I’m really excited to write this article, because this is a question that many people ask: “Is this narcissistic or is this simply passive-aggressive?”
So what is passive-aggressive behaviour? And how does it cross the line into being narcissistic … or is passive-aggressive behaviour simply narcissistic anyway?
Wikipedia states it as being this: Passive-aggressive behaviour is “a type of behaviour … characterized by indirect resistance to the demands of others and an avoidance of direct confrontation.”
I truly do believe that all narcissists operate in passive-aggressive ways, because being passive-aggressive means this – rather than being open and honest about what that person is feeling, or working in with people honestly, or asking for what is required personally, they express displeasure through actions instead.
With people who are not necessarily suffering from Narcissistic Personality Disorder, it can be easier to spot and it’s more obvious, yet with narcissists, it can be so underhand and cloaking in agenda and manipulation, as well as conscienceless deceit, that it can be very hard to pinpoint.
This is what narcissists are famous for – intensely confusing behaviour that distorts other people’s grasp on reality.
In this article today, I want to dissect and make this topic as clear for you as I possibly can.
I feel to do this we can look at:
- Non-narcissistic passive-aggressive behaviour
- Narcissistic passive-aggressive behaviour
- And narcissists who the passive-aggressive personality type.
And I hope it helps you understand where passive-aggressive behaviour is, and when it is unmistakably narcissistic.
Non-narcissistic Passive-Aggressive Behaviour
Obvious passive-aggressive behaviour is never fun to experience. It’s uncomfortable and quite ugly to be around.
Let’s imagine the following scene – a Mother, we will call her Joan, is cooking tea for her husband and her children.
Joan is banging pots ferociously. She is slamming cupboard doors loudly.
What is this about?
She has been doing housework all day while the kids were on their X-boxes and her husband watched sport on TV. No-one offered to help, and then they all start asking her “What’s for dinner?”
Joan, rather than asking for what she wants and needs honestly (a helping hand), is making more and angrier noise to try to get her point across.
Does it work? No!
After dinner, when no-one picks up their plate from the table, Joan literally throws them in the dishwasher. She then storms off to her bedroom and slams the door.
Is this passive-aggressive? Yes, absolutely it is. Does this mean that she is a narcissist? Not necessarily. It may simply mean she doesn’t know her worth and feels guilty about asking for and receiving help and hopes others “do the right thing” without her having to go through feeling guilty as a result of asking.
I would argue that this is the product of our defunct emotional intelligence in our curriculum. We weren’t taught our worth and the health of asking for help, and being able to receive healthily.
Rather, sacrificial service was taught as the value, and “give to others to get”, rather than be responsible for generating our own healthy life, which means asking for help if needed and setting boundaries and saying “No” if feeling overwhelmed or taken advantage of.
Also, I believe our societal, religious and conditional family beliefs of feeling unworthy, defective and flawed have caused us to need to prove our worth. Very few of us have believed (or acted like) we are worthy of love as we are – and we have turned ourselves inside out, overburdened ourselves and felt totally overwhelmed trying to do enough, to be enough to be loved and accepted.
If we don’t believe we are worthy of love and support and have no idea how to ask for it in healthy ways, of course we are going to feel emptied out, unsupported and overwhelmed at times.
Naturally, this leads to, at times, being passive-aggressive.
Because we unconsciously resent what we are doing to ourselves, we naturally start to resent others as well. We blame them, we hold them responsible for not giving us what we want from them to feel okay on the inside. We may, at times, lash out in passive-aggressive ways.
Is this narcissistic? Yes, we could argue that it is. It’s unconscious and it IS lashing out, regardless of how justified we may feel to do it. Yet, really these are the traits of co-dependents. The truth is co-dependents and narcissists can at times seem very similar when triggered into unhealed raw wounds.
However, there are major differences between a narcissistic passive-aggressive individual and a person who can be passive-aggressive at times.
Let’s examine Joan, as our non-narcissistic example.
