“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
“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
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
If you are like most people, you probably do not think of your emotions as useful at all. Except, perhaps, the happy ones that make you feel good.
But what about all the others? Such as hurt, frustration, anxiety, apprehension, sadness or anger, for example?
Thanks to research in the fields of psychology and neuroscience, we now know that we are born biologically wired with emotions for a reason. In fact, emotions are valuable messages from our bodies.
One of my main goals as a psychologist, author and blogger is to make everyone aware of this invaluable resource — your feelings — and the importance of paying attention to them and listening to their messages.
But there is one emotion that, in my opinion, belongs in a separate category from the rest. Like the other feelings, it does carry a message from your body. But that message is limited in its value and is also damaging to your inner self.
Let’s start with the official definition of shame, straight from the dictionary. Shame is defined as “a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior.” Synonyms are humiliation, mortification, chagrin, ignominy, embarrassment, and indignity.
So what message is your body sending when you feel shame? “You just did something wrong or foolish. Stop it now, and do not do it again.”
That message is helpful when you’ve actually done something wrong; something that harms yourself or someone else. But I have seen shame rear it’s painful head in many lovely people who do not deserve it, and over many situations which do not call for it.
In my discussions with thousands of people who grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN), I have seen that growing up with your feelings ignored makes you prone to shame. There are good reasons why CEN makes you prone to shame.
If as a child you received the message that your emotions are excessive, burdensome or unwelcome, it is natural to feel ashamed of having them. Living your adult life feeling ashamed of such a deeply personal, biological expression of who you are – your emotions – predisposes you to feel shame all too readily about everything else.
When Lotta woke up with a terrible hangover, she realized she drank way too much the night before and had made a fool of herself. She felt a pang of shame and vowed to never drink that much again.
Scott realized that he was subtly flirting with a colleague at a conference. He thought about how loyal his wife was to him, and he felt shame about his own behavior. He stopped himself immediately.
Olivia loved the leftover cake so much that she ate three big pieces in one sitting. Soon after, feeling ill, she felt shame about having over-indulged herself. “This feels disgusting in every way,” she thought. “I’m going to give away the remainder of this cake so that this will not happen again.”
Cynthia reviewed everything she’d said at the party the night before, going over and over it in her head. “I was too forward, that was too silly, I shouldn’t have said that dumb comment,” she ruminated. With each recollection, she felt a pang of shame.
Erik wanted to tell his family about his promotion at work, but every time he started to announce it, he felt a jolt of inexplicable shame that held him back.
Jorge tried not to ever think about the abuse he had suffered as a child, because every time he did, he was overcome with a terrible feeling of shame.
Your shame is helpful only if it offers you a healthy action. Clearly, Lotta’s, Scott’s and Olivia’s shame is sending them helpful messages to make better choices, combined with enough discomfort to drive them to follow through on those choices.
On the other hand, Cynthia’s shame is draining her energy by causing her to ruminate needlessly. Erik’s shame is holding him back from the positive accolades and pride he deserves. And Jorge’s shame is blocking him from healing the childhood trauma that was not his fault or choice.
There are no messages for any actions in the Unhelpful Shame group. It would be helpful for Cynthia, Erik and Jorge to realize their shame is damaging them and start to manage it instead of letting it control them.
Keep in mind that every feeling of shame puts a chink in your self-esteem if you allow it to continue unchecked and unprocessed. So if you hear a healthy message, the sooner you can listen to it and put it aside, the better.
If you feel a lot of shame, there’s a good chance you grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). But CEN is often subtle and unmemorable so it can be hard to know if you have it. To find out, Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
One of the most important challenges of growing up with your emotions under-responded to by your parents (Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN) is that you then enter adulthood without the essential knowledge of what to do with your emotions.
If your parents had noticed and named what you were feeling; if they had talked with you about your intense child emotions, they would have automatically been teaching you that your feelings are real, are important, and can be managed. And just as importantly, their “emotion coaching” would have taught you some vital emotion skills for your life.
Everyone has intense emotions from time to time. I have discovered that even the people who experience themselves as emotionally empty or numb due to Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) actually do have moments of strong feelings at various times.
One of the hardest questions you can ask yourself is “What am I feeling right now?” Yet there is a sort of resolving magic, like a salve, that happens with any emotion as soon as you put it into words.
