Can Childhood Emotional Neglect Make You Passive-Aggressive?

“Lingering, bottled-up anger never reveals the ‘true colors’ of an individual. It, on the contrary, becomes all mixed up, rotten, confused, forms a highly combustible, chemical compound, then explodes as something foreign, something very different, than one’s natural self.” 
― Criss Jami, Healology

“Passive aggressive behavior is counterproductive. Communication is key to a healthy personal and work relationship.” 
― Izey Victoria Odiase

What Does it Mean to be Passive-Aggressive?

“Being marked by, or displaying, behavior characterized by the expression of negative feelings, resentment, and aggression in an unassertive passive way (as through procrastination and stubbornness)” — Merriam-Webster dictionary

6 Examples of Passive-Aggressive Behaviors

  • Showing up late
  • Making a joke with a hurtful barb in it
  • Forgetting something important
  • Ignoring
  • Canceling a plan
  • Behaving irritably while claiming nothing is wrong

All of the events above happen to everyone often, of course. And they are not necessarily examples of passive-aggression unless they are accompanied by, or an expression of, one key factor. Anger.

So now, I ask you to re-read the list above but add the phrase “out of anger, to punish someone” at the end of each one. These common, everyday behaviors now become ideal examples of passive-aggression.

The Role of Childhood Emotional Neglect in Passive-Aggression

We are all born with the emotion of anger wired into us for a reason. It is a feeling that is essential to our survival.

Feelings of anger are nothing more than messages from your body. When you feel angry, your body is saying, “Watch out! Pay attention! Someone or something is threatening or hurting you! You need to protect yourself!”

That’s why anger has a motivational component to it. Anger is an emotion with energy built into it. Think about how anger is often described as fire or passion. It’s an emotion that pushes you to take action.

Legions of children grow up in homes that are intolerant of their anger. Every day, emotionally unaware parents ignore their children’s anger, trump it with their own anger, or send them their children to their rooms for expressing anger. These are all examples of Childhood Emotional Neglect in action.

Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN): Happens when parents fail to notice, respond or validate their child’s feelings enough.

When you grow up in a home that treats your anger this way, your developing brain and body absorb a powerful and damaging lesson: Your anger is useless, excessive or bad.

As a child, probably without your knowledge, your brain does what is necessary to protect you. It blocks your feelings of anger from reaching your awareness. It virtually walls them off to protect you from this “useless, bad, excessive” force from within you.

What happens then? Several unfortunate things.

  1. You lose the ability to fully benefit from this energizing, protective force from within.
  2. You do not learn the anger skills you were meant to learn in your childhood.
  3. Unprocessed anger does not go away. It sits there, fomenting, on the other side of the wall that your child brain built to block it.

Anger must be felt, understood, listened to and, in many situations, expressed before it goes away. Imagine what happens inside of you when so much fire and energy is left to fester in your body.

The very thing that is meant to empower and protect you instead saps your energy and leaves you more vulnerable. This is not what nature intended.

How Your Unprocessed Anger Can Hurt Others

Unprocessed, walled-off, fomenting anger has a way of finding its way to the surface. This is what puts those who grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect(CEN) at greater risk than others for behaving passive aggressively.

Believing that your anger is irrelevant and that it is wrong to express it, plus not knowing even how to do so even if you chose to do it, leaves you essentially at its mercy.

So what does a CEN adult do when a friend hurts his feelings, when she’s not given a salary raise she deserves, or when he feels targeted or mistreated? What does a CEN adult do when she senses a conflict brewing or walks into a room where one is already happening?

The answer is, avoid. Avoid letting your anger show, avoid saying anything, avoid the person who has hurt you, or avoid by leaving the room.

But, as we know, this does not make your anger go away. It will now leak around the edges of the block and come out in ways you never expected, possibly at people who do not deserve it. Just like the 6 ways described above or an infinite number of others. And, worst of all, you may not even realize that it’s happening. But many, many other people may.

