Is it Passive-Aggression, or Just Fear of Expressing Your Needs?

~ 3 min read

I wrote an article recently on the various ways in which passive-aggressive behavior can undermine and destroy relationships. And it certainly can do just that.

But as I was outlining the behaviors and language typically associated with the passive-aggressive personality, I couldn’t help but feel that several of the traits and habits seemed out of place. At the very least, they seemed to require a separate category of their own.

What is Passive-Aggression?

Passive-aggression is described as the indirect expression of anger and hostility, and is largely considered a learned behavior in response to an environment or upbringing in which these ‘negative’ feelings are not permitted. Veiled insults and criticisms, a generally sullen or negativistic attitude, stubbornness, sabotage, and deliberately failing to take care of required tasks are all ways in which the passive-aggressive person might express their underlying hostility towards another as a means of control or manipulation.

What About Fear?

But what of those of us who struggle to express any strong emotions, such as jealousy, worry, fear, hurt feelings, even love?

In a culture where appearing strong, independent and capable at all times is considered a marker of success, expressing emotionality is often viewed as weakness, neediness, or ‘softness’. As a result, many are hesitant to reveal their true feelings and emotional needs out of a fear of judgement, reprisal or rejection. We don’t want to appear as though we don’t have it all together.

Carrying this fear of expression into our personal relationships can lead to many of the same behaviors and language associated with passive-aggression, but without the underlying desire to control or manipulate.

For example, if a man believes it is a sign of weakness to express insecurity, fear or sadness, he will likely feel far too vulnerable to show these emotions, and so his need for reassurance or consolation may go unmet. He may eventually resent his partner for not meeting his buried and unexpressed needs, engaging in passive-aggressive behavior such as childishness or stubbornness, or he may become detached and ‘emotionally unavailable’ in order to avoid his painful feelings.

Girls and women are often taught that it is unacceptable to express anger or assertiveness, and as a result may feel that it is unattractive or undesirable to communicate these feelings or needs. Instead of addressing their anger in a healthy way, or of stating their needs in a direct and tactful manner, they may instead engage in nagging, complaining or passive-aggressive tactics such as withdrawing affection or giving the cold shoulder.

Learning to express our strong emotions and needs in our close relationships can be intimidating. Our culture does not encourage vulnerability, and yet it is this very vulnerability that leads to healthy, strong relationships in which trust and non-judgement make us feel safe enough to do so.

Taking that first leap into the unknown and frightening territory of vulnerability can be daunting, but it is the only way to overcome our fear and give voice to our very personal, very normal feelings and needs.

How to Express Your Emotions and Needs

  • Become aware of your true feelings; we often skip over the really uncomfortable ones of pain, fear and insecurity, and jump into anger as an avoidance tactic. When you feel yourself getting angry, ask yourself what the originating feeling is. If you have difficulty naming your feelings, take a look at a list of emotions to get you started.
  • If you have veered into anger, wait until you have calmed down before discussing with your partner. You’re much more likely to say things you don’t mean when in the grips of anger. Count to 10, take a series of deep breaths, go for a walk around the block – whatever it takes.
  • Start small, perhaps letting your partner know the next time you feel sad or worried. When he or she asks you what’s wrong, instead of answering with a defensive “I’m fine” or laughing it off with a joke, try “Actually, something is wrong. I feel lonely today for some reason.”
  • Always speak from your own perspective instead of accusing or pointing the finger. This is a key component of Non-Violent Communication. For example, instead of “You’re so insensitive. You really acted like a jerk today”, try “I feel very hurt right now. Can we talk about the comments you made today in front of our friends?”.
  • Once you have shared your feelings, follow it up by talking about what you needfrom your partner or the relationship, if anything. For example, perhaps you’re feeling disconnected and lonely, and you’d like more time together. Don’t demand or whine, just state your need: “I feel like I need a little more alone time with you. Could we schedule in a date night once a week?”, instead of “We never spend time together anymore because you’re always working!”
  • Address emotional issues and needs as soon as is practically possible. You may not want to launch a heavy emotional discussion right before your partner leaves for work, but waiting and allowing feelings to fester will only make things harder to bring up, and this is how hidden and building resentments blow up into arguments and shouting matches.
  • Not all emotions need to be shared and discussed; at times, simply sitting with a feeling and looking at a situation from a calm perspective is enough to resolve it. Journalling, meditation, and body work such as yoga or tai chi are all very helpful in this regard.

Healthy expression of our emotions and needs, without judgement (from self or others) and without demands or accusations, is vital to creating strong, healthy relationships. Though many of us have been taught that it is unwise and unsafe to be open and vulnerable with others in this way, it is only by having the courage to do so that we create the safe, supportive and resilient relationships we deserve.



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