If you grew up with CEN, there’s a good chance you have a tendency to judge and criticize your own feelings. “I shouldn’t feel angry/hurt/sad/afraid,” or pretty much any other emotion. But this way of judging something that is biologically wired into you, and outside of your control is a tremendous waste of energy as well as damaging to your self-esteem. Accepting what you feel must happen before you can manage the feeling.
The next step after putting what you are feeling into words and accepting it is to try to understand your feeling. Why are you feeling this emotion? What is the cause? Is this feeling old or new or a mixture of both? Is it attached to a particular situation or person?
Your emotions are a message from your body. So each time you identify that you are feeling an emotion, it’s important to quickly ask yourself some questions. First, is this feeling telling me to do something? And second, should I do it?
The first three skills above are all about honoring your emotion. Honoring an emotion involves sitting with it, accepting it and trying to understand it. For some emotions, going through the process of honoring it is enough to make it tolerable.
But some emotions carry messages so powerful that they push you toward action. And for these, Step 4 becomes an absolute necessity. If you fail to follow through with Step 4, these feelings will keep revisiting you until you either attend properly to them or follow their directive. And their directive may be the absolute wrong thing for you.
So Stage 4 is, in some ways, the most important. It’s the difference between indulging your emotion and using it in a healthy and productive way.
Rachel has processed her emotion, and realized that the feeling she is experiencing is anger and that she’s feeling it toward her fiancé Toby for forgetting to pick her up from the train.
Rachel asks herself if this anger is telling her to do something. “It’s telling me to yell at Toby. I want to tell him he’s inconsiderate and selfish.”
“Should I do that?” Rachel asked herself. “Does Toby deserve that?” As she considers this question, Rachel thinks about Toby. Has he left me stranded before? Is he generally a selfish person? Am I worried about this happening again?
As with most emotions, Rachel’s answer is complex. Early in their relationship, Toby was thoughtless and careless, and they had multiple fights about that. But Toby had listened and grown, and for a solid two years he had been reliable and caring and devoted to her. The likely reason he forgot today is that he had a stressful job interview that didn’t go well.
Rachel realizes that much of her anger about Toby’s mistake was old anger left over from the early years. Yet she notices that this realization is not enough to make the feeling go away.
I need to tell Toby that his mistake upset me, and reminded me of the past. But I need to do it with care because this time it was an honest mistake. And Toby has earned my understanding.
In truth, learning these four emotion skills and using them can change the course of your life. When you learn how to process your feelings in this way, you are finally connecting to a font of natural energy and direction that erupts from your deepest self.
You are also healing your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) can be a subtle experience in your childhood so it can be difficult to know if you have it. To find out, Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
To learn more about how to use your emotions to connect to the people you care about, see my new book, Running on Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.
The better we grieve, the better we live.
I do believe that the quote above is absolutely true. It’s almost impossible to make it through your adulthood without experiencing a loss of some kind.
Being able to grieve in a healthy way requires a series of personality traits and skills that not everyone possesses. I have seen many people go to great lengths to avoid feeling their grief or get stuck in it, unable to look forward from it.
Many of these folks grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect.
Joanne, who lost her husband four years ago is so bogged down in sadness that she enjoys very little in her life, and has problems getting out of bed every day.
Alex, whose sister died of breast cancer two years ago, lives a full and busy life, but feels dull and sad inside every time he stops running around and tries to relax.
In 1969, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross wrote her now-famous book called On Death and Dying. In it she described the 5 stages that she frequently saw people going through after receiving a dire medical diagnosis. Since that day the 5 Stages of Grief have been applied more broadly to all kinds of losses, like break-ups or accepting the loss of a loved one. It’s also important to note that these stages are not set in stone; everyone grieves differently, and may experience different feelings in different order at different times.
The Five Stages of Grief
In my experience, having helped many clients through many losses, one of the greatest prolongers of each of the 5 Stages is having grown up without enough emotional attention, validation and response from one’s parents: Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN.
When your parents do not respond enough to your emotions as a child, you learn very early and well that your emotions and emotional needs are irrelevant (or even bad) and should be avoided. To adapt, you wall off your feelings and needs so that they will not burden your parents. Not surprisingly, when you are living with your feelings blocked off, it throws major obstacles into your path through the 5 Stages.
How Childhood Emotional Neglect Blocks the 5 Stages of Grief
The whole point of the 5 Stages is to move through them. Experiencing one phase, allowing yourself to be in it and face it prepares you to move to the next phase. Moving through the phases allows your brain to process the reality, preparing you for acceptance. Acceptance must happen before you can turn your attention forward to rebuilding yourself and your life.
