Aggressive, Passive, Passive-aggressive and Assertive

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Passive (I LOSE—YOU WIN)

As with any other issue, the style in which we interact with others can be in extremes. Some people allow others to passively take advantage of them, others go to the opposite extreme and use or abuse others to get their way. Some vacillate between the two positions. An assertive approach to getting your needs met is balance. It neither hurts another person, nor allows another person to use or take advantage of you.

Passive (I LOSE—YOU WIN)

Passive people may seems noble because they do everything to keep the peace, even allowing others to use, abuse and take advantage of them. Passive people believe if they give in to others they will keep the peace, which will help them get their needs met. Passive people may lack the inner resources to get what they want and need on their own. They may be dependent upon people, things, circumstances and achievements to dictate the outcome instead of them.

Passive people tend keep the peace at the huge price of allowing themselves or others to be hurt or be taken advantage of. To take an assertive stance runs the risk of disapproval from others, feeling uncomfortable and facing conflict. Standing up for yourself or what is fair can seem scary.

Following is a list of possible passive behaviors:

  • Being a victim—giving your power away
  • Saying “yes” when you mean “no”
  • Appeasing or agreeing to avoid conflict
  • Disregarding your own beliefs, needs, wants and feelings to please others Peace at all cost - Avoiding conflict - Hoping the problems simply go away Constantly apologizing for yourself even when you’ve done nothing wrong Taking blame and responsibility that belongs to others
  • Put everyone else’s needs and considerations before your own
  • Have no opinion, follow the flow
  • Enable others in their irresponsible behavior out of fear of rejection or criticism Embarrassed, ashamed or slow to ask for help
  • Not speaking up
  • Never take self into consideration
  • Difficulty setting boundaries
  • Holds back or is afraid to express real feelings
  • Backs down easily
  • Drop hints instead of stating directly what you need and want
  • Out of balance with self-care and giving to others
  • Smiling on the outside but crying on the inside


Following are possible Passive Beliefs:

  • If I am nice and don’t cause trouble, I will get what I need
  • People will like me if I have no opinion and cause no conflict
  • I feel safe when I don’t have to take risks
  • To stand up for myself, voice my opinion or express my emotions and needs is aggressive 
  •  I am responsible to manage everyone else’s feelings
  • Others know better about how I should behave, feel and what is best for me
  • If I rescue others from the consequences of their mistakes they will be happy
  • If I blame myself for others mistakes or fix them, I am helping them


Never standing up for yourself to avoiding conflict leaves you vulnerable to be taken advantage of by opportunistic people. Passive people may be enablers to abusers or irresponsible people by tolerating abuse, or rescuing a person from the consequences of their mistakes. Passive people, though they may look good, can be helping irresponsible people remain irresponsible and abusers to continue abusing. Abusers and perpetrators may never be stopped unless they are confronted and receive adequate consequences for their choices.

Johnny had one passive and one aggressive parent. His mom, Judy, was always critical and compared Johnny to others. Judy harshly punished him by slapping, kicking and locking him in a dark closet for hours. His dad, Paul, was kind but never intervened as Judy harshly disciplined their son. He was always patient and kind and assured Johnny that he was loved.

Passive People Allow Tyrants to Reign

Paul may seem like the better parent, but the act of passively standing by as Judy abused Johnny made dad an accomplice to the abuse. For a matter of fact, he may have been more than an accomplice because Paul was plenty big enough to restrain July, he just didn’t. Dad never intervened for Johnny, but rather ignored mom’s fits of rage and aggressions towards Johnny and acted as if nothing was wrong.

When Johnny complained, Paul would smooth it over by changing the subject and trying to distract him from his tears. Paul was not the obvious abuser but because Johnny was too small to defend himself, he depended on dad to intervene with moms abuse. Johnny assumed he wasn’t worth the time or effort for his dad to defend him.

When discussing this issue years later in his therapy, Johnny was more angry and hurt towards his father for not protecting him than he was towards his mother for her abuse.

In order to sustain an illusion of peace, passive people tend to avoid conflicts.

Aggressive (YOU LOSE—I WIN)

Aggressive people appear powerful and in control. They are willing do whatever it takes, even hurting others, to get what they want, look good and have things go their way. Aggressive people are concerned about themselves and attempt to satisfy their deficits by asserting power over others. Aggressive people are more guilty of blatant abuse.. Their intentions are to get what they want and it doesn’t matter who or what gets hurt in the process.