If you see yourself, or someone close to you in this post, do not worry. There are answers. It is possible to become less passive-aggressive!

4 Steps To Stop Being Passive-Aggressive

  1. Start viewing your anger as a helper instead of a burden. Begin to pay attention to when you feel it. Even if you think you’re never angry, I guarantee you that you do. As strange as it sounds, you only need to relentlessly try to feel it.
  2. Start learning how to be assertive. Being assertive is expressing your feelings, thoughts and needs to others in a way that they can take it in. Assertiveness is a group of skills that you can learn. And this is a skill that will help you express your anger in moments of hurt, upset and conflict. When you can express yourself, your anger becomes useful instead of leaking around the edges passive-aggressively.
  3. Start building your tolerance for conflict. You have spent your life feeling unprepared and overwhelmed by potentially conflictual situations. Your tendency has been to avoid or ignore them. As you welcome your anger and build your assertiveness skills, you can begin to go toward conflict instead of away.  Redefine these difficult situations as opportunities to practice your skills.
  4. Start learning all of the other emotion skills too. It’s not just anger. All of your feelings are messages from your body and can help you substantially in your life. Having grown up in a home that ignored or discouraged your emotions (Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN), you have likely been under attending and undervaluing yours for your entire life. Now, as your view of your emotions shifts, you can harness the energy, direction, motivation, and connection that you were always meant to enjoy.

The process of becoming less passive-aggressive is actually a process of healing yourself. It involves looking inward instead of outward and accepting the most deeply personal expression of who you are: your emotions.

This process may sound hard, but you can do it. Just as thousands of people before you have already done, you can take the steps and walk the path. You can honor your feelings, and yourself, in a way that you never knew was possible. You can learn to express how you feel.

Jonice

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Beverley Mills - May 31, 2019 Reply

I can relate to this very much. I used to be full of anger and used passive aggressive language then wondered why others disliked me. Over the years though I have learned some self assertiveness skills and now use those to get my point across.

I am currently having this problem with a friend, who keeps taking others people (strangers) sides against me in public. She also keeps correcting me which I thoroughly resent. For example we were out in a crowd of people most of whom I knew, and I started chatting animatedly with a stranger in the group. After a moment she murmured quietly to me – ‘That’s enough stop now’. I have told her in a matter of fact voice in the past to stop this. I am keeping this friendship on for the time being as I need to learn how to deal with it. Or maybe I am kidding myself?

I have read lots of your writings and please keep on as they help me (and others) enormously. Thank you. Bev

Lisa - May 15, 2019 Reply

I am guilty of being somewhat passive-aggressive, but my husband has been much more so. The thing is, he won’t admit to having any emotional baggage from his childhood. If I say anything about his behavior, he turns things around so I’m the bad guy. I know this comes out of his pain, but it hurts.

    Jonice - May 15, 2019 Reply

    Dear Lisa, I’m sorry you are in this situation. You could try to get your husband to read this article. But he will need to be ready to hear it. Otherwise, it’s hard to take it in.

      Lisa - May 15, 2019 Reply

      I’m afraid he’s not at that point. Too much pride, plus not wanting to be disloyal to his family, I would say.

Lori Powell - May 15, 2019 Reply

This certainly describes me and my feelings. I often find myself quietly putting myself last holding in things that need to be addressed. I try to please my family so much and often find myself with a lot of hurt and unwanted feelings.

    Jonice - May 15, 2019 Reply

    Dear Lori, this is a very important thing to notice about yourself. You can learn how to be more aware of what you are feeling, and at listening to the messages those feelings represent. What is your body telling you? To take action, protect yourself and/or speak up.

      Lori Powell - May 15, 2019 Reply

      I often feel anger and hurt or feelings of not being what I am expected to be and still I pack those feelings away and please everyone else.
      Where can I find this book your speaking of?