If this is you, it’s important to re-direct and focus yourself.
4 Ways to Manage Your CEN Through Grief
When you are grieving something, it’s crucial to acknowledge that you only feel grief when you had something great to begin with. So a part of your grief must be appreciation and gratefulness for what you had.
And remember the words of one of the greatest authors of all time:
Only people who are capable of loving strongly can also suffer great sorrow, but this same necessity of loving serves to counteract their grief and heals them.
― Leo Tolstoy
The First Way – Compassionate Accountability
In my office, I’ve heard from clients stories of broken phones, punched walls, and even bent steering wheels. All in the name of anger.
For making a mistake.
What You Didn’t Get
When a parent sits down with a child who has behaved badly, used poor judgment, or made a mistake, and says, “Let’s figure out what happened,” that parent is teaching her (or his) child Compassionate Accountability.
But many parents don’t know that it’s their job to teach their child how to process a mistake; how to sift through what happened and sort out what part of it belongs to circumstances, and what part belongs to the child. What can we learn from this? What should you do differently next time?
There is a balance between all of these factors which must be understood. The parent holds the child accountable, but also helps him (or her) understand himself and have compassion for himself and his mistake.
What To Give Yourself
If your parents were too hard or too easy on you for mistakes, or failed to notice them at all, it’s not too late for you now. You can learn Compassionate Accountability today. Follow these steps when you make a mistake.
The Second Way – Self-Discipline
We are not born with the ability to manage our impulses. Self-discipline is not something that you should expect yourself to have automatically. Self-discipline is learned. In childhood.
What You Didn’t Get
When parents have rules, and enforce them firmly and with love, they are naturally teaching their childre how to do this for themselves. Do your homework before you go out to play. Fill the dishwasher, even though you don’t want to. You are not allowed to have a second dessert. Balanced, fair requirements enforced with care by your parents teach you how, years later, to do this for yourself.
What To Give Yourself
If you struggle with self-discipline more than most other people, it does not mean that you are weak-willed or less strong than others. It only means that you didn’t get to learn some important things in childhood. Never fear, you can learn them now. Follow these steps.
The Third Way – Learn to Love the Real You
We all learn to love ourselves in childhood; that is, when things go well. When we feel our parents’ love for us, it becomes our own love for ourselves, and we carry that forward through adulthood.
What You Didn’t Get
We tend to assume that if our parents loved us, that’s enough. But it isn’t necessarily, at all. There are many different ways for a parent to love a child. There’s the universal type of parental love: “Of course, I love you. You’re my child.” Then there’s real, substantive, meaningful parental love. This is the love of a parent who really watches the child, really sees and knows the child, and really loves the person for who he or she truly, deeply is.
What to Give Yourself
Most people receive at least some of the first type of love. Far fewer receive the second type. Do you feel that your parents truly know the real you? Do they love you for who you are? Do you love yourself this way? Truly and deeply? If you sense something is missing in your love for yourself, it may be because you didn’t receive enough genuine, deeply felt love from your parents. But it’s not too late for you to get it. You can give it to yourself.
Growing up with mostly Type 1 Love has a far more serious impact than you think. It’s highly correlated to not learning Compassionate Accountability and self-discipline. If you see yourself in this article, read more at EmotionalNeglect.com and the book, Running on Empty.
Of all human emotions, the one that people struggle with the most is anger. That’s understandable!
After all, it’s the emotion with the most potential to get us into trouble. It can be exquisitely uncomfortable, and it’s the most difficult to control.
Many people find it easier to push anger down altogether (or suppress it) to avoid discomfort and conflict and to stay out of trouble.
Some wear anger like armor in hopes it will protect them from being hurt or mistreated.
Others go back and forth between pushing it down and erupting. In fact, these two things go together. The more you suppress your anger, the more intense it will be when it finally erupts.
If you were raised by parents who had low tolerance for your feelings (Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN), then you may be all too good at pushing your anger away; suppressing it and repressing it so that you don’t even have to feel it.
In fact, you may – especially if you have CEN – be so uncomfortable with the A-Word that you can’t even say it.
you may say instead of, I’m angry.
If you’re not comfortable with your anger, you’re more likely to misread and mislabel it as something milder or more diffuse.
“Isn’t stopping yourself from feeling angry a good skill to have?” you may be wondering.
The answer is actually NO.
Research has shown how very important anger is to living a healthy life.