Following is a list of Possible Aggressive Behaviors:

  • Criticism, demanding, condescending, judgment, name calling, blaming, labeling, stereotyping, making fun of others, humiliation, mind reading, etc. (mental abuse) Yelling, screaming, obscenities, put-downs, derogatory statements (verbal abuse) Threats, violent looks or aggressive body language (Indirect Abuse)
  • Hurting, injuring or killing the body in some way (physical abuse) Violating sexually boundaries (sex abuse)
  • Forcing their will on others; no consideration for others feelings Taking property they want (property violation abuse)
  • Taking whatever measures needed to win or get their own needs met regardless of hurting others


Following is a list of Possible Aggressive Beliefs:

  • Getting what I want is the only thing that matters
  • Others are to be used to serve my purposes and meet my needs The goal is more important than the people it hurts to achieve it Getting my way makes me feel in control
  • Having power over others makes me feel powerful
  • It’s your fault I hurt you
  • Others must be punished for their mistakes
  • You have to step on some toes to get what you want
  • My way or the highway
  • My opinion is the only one that matters


Example:
George fought in the Vietnam war to help suppress the communist government that was trying to destroy freedom in Asia. George put his life on the line to retain freedom and rights of others. Yet, George came home and ruled his family with an iron fist. His family had NO RIGHTS. He screamed at his children, punished them harshly, made unreasonable demands and expected compliance. If one child was out of line, he got out the belt and whipped all of them on bare skin. He was behaving very much like the dictators he fought to defeat in Vietnam.

George’s aggressive behaviors towards his children left all of them with distorted beliefs about their rights, boundaries and worthiness. Without intervention, George’s children are set up to possibly follow the same extreme example set by their dad’s abuse, or swing to the opposite extreme of accepting or tolerating abuse.

Temper tantrum: An abusive person uses abusive tactics to get needs met in the same way a toddler throws a fit to insure his demands are met. The child hopes that if s/he thrashes and screams long enough, the parent will relent to the pressure and give in to demands. However, a wise and strong parent (adult care-giver) gives or does NOTHING for the child until s/he can settle down. For an older child there may even be a requirement to commit to improved behavior in the future. This way the child learns that throwing a fix is useless and there is a better way to get what you want.

As with a temper tantrums, some adults resort to using abusive tactics to manipulate and bully others into complying with their demands. A person who relents to abuse, is only reinforcing the bad behavior. A person who refuses to be influenced by abuses, sets strong boundaries and responds with logical consequences as a result of the abuse, sends a loud message that abusive tactics won’t work. Bad behavior will not be tolerated. If the adult abuser refuses to conform, then it is wise to create strong boundaries to protect yourself from that person.

A passive codependent, who buckles to the pressure of the abuse, is reinforcing the the further continuance of bad behaviors.

When a person takes assertive measures and refuses to tolerate abuse two things are accomplished. 1) The recipient of the abuse may be sparing him/herself from further abuse, and 2) the abuser has an opportunity to learn that abusive tactics don’t work.

Passive/Aggressive (I WIN—YOU LOSE—INDIRECT AGGRESSION)

Passive/Aggressive is just a covert way of being aggressive. One seems innocent but there is a covert undercurrent intended to hurt others, get their way and be in control no matter the cost.

As with Aggressors, Passive/Aggressive people are also self-serving, but go to great lengths to make it appear as if they are not. They do what it takes to get what they want but try to look innocent, so they may be much more manipulative in their approach to using and hurting others.

Sometime passive/aggressive behavior is not intended to hurt others intentionally, but is a crippling learned response from prior abuse. For example, if a person has chronic perfectionism based on a low self-esteem, he may procrastinate completing projects because he is afraid of failure rather than with the intention to hurt another person. Sometimes passive/aggressive behavior is not to take advantage of another person, sometimes it’s just a sign of internal deficits, however, it is less than nurturing to the recipient of this behavior.

Possible Passive/Aggressive behaviors—Covert abuse which includes:

  • Gossip, procrastination, lying, cut-down humor
  • Hide hostility towards another person by putting on a false front but fail to be honest 
  • Agree to something but fail to carry through because you really don’t agree
  • Say one thing and act another
  • Make all the right commitments but fail to carry through Silent Treatment
  • Sabotage someone else’s success behind their back Refuse to give needed support
  • Failure to tell the total truth
  • Manipulation and mind games because you can’t be open and upfront
  • Agree to a plan of action then do the opposite
  • Leaving out important information
  • Misleading or deception
  • Neglect, depriving others of what they need
  • Irresponsibility or intentional inefficiency
  • Deny responsibility for pain inflicted to others
  • Deflect responsibility to others for their own passive/aggressive behaviors (It’s your fault I’m behaving this way)
  • Smiling when the intention is to hurt
  • Seek quiet, non-obvious revenge (keying a car)
  • Denying a spouse sex, affection, decision making in finances
  • Inconsistency
  • Won’t confront a person to his face about a specific problem but will complain about it behind his back
  • Deny a problem exists when the evidence shows otherwise