In Joan’s everyday life she is happy for other people to do well, and loves and supports her family, friends and community. She is a good woman – she contributes to others, genuinely cares and has compassion and does what she says she will for people. She would be horrified about the concept of taking out revenge on someone or seeking to hurt anyone on purpose.
Where she does struggle, is believing she deserves and is worthy of receiving help. She suffers from the human and often female affliction of, “It’s my duty to serve others tirelessly” and “I need to do all of this for others to be loved and accepted”. And, because she can’t ask for help, sometimes it all gets too much for her.
In stark contrast, people who are suffering from Narcissistic Personality Disorder are capable of taking passive-aggressive behaviour to a whole other level.
Let’s explore what that is.
Passive-Aggression and Narcissism
Narcissistic passive-aggressive behaviour is usually not as obvious as Joan’s banging around in the kitchen. It’s more like a “who done it?” mystery where you are trying to piece together the things that don’t add up, as well as the nasty “off” behaviour which seems senseless.
Yet, to the narcissist it makes perfect sense – they are punishing you for something which according to them you did or didn’t do which displeased them.
The following I thoroughly believe – all the buzz words with narcissism, such as triangulation, smearing, gas-lighting, hoovering, all the things that narcissists do to confuse, abuse and get their own way – are passive-aggressive.
The feeling that something is “not right” comes about pretty quickly when the narcissist starts his or her passive-aggressive behaviour. You know they are “up to something” or something is “off” regarding what is REALLY going on in the background, but you can’t really pinpoint it.
And if we bring “it” to their attention (whatever we feel “it” is), they will vehemently deny it and twist it around, and then we will feel guilty for having thought it and worry that maybe our version of things is skewered, incorrect or we are imagining it because of our painful relationships in our past or something that is wrong about us.
And, for a long time, we don’t have enough hard evidence to stand in the conviction of what we feel.
Narcissists are capable of passive-aggressively delivering terrible underhand cruelty. They are big on wanting to hurt people, and usually, a hairline trigger is enough to launch them into it.
The narcissist can do horrible passive-aggressive things, like publically agree to do something and then because he or she never wanted to, does a terrible job of it or makes an excuse not to at the last minute. Because this person is a narcissist, there is no emotional filter regarding how that affected others, or it will be used purposefully as a weapon to hurt the person/people in question.
When you think “passive-aggressive” in relation to a narcissist, think “stealth” and “deception”. How can a person punish another, or confuse them and make it look like they aren’t? How can they then twist things up so it looks like the other person is imagining it, or even to blame for whatever it is that was “off” that they were feeling?
I remember narcissist number 2 used to send random senseless messages to me out of the blue that smacked of being a text conversation with another woman.
Were they a text to me (as he professed) even though the text didn’t make sense? Or … was it a text he accidentally sent to me which was intended for another? Or … was this all just to get my mind twisted in knots?
The truth was I will never know but it did exactly that! And then, of course, I was the paranoid freak and there was something terribly wrong with me!
Another example is this. A narcissist admitted to me that if his ex-wife did not greet him adequately that he would incite her into an argument, then make it look like she started it, and then use that as his excuse to walk out the door and go to his lover.
Of course, these sorts of behaviours are passive-aggressive. There is nothing truthful or authentic about them! A False Self means unhealthy, unsavoury false behaviour – period.
I really do believe that every narcissist – point blank – operates in passive-aggressive ways. Narcissists are not honest about what they are feeling, are not in touch with their feelings, don’t take responsibility for them and project them onto others. They make up any version of reality necessary to make it someone else’s fault.
The deeply insecure inner-self of the narcissist – which he or she has disowned – has terrible knee-jerk childish reactions. Passive-aggressive behaviour is immature, underdeveloped behaviour. It is employed by people who feel like victims, and it doesn’t stop if that person won’t take responsibility for their inner traumas and triggers in order to start showing up authentically with others.
Narcissists don’t take responsibility for and heal these traumas, they just continue to go through life passive-aggressively projecting them onto other people.