Aarts et al. (2010) found that people who were shown a picture of an angry face were more driven to obtain an object that they were shown later. Anger is like a driver that pushes you to strive for what you want or need. Anger carries with it the message, “Act!”
Example Without Anger: Alana was getting weary of being overlooked at work. She was well-known to be skilled and reliable, and yet she was repeatedly passed over for promotion to manager. Silently she watched younger, less experienced employees move past her, one by one.
Example With Anger: Alana became angry when a less-experienced colleague was promoted. “I deserve an explanation for this. I have to get myself promoted or leave the company,” she realized. The next day she walked into her supervisor’s office and asked why she was passed over. She was promised the next promotion slot.
2. Anger can make your relationship better and stronger
Anger, when used appropriately, can be very helpful in communication:
Baumeister et al. (1990) found that hiding anger in intimate relationships can be detrimental. When you hide your anger from your partner, you’re bypassing an important message that he or she may very much need to hear.
Of course, it’s important to take great care in how you express your anger. Try your best to calibrate it to the situation and express it with as much compassion for your partner as you can.
Example Without Anger: Lance was tired of his wife Joanne’s clutter. She kept, it seemed to Lance, virtually everything. There were stacks of newspapers on the dining room table, five pairs of sneakers of various ages in their closet, and a roomful of clothes that their children had outgrown. Lance wanted that room for an office. “I’ll never get that room,” he thought resignedly. All this time Joanne had no idea that there was a problem.
Example With Anger: Lance was fed up with the clutter. He told Joanne that it was making him feel stressed and unhappy, and also angry at her. After several heated discussions, Joanne removed her personal clutter from the spare room so that Lance could make it his office. They made a truce to try to meet each other in the middle.
3. Anger can help you better understand yourself
Anger can provide insight into ourselves if we allow it.
Kassinove et al. (1997) asked a large sample of people how recent outbursts of anger had affected them. Fifty-five percent said that getting angry had led to a positive outcome. Many respondents said that the anger episode had provided them with some insight into their own faults.
Anger can help you see yourself more clearly. And it can motivate self-change.
Example Without Anger: Joanne was surprised when Lance told her how angry her clutter was making him. “That’s too bad, you’ll just have to deal with it,” she said dully while exiting the room. She promptly put it out of her mind because she didn’t want to think about it.
Example With Anger: “That’s too bad, you’ll just have to deal with it,” Joanne fired back immediately. She stormed out of the room and slammed the bedroom door. Sitting on her bed she felt enraged and criticized.
The next day Joanne woke up with a different perspective on the conflict. She looked around and saw her home as though through Lance’s eyes. She realized that she felt criticized by Lance’s request. “I need to get better at taking criticism,” she thought.
4. Anger helps you negotiate
Anger can help you get what you want.
In a study of negotiation by Van Kleef et al. (2002), people made larger concessions and fewer demands of participants who were angry than ones who were not angry.
Anger makes you more powerful, especially when it’s justified and expressed with thought and care. Lets revisit Alana, who needed to have a difficult conversation with her supervisor.
Example Without Anger: Alana walked timidly into her supervisor’s office. After chatting about the weather, she said casually, “So what do I need to do to get promoted?” Her boss answered her question and went on with her day.
Example With Anger: Alana knew she was angry and that she needed to manage her anger when talking with her boss if she wanted to be effective. She walked into her boss’s office and said, “I need to talk to you about something important.” Alana explained how upset she was by her co-worker’s promotion. Her boss explained that the promoted co-worker was an excellent employee. This made Alana even angrier. She pushed, “Yes, he’s really good. But so am I, and I have more experience and excellent skills,” she stated clearly. Her boss paused, surprised at Alana’s persistence. “You’re right,” she said. Her boss then promised Alana the next available promotion.
If you grew up emotionally ignored or in an environment that did not have the room or tolerance for you to get angry (CEN), some small part of your brain probably screams “STOP!” as soon as you get an inkling of anger. The reality is that it’s not easy to turn that around.
But you can do it. Start thinking of anger as a helpful emotion, not something to avoid. Pay attention to your anger, and try to notice when you’re feeling it. Stop saying “STOP!” to your anger. Instead, listen to your anger’s message, consciously manage your angry feeling, and let your anger motivate and energize you.
Anger, when properly managed and expressed, is power.
So when you suppress your anger, you’re suppressing your power.
And why would you do that?
To learn more about how Childhood Emotional Neglect makes you unaware of your feelings of anger see the book, Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.