Possible Passive/Aggressive Beliefs:

  • It’s not abuse if I don’t get caught
  • It’s not abuse if I’m not doing anything
  • It’s not abuse unless I am hurting someone’s body or yelling at them
  • Game playing is fair, who ever is the smartest or slyest, wins
  • I can get my way and still look good, what others don’t know won’t hurt them It is okay to appear as if I care about others, but I really don’t
  • I can get even but still look good
  • Good intentions count
  • I must avoid all conflict or confrontation
  • Others are more powerful than me
  • I need to hide the truth to survive


Of the four categories, passive-aggressive is probably the hardest to recognize so it is the most insidious. Passive-aggressive may appear peaceful but is intended to gain advantage or get needs met by covert means that may hurt, gain power over or take advantage of others. It is opposite of how it seems, it leaves its victims feeling off-balance and wondering if they are the cause of the problem and often leaves the offender seeming innocent.

Passive/aggressive people can be very selfish. From the outside they seem kind and negotiable, but just behind the external performance is a person looking to get his or her own way and not care who has to pay the price for it.

The victim of passive-aggressive tactics may even seem more like the offender than the actual offender, because often this person is seen by others as showing external displays of anger or frustration. An outsider may actually deem the victim of passive/aggressive abuse as the cause of the problem. This is a very powerful manipulative tool because the perpetrator drops the bomb that hurts the victim but walks away looking innocent. The damaged victim is the one left reacting to the covert assault and is often judged for his/her reaction.

Jerry appears composed, funny, down-to-earth and most everybody likes him. He has a pleasant, soothing tone to his voice, dresses sharp and always says the right thing. Gwen always seems mad. She has a hard time when their friends tell her what a nice man Jerry is.

In their private life, Jerry lies, procrastinates and keeps their financial resources restricted from Gwen. She receives a constant barrage of calls from creditors and even gets their utilities shut off unexpectedly from time to time because Jerry won’t allow Gwen to have any power as far as money is concerned, but also won’t pay the bills. Gwen has a house full of young children who are dependent on her, yet she has no access to the money. Jerry withholds from Gwen the amount of money he makes. She finds receipts that show he spends a lot of money on things for himself, but he keeps access to all financial resources from her. Gwen is understandably mad all the time which causes her to look from the outside, like the partner causing the marital problems. People wonder how she could be so critical of such a nice man.

One womans success story:

“I have a nice husband but after viewing the video about passive, aggressive, passive-aggressive and assertive, I realized my husband is passive aggressive and I had been buying into it for a lot of years. It was just hard to see it as a problem because he’s always so nice.

He is always late for events, making everyone wait, failed to remember birthdays & special occasions, not returning phone calls. But he is always so nice about it, that everyone just excuses his behavior.

But, he does it to me. When he would just not show up on time, or miss something important and his reaction was so nice, it was hard to be mad at him. I would just excuse his behavior like everyone else.

However, after years of living with him, I started getting angry. I could see how easily he manipulated others with his niceness after neglect, and got away with it. 

One of the passive-aggressive things he would do was make appointments for people to come to the house without consulting me first and expect that I would rearrange my schedule to be there when they came. This happened many of times. Sometimes it turned out to be okay because I didn’t have anything planned at that time, but often  I had a conflict and had to re-arrage my schedule. Of course, that only perpetuated his bad habit.

So I asked him to please stop making obligations for me, without asking me first. He did not. He just continued with the same behaviors.  I would complain, ask him to stop, adjust my schedul, but he would do it again and again.

I don’t know why I’m such a slow learner but I started getting very, very angry one day when I was at home in ear shot distance, I heard him making an appointment for something tha obligated me without asking me first. He was still doing the same thing and I was RIGHT THERE. This time I blew.

I realize it is as much my fault that he does this as it is his, because even if I get mad, I always give in and do it anyway. All he has to do is put up with a little irritation on my part, but gets what he wants the whole time.

So this time I confronted him. I told him how I felt about what he was doing and what I would like him to do different the next time. Only this time I went to the last step of the assirtive confrontation modle and said, “If you ever set an appointment for me again, without consulting me first, the answer will be automatically “NO! You will have to reset the appointment & find another time that is convenient for me." 

