift but relies on his/her partner to give gifts for them? Such as “From Mom and Dad” when you know for a fact that he had never taken time out of his day to think about, much less shop for, an appropriate gift? This may be common in families but what’s the message to the child? I thought about that while watching old videos, realizing my X never bought gifts for his small children. That never bothered me because my father never bought gifts for his children either. Perhaps this is changing today and maybe it’s an exaggeration to call it “passive-aggression” but in both cases, these fathers resented their children and I think the “lack” of a gift delivered the message in a passive way: “Dad doesn’t care if I exist.”

    In my quote (thanks for mentioning me in your post!), I mentioned “crazy-making” which seems to be a popular theme for myself right now. argh Contradictory messages (passive-aggression) are springing forth from my unconscious muck-of-the-moment. The “over-the-top” expensive gifts eliciting “oohs and aahs” and “compliments” for the GIVER. The cheap gifts purchased from a storefront window on his way to see his girlfriend and you know it and he knows it and what’s more joyful than insulting a wife’s self-worth by giving her a gift that says what he won’t, “You don’t matter to me.” It’s sadism tied up in a pretty bow, isn’t it? There are some gifts that are definitely worse than nothing.

    One more example: when my sister was having marital problems (she didn’t tell anyone in the family other than me), her husband gave her a gift she’d asked for but not the “model” she asked for. A smaller, less expensive version. Then he took the appliance out of its original box (so it couldn’t be returned) and wrapped each piece in its own box, forcing her to spend half an hour unwrapping bits and pieces–prolonging her agony in the family spotlight. Of course, no one understood why she wasn’t thrilled to get a new Kitchen Aid Mixer. The camera captured her displeasure and her husband’s excitement making her appear to be ungrateful and spoiled and I even thought she was being a brat. Until I heard the whole story. Which she told me in private. Her X-husbaNd was the Christmas morning hero, saving enough $$ to buy such an expensive gift and everyone congratulated him on being so clever as to put each piece in a separate box. She’s the sister who moved in with me almost 18 years ago. Her Kitchen Aid mixer is in our garage and we’re giving it away because every time she looks at it, she remembers that morning! Love, CZ


    • Hi CZ, That is a coincidence, I find as well that looking back on some tangible memories like photos and videos after knowing about narcissism is an eye-opening experience. And then when it gets too much – the not looking/viewing it because it is more proof of the dysfunctionality.

      I think there could be a PA motivation behind not being involved in the process depending on the nature of the relationship. A dad not involved in the children’s life (birthdays, holidays, etc) to some extent, especially if there are other behaviours to support it, I believe is PA. I think there are some dad’s who are involved in their children’s lives (in other aspects) and don’t like the shopping, gift wrapping that goes with gift giving without the dysfunction. With dysfunction, the gift giving process seems to be the bow on top to disguise the underlying unhealthiness. With my DH’s FOO, I handle the gifts. I believe this to be PA b/c I know he has anger at the gifts they have given him and he has totally checked out of the process. I literally do all the work, though, this is changing.

      Ugh, the crazy making. That is exactly what it felt like when I was dealing with it. Double messages like this start to reveal itself and then I hit my hand on my head. The awakening is a cruel process. The ‘oohs and aahs’ over gifts, the adulation from it. I would have liked to have studied the facial expressions of my in-laws at the time to see what they were like. The gifts are often hap hazard (my in-laws often did re-gifting but explained it as if they spent hours searching for the right gift, their ‘trick’ was exposed later) yet, are the best in their eyes.

      Gifts that send a cruel message like the one of your ex’s are terrible – the adulation they derive is indirectly derived from our negative feelings of the hidden message of the gift – I hadn’t thought of it as sadistic before. That is something to think of b/c DH’s brother gives him gifts (like iPhone accessory when DH doesn’t have one) where he may be deriving adulation from his disappointment in not having an iPhone. There have been so many other gifts to DH – either not useful or where DH has said NO and BiL had given it to him anyway. I thought it was b/c BiL never hears and listens. Now, I have to wonder if that is how BiL derives his joy from DH’s negative feelings.

      Man, the gift to your sister. That is a classic. The over the top presentation to reap as much attention from the process as possible. Getting rid of it is something to celebrate.

      Thank you for your comment and the stories – it really demonstrates how joy is sucked out of joyous occasions in dysfunctional families. Love, TR


  6. My NM “oohed and aaahed” enthusiastically, gushily, over a Bday gift I got her, the complete boxed set of Frazier, which I knew she loved. I gave it to her, and I could tell her gushiness was compensating for something. Turned out it was right before I learned about her plagiarism. It was compensatory gushing. She knew she’d stabbed me in the back.


    • Ugh, that is awful. The ‘nice’ when they want something – maintain their image when they’ve done something they know they should not have.