The Silent Treatment
The most famous of all passive-aggressive narcissistic behaviours is “the silent treatment.” This can range from stone-walling to complete and utter uncontactable abandonment.
When stone-walling, a narcissist will dismiss the conversation and leave the room, or absolutely refuse to continue the conversation with you. This is beyond frustrating and totally invalidates your feelings and you as a person. The narcissist may even threaten to leave you if you try to continue the conversation.
This is the narcissist’s passive-aggressive tactic to refuse to deal with what you are saying.
The fully blown silent treatment is about a total refusal to communicate with you about ANYTHING. In fact, the cold-shoulder may be so extreme that the narcissist can totally disappear from your life, even if you are living together, and act like you never existed.
This is the narcissist’s ways of severely punishing you. It’s usually effective because many would argue being treated as if you don’t exist is one of the most painful traumas we could experience.
(Of course, until we have created a Thriver Recovery – and then we are relieved!)
The Passive-Aggressive Narcissistic Personality Type
In regard to narcissists, there is a personality type that stands out as being notably passive-aggressive.
This narcissist is the victim type, which is not EVERY narcissist. In contrast, many narcissists will make out to all and sundry that their life is wonderful.
However, this narcissist is a bag of misery, and constantly complains and whines believing everyone is demonising them, against them and judging them unfairly. This narcissist believes that his or her life is a series of terrible and woeful events.
Of course, like all pessimistic victims who refuse to shift from this state, these people are their own worst enemy. Bad circumstance after bad circumstance happens and this person gets more and more negative and sick and makes people walk on broken glass around them constantly.
For the passive-aggressive narcissist, nothing is every right or good enough.
This narcissist is “in your face” as someone who is impossible to deal with. Some examples are things like this: They will let you do things and make decisions and then tell you that was totally the wrong thing and decision to make. They may suggest that you haven’t done “that” for them for a while, and then when you do they pick fault with it.
This narcissist sets people up to fail constantly – demanding this and that and then criticising what anyone does. The truth is they are constantly projecting their vile mood onto anyone who is the vicinity to receive it.
The passive-aggressive narcissist tells all and sundry how no-one’s life is as terrible as theirs. They believe all of their hardships are unique and special circumstances.
This narcissist attempts to guilt people into feeling sorry for them, and do things for them, and even doing their bidding for them against the people who have treated them so “unfairly”.
He or she may manipulate you by telling you that you are their only true friend, or the only person they trust, or the only person who really understands them and loves them and cares for them.
Initially, you feel special and needed, yet it’s inevitable that you too will be demonised along with everyone else no matter how hard you try to help them.
When we come across people like this, we wonder why they even want to “live”, their life is such a tortuous misery to themselves and others.
How To Deal With Passive-Aggressive People
To someone like Joan, you could say to her, “I know you need help and please know you deserve to ask for it. I am here to support you and I want to, please don’t feel guilty for asking”.
With compassion and giving her permission to speak up, we may lovingly help her get the confidence to know it is okay to ask for what she needs and help support her new understanding that asking for help doesn’t make her any less lovable, acceptable and worthy of her place in everyone’s life.
If you were to try doing this with a narcissist, they would recoil at the thought of being classified as “needy” or “vulnerable”, and they would hate that you have “seen” them.
A likely inner response, that would be very different from Joan’s relief, would be to work out how to control and hurt you so that you would never expose them as vulnerable again.
A narcissist doesn’t want your “help” in an honest, open, connected way. The narcissist wants your “help” (translated to energy, time, resources and soul) whilst they have the upper hand and control, where you can never truly have a real connection with them or be close enough to hurt them.
How do you deal with a passive-aggressive narcissist, which is any narcissist?
Detach, Go No Contact or Modified Contact and heal and empower yourself.
You can’t deal with them, you can only deal with your own fears and then start generating your True Life regardless of who the narcissist continues to be – and the more you become real, authentic, healed and whole, the less they can be in your existence.