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!
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.