        Jonice - May 15, 2019 Reply

        Hi Lori, Running On Empty and Running On Empty No More are available in many bookstores and every online bookseller including Amazon. The links to the books on Amazon are at the bottom of the article. I hope you will learn more about how to express how you really feel. It is very important.

Gretchen TenBrook - May 14, 2019 Reply

Passive aggression can be so sneaky and manipulative, both in myself and others. When that feeling of resentment or having been dealt with unjustly creeps in, I’m learning to listen to my body. I’m amazed at how this is such a mindful practice of self-awareness, as I cannot take action on feelings unless I actually feel them and identify them.

I find Brene Brown’s concept of “stepping into the arena” (of courage over comfort) and speaking my truth from a place of vulnerability to be helpful. Just last night a minor, yet telling situation came up in that required me to do so. After asking my son to take the dog out several times and having him not do so, I felt that simmering boil of anger within my chest. I was tempted, out of resorting to old patterns, to say piercingly “Well, fine! I’ll take out the dog!” and then stomp out the door. Instead said I was able to step back from the consuming emotion a bit and say in a calm yet serious tone something like, “I feel angry because I’ve asked you to take out the dog several times, and you still haven’t done it. I feel like you are ignoring me and caring for the dog, and that makes me mad.” He apologized, and took out the dog, and the anger and tension was dissolved almost immediately. Amazing what giving voice in a respectful way to my emotions can do! IAAA! Identify, Acknowledge, Accept, Act… Thank you for this mantra of sorts, Dr. Webb. It has really helped me with managing anger and all of my emotions, so that my feelings are not enemies to avoid or attack, but helpful messengers to honor and listen to!

    Jonice - May 14, 2019 Reply

    Excellent story Gretchen and excellent work! That’s a wonderful example of how anger can provide energy and motivation to stand up for yourself. You used yours in a way that your son could take in. Good job.

Liz - May 13, 2019 Reply

Hello Dr. Webb and Readers!

This reading is very meaningful to me personally, and important for our society to understand.

With all of the ways developing children are allowed distractions from emotions – kept quiet with devices, for example – a lot more of the population in general respond to anger with passive-aggressive behavior. To the degree that it becomes the norm.

Thank you for shining a light on this important topic of discussion!

    Jonice - May 14, 2019 Reply

    I agree, Liz. It is the responsibility of parents to teach our kids how to listen to their anger and use it the way it’s meant to be used.

Ed - May 13, 2019 Reply

I awoke this morning with gratitude and peace. I have not done this very often in my 60 years on this planet.
I read and reread your post last night and couldn’t stop thinking about the list of examples of passive-aggressiveness. How many times have l noticed each and every one of these in myself… all at the same time… which caused so much pain and heartache for me because l didn’t know how to stop from reacting this way?
The part that got me was this:
“Believing that your anger is irrelevant and that it is wrong to express it, plus not knowing even how to do so even if you chose to do it…”
Anger was never modeled for me. My father got angry when l was very young but that was alcohol fueled and haphazard at best… being self-destructive and self-loathing at the worst times.
My mother shut every part of her emotions down as a result of this relationship.
All of this happened before l was 6.
She got a divorce, met someone new who treated her like a princess and proceeded to live as if nothing happened. She spent the next 35 years blissful in the knowledge that there was a man who treated her as if the ground she walked was sacred. This man was very good for her. There was never any discussion about things in the past.
But in this process, l did not learn how to handle any kind of emotion. I even learned bad things… as putting the woman that l loved before myself would guarantee that she would never leave me because l didn’t want to be abandoned.
My first girlfriend, when l was in 8th grade, was the person with l was going to spend the rest of my life with. When she broke up with me, my life spiraled out of control for 6 months.
My next girlfriend was the person with l was going to spend the rest of my life with. That didn’t work out either.
When l finally got married, the family that l married into treated my like crap…but she was the person with l was going to spend the rest of my life with.
Whenever l attempted to stand up for myself or, god forbid, showed any kind of anger, l was reprimanded and put up for display and subjected to the worst things in the world for me… lack of love, lack of understanding, lack of emotional support and big doses of ridicule.
When she finally divorced me, after 29 years(!!!), my abandonment was now complete.
I had, after my divorce, attempted to end my own life.
Why not abandon myself just like everyone else has done? Who would miss me anyway? I am so broken that l deserve this treatment. Look how everyone else treated me and there is the proof…right there. I am the truly the only unlovable person in this world and this is a just and bitter end that l deserve.
That was 12 years ago.
I have been on a journey to find out about myself and how l can fix me(!!!). Sometimes l get to a dead end and have to start anew. But sometimes, l can find a morsel of truth in my readings and make some strides forward.
Thank you for today’s morsel. It was timely and important and loving.

