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Passive, Aggressive or Assertive? Respecting Others While Respecting Yourself

Sometimes the world can feel pretty rough. You want certain things from other people, and they want things from you: affection, money, favors, responsibilities, respect, time, and so on. We’re all in a constant negotiation with other people about what each of us wants from others, and will give to others. And very often we get asked for things that are difficult for us, and at the same time have trouble getting from others what we need. We all have to develop ways of dealing with other people. Unfortunately, many of those strategies work OK in the short term, but cause problems for us over time.

There are four styles of dealing with others: Passive, Aggressive, Passive-Aggressive and Assertive. (This classification is based on Randy Paterson’s excellent “The Assertiveness Workbook: How To Express Your Ideas And Stand Up For Yourself At Work And In Relationships”) Taking each in turn:

Passive: If this is your primary style, you tend to agree with others as much as possible. You avoid confrontation if you possibly can. You’ll give in to unreasonable demands which cause you discomfort, stress you with long work hours or inconvenience you. You sacrifice your own happiness and comfort because you feel that other people’s happiness is more important than yours — and besides, if you say no, they might not like you so much. And since you are so accommodating, people generally DO like you, although you might wonder if they like you for who you are, or only because you’re so accommodating. You feel helpless in the face of other people’s demands, and that makes you discouraged and even a little depressed. Plus, deep inside, you resent being pushed around, and you’re angry at other people for pushing. Sometimes you get so angry that you suddenly explode.

Aggressive: While the Passive person believes that other people’s needs are more important, the Aggressive person takes the opposite tack. If this is your style, you don’t believe other people’s needs are very important. What you think is important (for yourself or your organization) is paramount. You tend to see other people as not so competent, and their requests often unreasonable. You don’t hide that belief very well, so others feel intimidated and probably don’t make their needs known very much. You feel powerful and you get a lot done. You have no trouble expressing your anger, and you have to do that a lot since you spend a great deal of time feeling frustrated and angry. And because you’re frustrated and angry a lot, the people around you become less supportive, perhaps sabotaging you with their own passive-aggressiveness, which makes you even more frustrated and angry.

Passive-aggressive: If you’re being Passive-Aggressive, you feel (perhaps unconsciously) anger and resentment, but you also feel you’d better not express it. When people ask you to do things, you believe you can’t say no, but your resentment makes you subtly sabotage the situation, or take revenge in another situation. You may forget to do something you’ve promised, or do it badly. You accidentally do something that annoys the person — forgetting to tell your spouse that you’ll be home late, or bring the wrong brand back from the supermarket, or clumsily break a valued possession. You can’t be blamed — it was an honest mistake — and you feel oddly pleased, rather than regretful. However, over time, this style damages relationships. Your “mistakes”, since they’re made unconsciously, eventually convince you that you’re very forgetful, or clumsy, or inconsiderate, thus damaging self esteem.

Assertive: Unlike the Aggressive type, you do not try to control other people. Nor do you allow other people to control you, as Passive types do. And you’re not Passive-aggressive, waging a subtle war against being controlled. Instead, you recognize that the only person you control is yourself. You accept opinions from others, but you don’t feel that you have to say yes to them. Similarly, you have the right to ask others to modify their behavior, but you have no power to make them do what you want.

You have less conflict with other people — assertiveness is very different from anger. Interactions aren’t about who controls who, but rather, a negotiation between two independent individuals. You feel less resentful, and you inspire less resentment in others. You are less anxious about interactions with others because you know you will not be forced into doing things. You maintain your self respect and you don’t hurt the self respect of others. You feel less pressure to live up to the demands and expectations of others, which gives you more confidence. And because you feel in control of your life, you feel happier.

Most of us use a mix of these styles. Perhaps we’re Aggressive at work, Passive with our spouse, Assertive with our friends. But usually one style or another tends to be our default. If that style happens to be Assertive, good for you. If you’re feeling less than satisfied with your life, and you see yourself defaulting to one of the other three styles, perhaps it would be worthwhile picking up a book on assertiveness, attending a class, or working with a counsellor.

Tim Hoffman 

M.A. Mental Health Counselling

Psychotherapy in Hong Kong

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