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.

 

Playing Games

I love games.  Most kind of games, anyway.  Sports, board games, card games, trivia, video/computer games, dominoes, The Hunger Games and The Olympic Games.  I’m competitive.  I play to win.  I don’t routinely win but nevertheless, win or lose, I enjoy playing.

Luckily, during the holidays DH’s FOO (my in-laws) pass the time playing games.  They prefer to play card games and dominoes and I’ve learned a lot of new card games from them.  It is a way to get through uncomfortable time with them.

This last holiday break I began to realize something about how my in-laws approach game playing and had flashbacks to other times I have played games (not the mental kind 😉 ) with other narcissists in my life.  

When I read the post and conversation at Releasing Jessie (A Validating Response), I began to understand that there are fundamental differences in many of my relationships – not at an opinion, perspective level, but at a much deeper level.

“They assume that I operate in exactly the same way as them. And this in congruency makes any sort of real relationship impossible.” – Jessie

This insightful comment was apparent at a more surface level when playing games socially with not only my in-laws but also other friends.  Playing a game with them seemed to highlight how differently we operate on a microscopic scale.

Child’s Play

Whenever we visit the best friends of DH’s parents, we also pass the time with games, not the preferred card games or dominoes of my in-laws, but with their preferred game – Taboo or Catch Phrase.  The skill crucial to winning at such communication style games is to have an ability to relay information so that your teammates will guess the word or phrase stated on your card.

Word on card: Ice Skating Rink

Objective: have teammates guess the whole phrase correctly without using the words on the card or derivatives (skate, icy, etc.)

FiL: the place we used to take you kids, ya know, where we would go and one time you…

Every time, without fail, FiL or MiL would bring up his/her memory to help the teammates guess the word.  Perhaps, what is funny, and sad at the same time, is that the majority of the people playing the game (other party guests DH’s FOO didn’t know very well) couldn’t effectively guess (including me).  During the course of the game, it never occurred to them to adjust their approach.  If you were on their team, you struggled.

However innocent it is and not necessarily crucial to life, playing a communication style game like this with narcissists potentially reveals a fundamental difference in how they view the world.  And what is also revealing is the lack of self-awareness of how if one approach or strategy doesn’t work, maybe consider another.

The idea of viewing the world one way and not through another way or another person’s perspective illustrates a similarly between how narcissists and toddlers view the world – hence, adult narcissists engage in child’s play, literally.  I read an interesting article about how children begin to develop the ability to understand or consider the thoughts and feelings of others.  This switch happens at an early developmental stage and one that parents may be able to aid their children as to help them connect with others into adolescence and adulthood.

“this modest development allows us to survive and thrive in an interconnected, social world” – Rebecca Schwarzlose

Article: Scientific American, “The Benefits about Talking about Thoughts with Tots”

Postmortems

For all the enjoyment I get out of playing sports or games, it can easily be diminished by a postmortem – a re-telling, re-assessing – of the game when it is over and done with (excluding when it is done to gain knowledge, insight for the future).  There is no harm done with a bit of thrash-talk or teasing in someone’s ability to lose or win a game.  It is social camaraderie.  But often this can go too far with DH’s FOO and even with DH at times.

For example, when we play dominoes there are 10 rounds to 1 game that ultimately determines the winner of the game; the score is tallied at the end of each round and the sum of the rounds determines the winner.  At the end of each round FiL’s postmortems include:

If he wins the round:  “I knew that would work and get me out soon” or “I planned that well, didn’t I?”

If he loses the round: “If you hadn’t made that move I would have won” or “You messed me up, if you hadn’t played that, I would have…” or “You were being nasty by playing that”

Normally, a statement like this I could tolerate but consistently after each round for multiple games, it got to me.  I was slowly getting annoyed.  I couldn’t figure out why but then I realized FiL may view winning and losing very differently than many of us.

In most games, there is an element of ‘luck’ and also an element of ‘skill’.  When the proportion is well-balanced, the game is fun (when playing games socially).  In dominoes, the luck comes from the tiles you are dealt and the skill is attributed to what you do with your given hand.

What FiL, I believe, does unconsciously is attribute his ability to win to his skill and the reason he loses to luck or purposeful sabotage on another counterpart (blaming).  The principle of winning is attributed internally (to his ability) and the principle of losing is attributed externally.  When in fact, both luck and skill are factors in the outcome (in such games).  

games

Sore Loser

It sucks to lose a game.  It isn’t very fun.  When the stakes are high, losing can really suck. I can imagine for many Winter Olympic Athletes in Sochi that nothing less than the gold is crushing.  Losing at quiz night at a pub, not so much.

During our trip to Glasgow with Don and Lydia (good friends), we headed to a pub after dinner and coincidentally it was Quiz Night.  The place was full for a weekday and we were lucky to get a table to play.  We paid our admission fee for playing and ordered our drinks.  There are multiple trivia rounds to the overall quiz that determines the final winner.

As we collectively answered the questions in Round One, Don started to get antsy on the questions where we were uncertain.  At the end of the round, we handed in our answer sheet and the results of Round One were announced – we came in last place (only for the round, mind you).  Don gets up and says, “hurry and drink up, we’re leaving”.  DH and I look at each other confused (as there were more rounds to go).  Don, even before we were done with our drinks, gets up and heads out the door.  As we followed Don to another pub (no quiz night and ironically, no people) he begins to blame DH and me for the answers and why we came in last.  Don grew antsy again because the pub was too boring so we headed out to a club, where we spent the rest of the night, unable to talk because of the loud music.

This incident wasn’t inconsistent with other patterns.  We regularly had game nights with them (playing various games).  Whenever Don lost, he switched the game.  At one point he bought a new game – Top Gear Board Game – and DH, I and Lydia repeatedly lost (for none of us except Don watched this show and he is a car fanatic).  It may not surprise you that DH and I are no longer friends with them.

“I’m very competitive.  I love to win but worse, I hate to lose.” – Samy (wife of DH’s friend)

These words were stressed upon DH and me the first and only time we played games with Samy and Lou (DH’s friend).  They decided on Scrabble and unfortunately Samy lost (in all fairness she didn’t know that DH and I play this game often).  Well, we stopped after one game and she then asked us if we had ever heard of another game and we told her that we hadn’t.  Needless to say, she went and grabbed that game and she taught us how to play it and well, she won.  We continued this game into the rest of the evening.

The pattern of Sore Loser is a commonality I have seen with DH’s FOO and friends.  It is, of course, no fun to continuously play a game which one loses at.  Routinely beating someone takes away the fun in playing games socially.  For some, even one loss cannot be tolerated, for it takes on a deeper meaning in a psyche that cannot differentiate the shades of grey in life.

Predator or Prey?  Be neither.

Glimpses into how FiL, MiL, SiL, Don or Samy operate have often left me confused.  I have, at times, wondered if they view a different reality.   No doubt, how a person plays a game is not indicative of any sort of narcissism.  It goes far beyond the ability to have fun playing a game, the fact that there is no real connection and why, oh why, we never seem to have a real conversation, a real relationship is fundamentally the problem.  It’s when the games have gone too far.

Any stories about game playing with narcissists?

xxTR

Further reading:

Releasing Jessie: A Validating Response