    Jonice - May 13, 2019 Reply

    Dear Ed, your story is so important. You described the pain of CEN, how you survived self-harm and suicidal feelings, and are now growing today. You are an inspiration. Keep up the good work!

Patricia - May 13, 2019 Reply

This article is synchronistically timely for me. Aversion, avoidance, has been my main strategy to deal (not deal) with confrontational or any uncomfortable situation. I have tons of paperwork & unopened mail because I intensely dislike it. Food adiction was another favotite distraction along with TV watching – those are finished so I am revealed into these feelings. I have your books, & my support network blessings. Now, with this new awareness, I am grateful for “knowing that I don’t know.” A place to start this new work. Thank you.

    Jonice - May 13, 2019 Reply

    Wow, Patricia I am impressed by the things you are facing and dealing with. It sounds like you have stopped avoiding and are going head-on against the habits that have been causing you problems. Good job! Keep it up.

Mandy - May 13, 2019 Reply

How do you know whether you should stick with your book or need to get a therapist involved?

    Jonice - May 13, 2019 Reply

    Hi Mandy, good question. If doing the recovery exercises and practices in the book are too hard or too painful, or if your CEN has affected your parenting or marriage; if you are depressed or having anxiety, those are some good reasons. The best reason is that you feel it would help to have some support, encouragement and understanding while you go through the process. That is enough reason in itself.

Eden - May 13, 2019 Reply

Dear Jonice,
About 2 years ago you came into my life… I finally realized what was “wrong” with me. I read all your books, but realized I couldn’t do it alone. Thankfully I found a therapist who is familiar with your work and uses your methods. About one and half years in therapy now, I finally start to actually FEEL the results. At first I just needed time to get it all in my head, it was so hard to believe: okay my parents weren’t very nice to me, but hey, they didn’t abuse me, and I hardly remember anything from my childhood, so how bad can it be? Slowly learning more and more about my feelings, I am only now starting to really feel them. And how I can relate to the anger issues! I used some of the passive-aggressive techniques (probably mostly the ignoring part, that felt like my only power tool), but I think I mainly put it away or directed it towards myself (why do I do everything wrong and fuck up my life). When my daughter turned about 4 (my older children are all boys, and though I love them dearly and thankfully feel really connected to them, I never made the connection with my own childhood), it started to dawn on me that I was once that little girl as well. Oh my God that realization hurt so much, because only then did I actually realize everything I did not get then, how truly alone I was, how afraid as a little girl. Seeing what that childhood killed in me: my innocence, my trust in other people, being able to connect to other people, feeling fullfilled. I hid behind a wall where I could not be hurt, but everything in my life felt empty.
Recently some really heavy events happened to my with regards to my parents and in my marriage and it seems like the wall has just been completely crashed: I can no longer hold my feelings in: there is so much anger and sorrow and I cannot stop it. I am going to make some life-changing decisions, because I can no longer ignore my feelings.
One question I have is, do you think that EMDR could help me “manage” some of my experiences in childhood better, because I find I am still overwhelmed with sorrow regularly and also feel squeezed into being a good daughter (based on your book I would diagnose my mother as a narcist and my father a maybe, my therapist thinks that as well) while I want to break all ties.
I don’t think I read anything about EMDR in your books, but since that can help with trauma, I figured it might help me.