I should have done this years ago, but I guess I’ve always tried to be so nice to people that I let them take advantage of me. NO MORE! Mr. nice guy is not so nice, he’s just manipulative and I keep buying into it. However, I am finally getting smarter."

~Slow Learner

Assertive (I WIN – YOU WIN)

Assertive is the balanced, moderate approach to getting needs met and interacting with others. It is not about having power-over or giving in to retain the peace. If there is a conflict, assertive people go directly to the person they are having a conflict with and communicate in an honest, open and respectful manner with the intentions of finding a fair resolution for all involved. EVERYONE’S needs are taken into consideration and the problem is solved according to who is in the power position, individual rights and boundaries and what is fair for all. Pertinent facts and feelings are revealed so decisions can be made accordingly.

Assertive people develop good communications skills. They value and stand up for their rights and boundaries, while respecting the rights of others to do the same. Assertive people seek for balance and equality between themselves and others.

Assertive people are occasionally in conflict because they are always willing and wanting to work their conflicts out. However, conflict is intended to find solutions that work for all involved. As a result, most disputes are worked out in an acceptable manner for all parties.

It requires good self-esteem to be assertive because you must often be your own internal back-up system as you hold firm yet positive in setting boundaries and carrying through with consequences. If others refuse to cooperate, you need to decide what you will or will not do as a result of non-cooperation. Never suggest something you cannot or are not willing to carry through with. Be prepared to carry through with consequences of non-cooperation if necessary.

Assertive people take responsibility for the quality of their own life experience and find honest, ethical, fair ways to make that happen and honor others rights to do the same.

Sometimes taking an assertive stance leads to violence. A good example is America fighting for her independence in the Revolutionary War. Americas position was not to gain dominance over England, but to claim its own bill of rights and independence from another nation. Once America asserted her new found independence she befriended England and has been a friend since.

Americas stance with Japan in World War II is another good example of how assertive often takes the appearance of violence. Unlike aggressiveness, the intention of being assertive to neutralize the problem, hold criminals accountable for their actions, restore and maintain peace and require personal responsibility for everyone involved. Taking an assertive stance requires setting boundaries that are your right to set and being willing to carry through with consequences you have control over. It is also important to understand who is in the power position before setting boundaries. All the rules change depending on who is in the power position.

Possible Assertive Behaviors:

  • Know, claim and defend your personal rights, and make a stand for them if necessary. 
  • Go directly to the person(s) you are having a conflict with and express yourself with clear, direct, open and honest communication
  • Ask for what you need and want—If the answer is “no” go elsewhere for the help or support you need. If you get a “no” response, keep trying until you get the help you need. 
  • Create the life you want rather than being a victim
  • Be willing to use assertive confrontation for unfairness or abuse and then try to return to a peaceful status when issues are resolved.
  • Speak your point of view even if others may disagree.
  • Speak up, express opinions directly, make requests, make suggestions when appropriate. 
  • Use Assertive Confrontation (refer to article on Assertive Confrontation) if needed to deal with people who are offensive or unacceptable.
  • Let others have their own reality, you own yours
  • Learn to express feelings using a moderate, honest, open communication style
  • Support others in expressing their feelings in appropriate ways
  • Live your life as you choose within legal and ethical and moral limits
  • Be uniquely yourself
  • Do not abuse and do not tolerate abuse. 
  • Hold others accountable for their own lives, feelings and consequences of their choices 
  • Learn to disagree agreeably
  • Use negotiation and compromise to meet everyones needs. All parties involved may only get part of their needs met part of the time, but all needs are equally important and met Make your point without being pushy
  • Apply consequences that are related to the offense and teach valuable lessons
  • Detach from a destructive people
  • Stop blaming yourself for other people’s poor choices. 
  •  Own your own feelings and beliefs by using “I” statements when making a confrontation. “I felt angry when you ________.” “I am feeling uncomfortable so I am asking you to _______.”


Possible Assertive Beliefs:

  • Assertive people believe in and defends personal Bill of Rights and establishes boundaries (rules and limits) along with possible consequences for violations.
  • Each person is accountable for their own feelings and decisions. Other people have the same rights and responsibility for the outcome of their own lives with the exception of young children, elderly, mentally or physically impaired or in crisis
  • Mistakes and accompanying consequences are perceived as learning experiences and opportunities to grow
  • Expression of honest thoughts and feelings is welcome as long as honestly is not brutal
  • Manage own feelings and allow others to manage theirs
  • It’s better to take the risk of being misunderstood as being aggressive than to be passive
  • Speak well of the self even if others think it is egocentric Example: “I am a good person” 
  • Back up and support yourself. Example: “I don’t deserve to be abused”
  • Help to find a win-win solution for all parties involved 
  • Allow natural consequences to happen or take measures to create logical consequences. (Parenting with Love and Logic) 
  • It is good to speak up and tell the truth even if it is uncomfortable 
  • You can choose what is right for you even if others disagree 
  • You don’t have to understand everything and it’s okay to ask for help 
  • It is appropriate for each person to determine his or her own destiny as long as it doesn’t infringe on the rights of others


The challenge of being Assertive

Assertive actions may be interpreted as aggressive, threatening or overbearing by some. You don’t always win popularity contests for being assertive so learn to detach from others opinion of you.

