Passive and Passive-Aggressive: The Subjugation Schema

Paul fumed about his wife – “she expects me to do everything, I can’t get a moment for myself”. Paul felt constantly under pressure, at home and at work. He felt himself surrounded by demanding people and fantasised about escaping, being alone. Despite Paul feeling like he was being pushed around, he never got into fights or arguments. “What’s the use in fighting back” he’d say, “nothing’s going to change”. It became apparent that Paul almost always took a passive stance, this led to frustration which he was unable to vent. He was seething with pressurised rage. No wonder he wanted to escape.

What does it mean to be passive? It means taking the stance of “your wants and needs are important and mine aren’t”. Acting passively makes sense when you are weaker (as children are), and you could get harmed by the dominant ones, or when you are less capable than some other. Passivity is fuelled by fear and anxiety. Being passive is not the same as being easy-going. Chill people have no problem standing up for their wants and needs, they pick their battles well.

No matter who you are there are times in life where it serves to be passive, to defer to the authority or expertise of someone better equipped to handle the situation. It is important to take a passive stance around experts performing their role. Around police officers arresting a criminal, doctors performing a procedure, mechanics fixing some complex machinery.

Some people tend toward a passive stance regardless of whether it is warranted. Part of this is temperamental. People with anxious and agreeable natures are likely to veer this way. Part of this is upbringing. Children who have been bullied or victimised by others or had parents who were overly dominant and stifled reasonable emotions, will often tend to be excessively passive. This is called the Subjugation Schema.

“I was raised on egg-shells” explained Paul. His father was hugely unpredictable – Fun and silly one more moment, violent and menacing the next. We were always on the look out of how Dad felt, I could never just be me. At school, Paul was bullied for being sensitive. “My biggest fear was that Dad would find out that I was being picked on, I just didn’t know how he’d react”. Paul learnt to just take it and keep his mouth shut.

What does it mean to be aggressive? It means taking the stance of “my wants and needs are important and yours aren’t”. It is sometimes important to be aggressive when we are being attacked. Of course, people who are routinely aggressive are unpleasant to be around. But asserting ones needs aggressively is sometimes warranted.

What does it mean to be passive-aggressive? It means to appear to take the stance of “your wants and needs are important and mine aren’t”, while actually pushing for one’s own wants or needs to be met. Very often, the passive-aggressive person is themselves unaware of their aggressive intentions. People who are highly subjugated are likely to act in a passive aggressive manner. This is because all of us have wants and needs. If our emotions or opinions are subjugated, they are likely to come out in unusual and underhanded ways.

What is the way out for someone like Paul? His passivity was making him exhausted and resentful. He would act passive-aggressively to get what he needed, but this was alienating him from his wife and co-workers. Part of the answer was to conduct assertiveness training. Assertiveness means taking the stance of “your wants and needs are important and so are mine”. Assertiveness training consists of learning communication skills. But before Paul could do that, he had to change his Subjugation Schema. Paul had to believe that his wants and needs, opinions and preferences, were reasonable. He had to break the fear that others would retaliate if he expressed an opinion or emotion. By expressing frustrations whilst they were minor, he prevented the build-up of rage. Paul started to break free.

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