    Jonice - May 13, 2019 Reply

    Dear Eden, what a lot of amazing work you have done! It sounds like you are on the path to CEN recovery. I do think EMDR can help very much with traumatic events and memories. If your therapist supports it, you should give it a try. Sending you all my best wishes. Keep up the good work!

Karen - May 12, 2019 Reply

Wow Dr Webb once again you’ve hit the nail on the head! It’s going to take me a while to process this post but some first responses immediately spring to mind. The first is how insidious suppressed anger is. There’s an urgency to deal with it. In this post you’ve given me a plausible explanation as to why certain of my relationships have ended badly, either in harsh words or just faded away. Passive aggressiveness would have been a big factor in each instance. Another thought prompted by your article is how exhausting it all is. My whole life I’ve been tired. No amount of good eating or supplements or exercise has ever made any difference. It’s a physical and emotional weariness for which I’ve never previously found an explanation. So I thank you for shedding light on a baffling problem. There’s much to consider and act on from what you have presented here.

    Jonice - May 12, 2019 Reply

    Dear Karen, well said. Those are all effects of walled-off anger. It is draining and tiring to carry it around and keep pushing it down. I’m so glad you’re on the right track! Keep it up!

    Lisa - May 15, 2019 Reply

    I’m also someone who has always been tired. I tend to think of myself as lazy, but that’s not it.

      Jonice - May 15, 2019 Reply

      Dear Lisa, it is exhausting holding back one’s emotions. This may not apply to you, but just want to let you know that if you’re doing this, it takes a lot of energy.

        Lisa - May 15, 2019 Reply

        Oh, it applies to me! I have a lifetime of holding back my emotions.

LalaAlice - May 12, 2019 Reply

I really connect with your initial CEN messages, but I feel like I can’t move forward because of the wall blocking the feelings. I don’t feel those feelings at all anymore so I can’t work on feeling them. It’s very frustrating

    Jonice - May 12, 2019 Reply

    Dear Lala, in the book Running On Empty there is a technique to break through your wall called the Identifying & Naming Exercise. I suggest you do it often. It really works. Best wishes to you!

Daveed - May 12, 2019 Reply

I find this post very relevant in my own life. Thank you for writing and publishing it. I would love to be able to read the comments but, even though I have subscribed I still cannot access them. If you could let me know how to access comments I would appreciate it. Thank you

    Jonice - May 12, 2019 Reply

    Dear Daveed, I can’t imagine why you’re unable to read the comments. Hopefully you’ll see my answer. I’m glad you find the post helpful!

    Daveed - May 13, 2019 Reply

    Thank you very much. Whatever you did to help me access the comments has worked!
    I’m getting a lot out of reading the comments as well as your article. I really appreciate your help and support

Catherine - May 12, 2019 Reply

I am happy to say that I set out on this journey to deal with anger a little while ago, thanks to the CEN knowledge from you. Two email friends hurt my feelings recently so I told them so- not nastily or spitefully, I just stated what they did and how I felt. Previously I have either blocked such friends with no reason, or pretended nothing was wrong while secretly fuming in silence.
One friend disappeared and never contacted me again. The other one apologised profusely and promised never to do that again.
Secondly I realised that the disappearing friend obviously had her own issues and it wasn’t my fault. I re-read my email telling her my feelings and it was perfectly reasonable. The apologising friend and I dealt with the situation and moved on, we’re still friends.
So I am learning 🙂

    Jonice - May 12, 2019 Reply

    That is impressive Catherine! You challenged both friends, and you saw what can happen. It depends largely on the skills and abilities of the other person to process a problem. Thanks for sharing, and keep up the good work!

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