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Masking anger with smiles

Book discusses passive-aggressive personality disorder

Book discusses passive-aggressive personality disorder

May 15, 2009|By CRYSTAL SCHELLE

Chances are someone you have dealt with today at home, at school or at work has been passive-aggressive.

Passive-aggression is a personality disorder in which a person displays a pattern of just-below-the-surface anger or a type of "hidden hostility."

In their book on the topic, Hagerstown-area resident and licensed school psychologist Jody E. Long, husband Nicholas J. Long, a national leader in teaching and programming for emotionally disturbed children, and Signe Whitson, a friend and licensed social worker, have dubbed it "The Angry Smile: The Psychology of Passive-Aggressive Behavior in Families, Schools and Workplaces."

And for the person who has to deal with the anger masked with a smile, it can feel like a form of Chinese water torture, says Jody Long - actions or words from a passive-aggressive personality can eat away at the victim.

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"They're very subtle in the way they're showing anger," she says.

Nicholas Long says a passive-aggressive person is someone who is pleased by causing an emotional reaction in others, by doing such things as procrastinating on a project as a way of expressing hidden anger.

What happens to others, the Longs explain, is that the frustration builds up, leading to an angry, sometimes screaming meltdown. In the aftermath, the person who yelled feels guilty. The passive-aggressive personality looks at the person who had the blowup and sees a person with a temper.

"They see that anger is dangerous," Jody Long says.

The Longs say what happens is that the victim now becomes the source of the problem.

Getting a handle on the behavior



Nicholas Long says passive-aggressive behavior has been neglected by psychology for years. His interest started in 1962 when he was named director of the Washington, D.C.-based Hillcrest Children's Center, a psychiatric residential treatment center for children and youths with emotional problems. There, he found a program that dealt with the children's outbursts in what he calls in the book as being "professional competence."

As a school psychologist, Jody Long, too, can see daily how teens act passive aggressively. Before the first edition of "The Angry Smile" in 2001, the Longs conducted more than 50 seminars on passive-aggression and gathered more than 1,200 personal examples of passive-aggressive behavior in school and in home.

This is the second edition of the book. The Longs say in "The Angry Smile" they discuss the development of passive-aggressive behavior; reasons why people use passive-aggressive behavior; the distinct levels of passive-aggressive behavior; and the relationship between the passive-aggressive person and his or her victim.

Many faces of hidden hostility



Passive-aggressive personalities are developed early in life, the Longs say, and are found in all races, social strata and ages.

There are several ways the behavior pattern might develop. It could be a result of excessive psychological or physical abuse that causes a child to hide anger out of fear. Some children grow up in a setting in which there is an excessive need to be good or non-needy, forcing them to suppress anger.

The Longs have discerned a third way passive-aggression develops, when children want to send a message to a parent that they will sabotage their own life. This is usually when a child with a disability believes he or she has failed in the eyes of the parent or important adult role models and develops passive-aggression as a way to cope.

A normal person will use passive-aggression in certain situations, Nicholas Long explains. Passive-aggressive behavior becomes a problem when it becomes a dominant part of a person's personality.

Passive-aggressive behavior can be found in five basic settings, the Longs say. They can be found in all relationships between a husband and wife, parent and child, teacher and student and boss and employee.

Temporary compliance. This is found most often, the child will agree to do it but delays then eventually not at all.

Initial inefficiency. Jody Long says this is when a parent asks a child to clean his room. He does, but only does it in a manner unacceptable to the parent.

Letting a problem escalate. For instance, a wife knows the husband has an important meeting in the morning but doesn't fill the tank with gas and doesn't tell him. "It's helping him to have a problem," Nicholas Long says.

Hidden by conscious revenge. In one case, Jody Long says a woman took her husband's TV remote with her when she went out shopping because she didn't want him to watch the game.

Self-depreciation. This one, the Longs say, is the most pathological level of passive-aggression behavior to to the point of being harm to him or herself. For instance, a student is extremely intelligent but has terrible grades because he doesn't want to go to Harvard, which has been talked about since his youth.

How to deal



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