“Hiding anger in an underhanded, hurtful, gotcha-now manner has become a go-to choice for a society that’s losing its ability to know how to identify a problem and solve it in a respectful way,” write Tim Murphy, PhD, and Loriann Oberlin, MS, LCPC, authors of their newly revised book, Overcoming Passive Aggression: How to Stop Hidden Anger from Spoiling Your Relationships, Career, and Happiness. Their newly revised book (the first edition was originally printed in 2005) reads like a comprehensive guidebook for surviving in a world that seems bent on showing two faces — neither of which is particularly genuine.
The authors begin with a discussion on politics, which seems a fitting place to start not just because Murphy himself is a Congressman, but because it provides such a rich example of how people so often say one thing while thinking and feeling the opposite. Much bitterness exists on the periphery of people’s lives, the authors remind us, and the reality is that we simply don’t handle it well.
And yet, hidden anger wears a deceptive mask. We seem to think it won’t really hurt others, that it is somehow consequence-free, and according to the authors, that it goes unnoticed. Stalling on an important task or forgetting to send a memo, make an important phone call, or show up for a meeting are all examples of the ways in which hidden anger acts in manipulative and often vindictive ways.
The cost, the authors contend, is failed relationships, increased stress, poor health, chronic irritability, fractured families, and problems at work and school. The roots of hidden anger, however, come from unmet needs. “Passive-aggressive behavior is often born of the similar fears of being controlled or caught in confrontation, and the need to work around others more than directly with others,” Murphy and Oberlin write.
The authors go further, linking hidden anger to many factors in childhood, such as a need to conceal true feelings, a need for protection, a need to be seen as “good”, and a need to meet others expectations. The result is that people with hidden anger often operate out of what the authors call “feelthink,” using their feelings to support and justify often irrational thoughts, confusing feelings with facts in the process. Where those with healthy anger can examine problems clearly, negotiate, accept responsibility, and promote equality in relationships, those with hidden anger have trouble analyzing problems, tend to blame others for their misfortunes, lack empathy, attack people rather than solve problems, use anger to gain power, and often look for revenge instead of resolution.
Yet hidden anger, the authors tell us, is a product of a faulty system — a family who has learned to hide anger, protect coalitions, maintain rigid roles, avoid confrontations, and operate out of duplicity. Much like “frenemies,” passive-aggressive families maintain the appearance of happiness at the expense of authenticity.
The tendency toward passive-aggression has grown so rampant, researchers have detected it in children as young as two and a half years old. The authors point to a recent Wall Street Journal article that stated that children often “use the threat of removing friendship as a tactical weapon”.
Viewed generationally, the tendency to conceal anger is often passed down through families and leads people to choose partners who are at equitable levels of emotional independence. Yet because hidden anger is a form of emotional immaturity, it often infects intimate relationships, causing partners to engage in power struggles, vacillate between closeness and distance, maintain dysfunctional patterns, resist adaptations, and potentially even resort to infidelity. Interestingly, the authors note that infidelity often reflects an ongoing power struggle.
Hidden anger in work and school, Murphy and Oberlin note, comes in eight distinct types. Where Backstabbers betray trust, Avengers lash out, Controllers manipulate, Cynics promote suspiciousness, Eeyores play victim, Blamers avoid responsibility, Mutes procrastinate and deny, and Stars are preoccupied only with themselves.
Healing from hidden anger, the authors tell us, begins with looking in the mirror. By reconciling their past, acknowledging visceral reactions, setting appropriate boundaries, holding family members accountable, and working on themselves and not others, passive-aggressive people can learn to find more appropriate ways to get their needs met. Here, the authors offer numerous helpful examples for dealing with passive-aggressive people, such as a list to help people recognize ways they may have set themselves up for mistreatment, a five-step method to deal with criticism, as well as specific ways to react to control, immature behavior, manipulation, self-absorption, depression and addictions, and even exit strategies for toxic people. Murphy and Oberlin also provide fourteen strategies to ease anger and bitterness — such as using mindfulness, empathy, and reflective listening and forgiveness — as well as assertiveness tips to help people find ways to advocate for their needs. The authors also include tips on seeking professional help, choosing the right therapist or counselor, and even coping with counseling that is critical. Lastly, the authors provide many innovative and practical ways for clinicians to unlock hidden anger in the clinical setting.
From covert narcissism to what many have dubbed the, “entitlement generation,” Overcoming Passive-Aggression sheds light on a ravaging societal problem that seems to have slipped under our collective radar. Delving into the complex nature of the problem and yet offering clear, concise, and unembellished wisdom, the book is a way forward for us all whether we are experiencing hidden anger or receiving it.
Overcoming Passive-Aggression: How to Stop Hidden Anger from Spoiling Your Relationships, Career, and Happiness
Da Capo Lifelong Books, Revised Edition October 2016
Paperback, 336 Pages