  7. Hi TR,
    “Most of us don’t act on this aggression, however enticing it is in our minds. The one thing that stops us is ‘impulse control’.” Yes, exactly. That’s the fundamental difference, because passive aggressives have no impulse control, even when they try to hide their feelings, they “leak out” one way or another.
    Very interesting post. I love how you brought all the elements together: the passive aggression and its connection to gift-giving as a way of getting something back; and how it all combines to create a dysfunctional system.


    Kara xx


    • Thank you. That is probably what is really dangerous over no impulse control. The way in which it ‘leaks out’ is scary sometimes. FiL throws things at people and I have a PTSD response to it. If someone asks him to hand over a pen he will throw it at you even if he could have placed it. I’m not sure, but launching items at people I think is his way of letting it out. Which in some cases the objects are not exactly safe to throw at someone.

      I found the dysfunctional system quote to be interesting in the fact that dysfunctional families stay away from ‘healthy’ communicators. Not necessarily the other way around. Hugs, TR


      • Throwing things at people all the time (not as a one off joke) sounds to me like a sign of aggression. Most of us instinctively duck if something is unexpectedly being thrown at us, so no wonder you have a PSTD reaction to it if he’s doing this constantly. xxoo


  8. Hi TR….glad I got a new computer and can now get to sites…this entry is a real thoughtful entry…not saying that what you have written before isn’t, but this hit some tender spots in my own life. Geez…narcissism, or the presence of narcissists certainly complicate and expand everything.

    Impulse control. This is a very big lacking in my 26 year old son. He has none and he gets in a lot of financial trouble because of it. I believe that there are other issues behind this behavior besides impulse control, but impulse control ….or lack of it, is enough to set me thinking.
    Gift giving. Geez, this is a biggie. For years I gave and gave my NM tons of gifts…things that I really couldn’t afford, and most that were hand made….laboriously. I thought it was an expression of love, but what it was my trying to get a mother who has no ability to love…to notice her only daughter. She never gave anything back. And IF she did buy a gift, and she liked it, she would keep it and give a cheaper version to the receiver. Always. It was a fundamental expression of her contempt and her narcissism.

    Passive-Aggressive: recently I broke off a friendship with a woman I knew for over 20 years. She was a poet and rather good, but she would never NEVER comment or critique mine. This is not right in the poetry world. It’s a matter of give and take, and critique is taken seriously. Formally, it’s a way or an avenue of growth for developing poets. I would read her one of mine, and she would remain silent. It took me a long time…years, to understand what was going on here. PAs seen to be competitive but they hid it with their passiveness. I guess. Dealing with people who are PA has to be one of the most frustrating things in the world. And it is very difficult to trust them because they generally hold their cards close to their chest…except when they don’t. Ugh.

    It’s all dysfunction and boy do we struggle with that crap all our lives. This was an entry that sent me thinking deeply about my own behaviors. Thank you!

    Love, Jane


    • Hi Jane,
      Thank you for your comment.

      Impulse control is a lesson that is difficult to learn. I struggle with these behaviours and often I find that I recognise my anger and still go about it in a passive way. Using anger in a constructive way is a trying exercise.

      The gift giving in our families of origin is so twisted. Like you, I gave to get love. I get angry now when I think of the time and money and emotions spent on our mothers. They weren’t capable of returning the love, what you say exactly.

      PA’s are frustrating to deal with. I think some don’t know they are angry nor think they are ‘people’ who get angry. And in reality never seeing someone get angry is a bit weird. It doesn’t feel real.

      Your friend ‘withholding’ like that is very frustrating and in organisations where this a ‘built-in’ reciprocity. I can understand how that feels. It is such a cruel way to say to someone ‘I want something but I’ll punish you until I get it’.

      Love, TR


      • Hi TR…..thank you for responding…and yes, impulse control is all over the place some days! LOL!

        This former friend is a Quaker, so she sits on her butt and is very angry at life. She hides behind the Quaker mentality which is passive in any case….I was there on the bench for 12 years and I found all sorts of pathologies in the Meeting for Worship. I found that people, like myself, were looking for solutions to unresolved behaviors and feelings and Quakerism was (outwardly) a ‘solution’. There is a posturing to just about any religion I believe, but Quakerism is something that many people (like myself) who had great anger issues unresolved gravitated towards this ‘peaceful’ religion. It was nothing such. There was such anger at so many things right under the surface, but an unwillingness to get to them. This former friend was extremely obese, in the 400 lb range, and she blamed men, her ex-husband, society in general for her situation. However, even when you got close to her, and as a friend of 20 years, I was concerned about her health, she would deny any issues…saying that her doctors weren’t worried about her weight. However, she has had uterine cancer for a while and because of her enormous weight, her doctors aren’t going to chance surgery until she loses a significant amount of weight. And because of her denial, she is seriously putting her life at risk of dying from this cancer. Sometimes you can’t allow yourself to continue to be around or concerned with someone like this: you are constantly beating your head on the wall and getting nowhere. She is a classical example of Passive-Aggressive and I didn’t until recently realize that was what I was dealing with. She complains that people have deserted her, but then again, the issue of trust goes out the door with a PA.



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