Strict norms in cultures and families like, “Never express you feelings,” “Don’t be selfish,” “Don’t stir up conflict,” may make an assertive person seem threatening. 

The withdrawal symptom of Codependency is guilt—not the kind of  guilt that tells you that you did something wrong, but toxic, needless guilt that tells you you’re doing something wrong by taking care of yourself. When you practice assertive patterns you become responsible for your own experience by care of yourself, set boundaries and make others accountable. If you feel guilty about taking care of yourself, then feel the guilt and do it anyway.

It is actually a relief when you let go of trying to fix, regulate, change or control others. When you are only responsible for that which you have control over (which is you), life becomes easier and usually relationships improve.

Teach others how to treat you/Ask to get your needs met: Taking the responsibility to see that your own needs are met is a huge part of codependency recovery. Who knows what your needs are more than you?

Many needs you can take care of yourself by giving you the same consideration to meet your own needs as you would give to a friend. But some needs can only be met by others cooperation, such as the way they treat you, or getting needed help or assistance. Your responsibility as a recovering codependent is to teach others how to treat you in a moderate, healthy appropriate way.

Example: Rand is giving Carla a back rub. Carla is grateful for his consideration but he rubs so hard he is actually hurting her. Carla doesn’t want to appear ungrateful so is faced with the dilemma of what to do.

If Carla were a passive person she might refrain from saying anything and tolerate the pain to keep from hurting Rand’s feelings. If Carla were an aggressive person she might make a sarcastic or cutting remark to hurt Rand back as badly as she thought he was hurting her.

If stated in a compassionate, assertive way, Carla has a right and an obligation to herself to make sure she is not being hurt, whether it is intended or not. It is her right and obligation to teach Rand how to treat her. If her approach is compassionate and appropriately stated, it could actually correct the problem and improve the quality of their relationship. Rand would probably rather give her the kind of back rub she likes than to know he was hurting her. Carla can use I statements and sandwiched her request with compliments or pleasantries, such as, “This is so nice of you to give me a back rub. I would prefer a softer touch, please. Thanks! That’s great!”

An assertive request is appropriate and preferred even when stating something unpleasant. Don’t you think Rand would rather give Carla the back rub she enjoys the most? Is is hurting or offending another person to request taking a different approach? Could it enhance the nature of the relationship if Rand knew Carla was being honest with him? Carla’s asking her request in a kind, assertive way is keeping her side of the road clean. (AA jargon) If Rand is offended by her appropriate, assertive request to get her needs met, Rand may have a very delicate self esteem signaling him that he needs to do some recovery work on himself.

Some codependents are so out of touch with themselves, they don’t have any idea what their need are in the first place, much less how to go about meeting them or asking to have them met. If you fall into this category, start now by giving yourself the respect and permission to pay attention to your inner signals. They will let you know your needs and wants. It’s a matter of paying attention, listening to your feelings and inner voice. Honor your own intra- communication system which is constantly giving you signals as to what is going on with you. Just like a skin wound will give you pain, so will an emotional wound give you pain. Listen to those signals. They are feedback.

Learning to love you is taking care of yourself is making sure you or no one else abuses you, and giving yourself permission to get needs met. Occasionally that requires asking for help in getting your needs met.

Part of asking for your needs to be met opens you up for possible rejection. Plan on being turned down occasionally and then you won’t be disappointed when it happens. Now that you are giving yourself permission to set boundaries, you’ve got to realize other people have the same right. Sometimes they cannot or will not help you in getting your needs met.

Instead of taking a NO as a rejection or that you are a lame person for asking, just honor their right to say NO and ask elsewhere for the assistance you need. Those who decline your request are simply taking care of themselves in the best way they know how, which is their right.

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.” Martin Luther King

Sometimes when I'm angry I have the right to be angry,
But that doesn't give me the right to be cruel. ---Author Unknown

Written and compiled by Helen P. Bair (A work in progress) ©2010 - 2015

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~The originator of many of these articles & flyers is unknown