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.


Myth: A horse is a horse, of course.

“Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.”

I didn’t understand this proverb until about six months ago when it came up in a discussion during my language class.  I found out that it means:

one should never be ungrateful or critical of a gift  

For me, one of the earliest triggers that something wasn’t right with my relationships was the act of gift giving.  Maybe because I was uncomfortable with lying about how thankful I was or the fact that the gift was a tangible reminder of the true nature of our relationship.  I don’t know, exchanging gifts has never been a positive experience growing up nor is it, today, with DH’s FOO (my in-laws).

horseIt felt like a good time to revisit it since the year of the Horse begins in China on the 31st of January and especially since some new stuff regarding this subject came up over the past six months with DH’s FOO, including this past holiday break.

1. Horse sense (common sense, practical thinking)

This past Christmas, DH received a really nice iPhone camera accessory from his brother (BiL).  This is a very cool gift…if you have an iPhone.  BiL makes fun of DH constantly because he doesn’t have one.  Needless to say, DH returned the gift.

This past summer during our visit home, BiL was showing us his new belt (don’t ask me why).  As we stood in awe of this invention to keep trousers in place, BiL says to DH: “you should get one”.  DH says: ‘No need, I have the same one already’ and points to his waist.  It was kind of a ‘funny’ moment (funny is code for totally ridiculous) to see the brothers wearing the same belt coincidentially.

A few weeks later, it is DH’s birthday and a package arrives for him.  And you guessed it, BiL sent him the same belt.  Not only was it the very same belt but there were two of them in the gift.  But wait, that is not even the best part.  BiL ordered the same size for DH as for himself.  Although, the two brothers are similar in height and used to wear the same size, DH’s size has changed drastically.  DH lost a tremendous amount of weight.  One could say BiL was playing it safe but wait, it gets really good.  DH lost this weight eight years ago and has maintained it since and has routinely communicated not to get him clothing (because it is always the wrong size – the old size).  The two belts (which cannot be adjusted for a smaller size) are waiting to be donated.

What about you?  Any gifts that made you say: huh?

2.  Beating (flogging) a dead horse (to insist on talking about something that has already been thoroughly discussed)

Following-up on a gift is quite common in DH’s FOO.  DH and I often have found ourselves saying ‘Thank You’ too many times that it ends up sounding like a broken record.

During the past holiday break FiL said we could use his car instead of renting one.  It was a generous offer until every day (12 days) when we saw him he would ask: “How is the car running?” and then repeatedly say “Bet your grateful that it has seat warmers in this cold”.  This is no joke – every day without fail.  And without fail, responding to the sound of FiL’s tone DH would say “Yeah, thank you for letting us use it.”

A couple days before Christmas FiL wanted to go to the supermarket to buy a ham for his old neighbour and then to drop it off at her house.  The situation transpired as such (DH was not with us):

FiL gives the ham and the Neighbour and her daughter thank him.  They share with us their holiday festivities and then:

Neighbour: What are you all up to? (I believe she was asking what we were doing for the holidays since she had told us what they were doing.)

FiL: Well, we went and got the ham, that’s what we have been up to.

Neighbour: Yeah, thank you so much for doing that.  How is DH?

(I answer her question.)

FiL:  I got you a good size ham because your family has grown (referring to the new grandchildren)

Neighbour: Yeah, we certainly have.  

Neighbour’s daughter: We especially love fighting over the bone every year (referring to the fact that FiL brings the ham over every year).

FiL:  Yeah, well this time, I got you the one without the bone so you can make soups out of it later, ya know (points to the ham resting on the table).

Neighbour’s daughter: (goes to the ham and picks it up) Oh yeah, thanks, good idea.  We will have to put it in a cool place…

The Neighbour and her daughter fuss over where to put the ham, in the garage, in the front closet where it is cold but won’t freeze, wrap in a towel, etc.  As they are doing this, FiL says his goodbye and we leave this awful, 100% uncomfortable situation for me, behind.

3.  Straight from the horse’s mouth (a source of insider information)

It is common in DH’s FOO to use clichés and reinforce them – like, it’s the thought that counts.  Referring to the fact that when someone gives you a gift, regardless of whether or not thought about the gift receiver was considered, the important thing to remember is the gift giver’s intentions.  This may well be the case in healthy relationships, bad gifts can be given with good intentions.  Except growing up narc, good intentions don’t mean much when it is frequently and consistently followed by hurtful behaviours or ulterior motives.  But do gift givers always have good intentions?  I got a little insight into how DH’s FOO view gift giving.

Background: BiL and SiL went on holiday and bought gifts for their friends.  Here is the conversation that transpired after (word for word):

BiL: …across from Town X and across that other bridge is another little town basically but it’s where XYZ vineyard, so the winery is there, so we picked up a bottle for a co-worker.

DH: That’s one who…? (asking who the co-worker was to see if he knew him)

BiL: Who will love you forever

(SiL answers DH’s question about who the co-worker is since DH does know him)

chocoPerhaps, he meant it as a joke.  And as the conversation continues SiL and BiL inform us they went to our supermarket to do their chocolate shopping (to bring back chocolates for friends back home) and began to laugh when telling the story.  They said that the chocolates were a lot cheaper at the supermarket than the boutique chocolatier stores.  The supermarket does sell speciality chocolates (as stated on the box).  To end the conversation SiL says (about their friends) with a laugh (word for word):

SiL: “And they don’t know really” (laughs)

Even If I cut them some slack because no body is a perfect gift giver, my intuition tells me the manner in which they told the story and how much they chuckled and laughed made me feel uneasy.

During this past holiday break, FiL (DH’s father) gave a box of food to some of his neighbours.  When he told us that he had done so, he added:

FiL: “I figured that will bring in dividends throughout the year, ya know.”

He is referring to the fact that he will get free meals from his neighbours throughout year.  What percentage return is FiL figuring?

“A gift is a gift, of course?”

The definition is:

“A gift or a present is an item given to someone without the expectation of payment. Although gift-giving might involve an expectation of reciprocity, a gift is meant to be free.”  (Source: Wikipedia)

When does a ‘gift’ stop being a gift?  When I think of BiL’s phrase “who will love you forever” I think about the times I tried so hard to give the best gift ever to my mother and how much I wanted her love in return and how that expectation never came through. A gift, for me, was a way to buy love and get recognition – I wanted something in return.  It was the hope that this one item would transform a relationship that was never based on anything of value – respect, unconditional love, trust – I used to believe that a gift was magic.

When I think of DH’s FOO and the gift giving expectations, I am conflicted with my disgust for them and for myself.  Mostly, because I know I carried this expectation of gift giving with many of my friends into adulthood.  My friends and I don’t exchange gifts anymore – not to punish myself or them – but to really understand its meaning for me.

This last holiday season I read an advertisement in the metro and it said:

“it isn’t the thought that counts, it’s thought that counts.”

That felt appropriate to how I am feeling about it after this past holiday season – I need to give this some thought.  Gifts are not about obligation or images or anything.  A gift is a gift – nothing more, nothing less.  If this can’t be so with DH’s FOO then I’ve got my work cut out for me during the Year of the Horse, fittingly enough.

Hugs, TR

Related posts:

@ IBC: Gift Giving by NarcissistsGiving Gifts to Narcissists

The Narcissistic Continuum: Super Santa

P.S. The photo of the horses is of a traditional event (“ring riding”) in a small village where the rider uses the pointed stick to catch the ring that is hung in the air while riding the horse down a short track.  As the competition goes on the diameter of the ring gets smaller.