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Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Coping With Family Members Who Make Passive Aggressive Comments to You

In prior articles, How to Recognize Passive Aggressive Behavior and How to Change Passive Aggressive Behavior, I discussed passive aggressive behavior in relationships.  In this article, I'm discussing how to deal with family members who make passive aggressive remarks and try to pass it off with saying, "I was only telling you for your own good" or "I was only joking."

What is Passive Aggressive Behavior?
Passive aggressive behavior is a tendency to engage in indirect, thinly veiled hostile behavior.  This includes making insulting remarks, sulking, sullen behavior, stubbornness or delaying (or not doing) tasks that were agreed upon.

Coping With Family Members Who Make Passive Aggressive Comments to You

The following fictional vignette illustrates how family members make passive aggressive comments:

Fictional Vignette: Coping With Family Members Who Make Passive Aggressive Comments:

Before Rita went home for the holidays, she told her parents and her younger sister that she decided to stop drinking because she realized that she was drinking too much lately.  She knew that her family tended to drink a lot during the holidays, and she didn't want to be pressured to drink, so she let them know in advance to avoid the pressure.

When Rita arrived at her parents home, her sister, Ann, opened the door with a cocktail in hand and told Rita to help herself to whatever alcoholic drink she wanted.

Feeling annoyed, Rita reminded Ann that she was not drinking.  Ann rolled her eyes at Rita, "Oh, you're not going to be any fun.  It's the holidays.  Everyone drinks on the holidays.  You can have just one drink, can't you?"

Rita ignored her sister, but her sister persisted by enlisting their mother, "Mom, can you believe Rita's not drinking?"

Their mother, who also had a drink in her hand, smiled, "Rita, don't be a bore.  Make yourself a drink."

Rita felt so angry that she was shaking and on the verge of tears, "For once, I wish you two would hear me.  I've been drinking too much lately and I want to stop"(see my articles: How to Cope With Difficult Family Visits and How to Cope With Getting Emotionally Triggered During Family Visits).

Ann laughed and waved her hand at Rita in a dismissive manner, "Don't be so dramatic.  I just want you to have a good time.  Don't take it so seriously."

Their mother joined in and said to Ann, "Rita has always been so serious.  Now, look at her long face."

When Rita angrily put her coat back on and started for the door, her mother said, "Oh come on.  You're not really leaving, are you?  I was just kidding."

But Rita was too angry to stick around, so she got back in her car and drove home with tears in her eyes the entire way.

During her next psychotherapy session, she spoke with her psychotherapist about her mother's and sister's passive aggressive comments and how much they hurt her.

Rita's therapist acknowledged that her family's remarks were passive aggressive and they talked about how Rita could deal with these kinds of remarks the next time that she visited her parents' home (see below).

How to Cope With Your Family Members' Passive Aggressive Comments
The following suggestions can be used for anyone that you encounter who makes passive aggressive remarks:
  • Stay Calm:  Although it can be difficult to stay calm when family members make thinly veiled hostile remarks, it's important to keep your cool so you can think about what you're saying and your response doesn't make matters worse.  If you can't stay calm in the moment, take a break and then speak to your family once you're composed.
  • Confront the Passive Aggressive Behavior By Setting Boundaries:   While remaining calm, confront the passive aggressive behavior and set boundaries with your family. "Confronting" doesn't mean that you're aggressive or offensive.  It means that you're asserting yourself in a healthy way.  Why assert yourself?  If you don't your family members will continue to speak to you in thinly hostile ways.  In addition, if you don't address this behavior, their remarks might erode your self esteem.  You will also harbor unspoken resentments, which can come out in your own passive aggressive or sarcastic comments.  This only makes things worse (see my article: Setting Healthy Boundaries).
  • Let Your Family Know What You Consider to Be Unacceptable:  Rather than hoping that your family will understand without being told, calmly and tactfully let your family members know what is and isn't acceptable to you.  For example, if your mother tends to make passive aggressive remarks about your weight, let her know that her remarks hurt your feelings and that you don't want to hear them.  She might respond by making another passive aggressive remark, like, "I'm only telling you for your own good."  But don't buy it.  While you're not trying to change her, you need to stick up for yourself.  Be very clear and specific about the type of topics that you don't want to discuss and stick with it--even if you have to tell your family members a few times.
  • Ask Them If There's Something They Would Like to Discuss More Directly:  There are often other issues brewing underneath passive aggressive comments.  Sometimes, it's completely unrelated to whatever they're saying to you.  They might still be angry about something that happened years ago and they're seizing on a passive aggressive remark to even the score--whether they realize it or not.  By offering to address whatever might be bothering them, you're letting your family know that you're open to hearing about things that might be bothering them that could be lurking underneath their hostile remarks.
  • Have a Direct Discussion With Your Family Members and Clear the Air:  If your family is open to admitting that there are other issues involved, have a direct discussion and clear the air.  It's better to clear up old unfinished business than to continue to be subjected to passive aggressive behavior.

People who make passive aggressive remarks often don't know how to communicate directly, so they use an indirect and hurtful way of communicating, namely, passive aggressive comments.

Whether they realize it or not, passive aggressive remarks can be sadistic and hurtful.  These remarks often cause rifts in families.

You will need to assert yourself in a tactful and calm way to set boundaries.  This needs to be done in person--not by email, text or over the phone.  Anything other than face-to-face communication will be less effective.

Remember that you have a right to stick up for yourself.  You're not trying to change them.  You're setting boundaries, letting them know what's acceptable and what's not, asking them to respect your feelings and your wishes, and you're setting boundaries.

Getting Help in Therapy
Confronting passive aggressive behavior and setting boundaries with family members can be difficult, especially if there is a long history of problems.

Rather than suffering on your own, seek help from a licensed mental health professional who can help to address these issues (see my article: How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

Once you have been assertive and set boundaries with your family, you'll feel better about yourself and you will have grown in a way that you didn't think possible before.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who provides integrative psychotherapy in a dynamic and collaborate way (see my article:  The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Psychotherapy).

I work with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.