When I act passive aggressively I am hedging my bets. I am lashing out with the thin veneer of not lashing out. Everyone knows I am lashing out (or at least can feel it) but if accused I can deny it. This behavior comes from a place of both anger and fear. I am angry. That is the reason I lash out in the first place. I am afraid of the consequences of lashing out. That is why I strive to maintain deniability. The reason I choose not to outright display my anger and fear honestly is because of shame. Shame tells me I am not entitled to display my true emotions because to do so would break the rules and defy a social hierarchy. In this hierarchy shame tells me I occupy a very low rung. I am allowed to look down upon those who occupy a lower rung but I am not allowed to impose upon those who occupy the higher rungs. Shame tells me that displaying my true emotions is an imposition upon those who occupy higher rungs than me. But that anger (being a true emotion) still exists and wants to come out of me. And so I buy an insurance policy of passive aggression. My anger comes out of me cloaked in deniability. It is not as authentic or cathartic as a true expression of anger would be but it acts as a release valve and lowers the pressure of the simmering volcano that is my bottled up anger.
Of course the recipient of my passive aggression feels the true emotion behind it. Because it was expressed passive aggressively the recipient experiences a certain disgust in reaction to my cowardice and subsequent dishonest denial of my true emotions. This disgust is palpable and I agree with it for I disgust myself (when I act with passive aggression). This increases my anger and my shame. I am angry with the world for putting me in this position. I am angry with myself for not rising above it. I am ashamed of myself for not rising above it and resorting to passive aggression as the only means of expressing my anger. The more I persist in this state of affairs the higher I raise the cost of pulling it all down. The more I persist with passive aggression the more I fear expressing my true emotions and bearing my hypocrisy to the world. They will see the truth and judge me. I will see the truth and judge myself. Maintaining deniability not only means I can deny my true emotions and intentions to the world but it also means I can deny them to myself.
And so I have purchased this insurance policy of passive aggression. It saves me from experiencing the full weight of the tragedy of my shame. Never fully experiencing it will also insure that I never rise above it. But rising above it requires that I feel its full weight. That is too scary a proposition.
In Chapter Four of Genesis Adam and Eve are now living outside of paradise but still in direct communication with God. In this location they beget their first children Cain and Abel. Cain seems to strongly carry the shame mindset. He is a farmer and his brother Abel is a shepherd. Both of them make offerings to God from the fruit of their respective labors. God shows respect or favor to Abel’s offering but not to Cain’s. The text is not clear about how God conveyed this information but Cain becomes angry and jealous of his brother as a result. In this context Cain’s anger and jealousy are shame based reactions because they arise from his assumption that God is disrespecting him by showing respect to his brother. He is living by comparison. It is this assumption, that favor to one means disfavor to another that is at the heart of the misery of the shame based experience.
God then asks Cain:
Why art thou angry? And why is thy countenance fallen? If thou do well shalt thou not receive? But if ill, shall not sin forthwith be present at the door? But the lust therof shall be under thee, and thou shalt have dominion over it. (Gen 4:6-7).
This is interesting. My reading of this is that God is telling Cain not to live by comparison and that his favor of Abel’s offering has no reflection on Cain. Furthermore, God tells him that to live by comparison (i.e., with the shame mindset) is the gateway to sin. Of course sin can be interpreted as an offense to God, meaning, God has preferences and sin is simply something God does not like. I tend to look a sin as those actions which stop a person from growing and truly living a full life. Living with the shame mindset is absolutely something that I would classify as sin in this respect. It makes sense to me that God would not prefer this. Further, if I am to look at the character of God as being symbolic of man’s true self which becomes buried by shame I think this makes even more sense. Finally, God points out that Cain can master sin by not allowing himself to live with the shame mindset. I imagine a Buddhist might similarly interpret this passage.
Of course Cain does not understand what God is saying here (as a shame-based person would tend not to be able to do) and when God is not looking he takes Abel out into the field and kills him. This is another shame based reaction because Cain is really angry with God for not favoring his offering. Since he cannot lash out at God he lashes out at a weaker target. Then when God asks him where his brother is he responds sarcastically, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” This is all shame based. Shame cannot admit guilt, in extreme cases, not even to itself and it deflects with sarcasm.
God knows what Cain has done and banishes him from this original place of banishment. Cain protests saying that now other people will kill him. It is unclear who these other people would be assuming the only people on earth at this point are Adam, Eve, Cain and his wife (where ever she came from). But God marks him as a warning to anyone who might try to kill him. Cain then moves east of Eden. It seems that every time man betrays himself with shame he moves further from God (i.e, his true self).
For most of my childhood I was told I was a wimp, a nerd and a geek. That was humiliating. When I got sad about it I was told I was weak. When I got angry about it I was labeled a spaz. Those feelings were also humiliating. Of course I did not like feeling humiliated but I was stuck in a no win situation. The best solution I could come up with was to hide my sadness and my anger because I did not want to feel humiliation on top of humiliation. In this way humiliation kept me from feeling my sadness and anger.
But the sadness and anger did not go anywhere. They were still there, deep down and came out from time to time like an erupting volcano whenever I was pushed past my breaking point or when I was safely alone. For some reason every Christmas Eve I found myself alone watching A Christmas Carol and wept uncontrollably whenever I saw the scene where Scrooge finally accepts his nephew Fred’s invitation to dinner and Fred welcomed him happily even though Scrooge assumed he would not. When the sadness and anger did erupt in front of other people (and to a lesser extent when I was alone) I felt the sting of humiliation which pushed those feelings back down again. The humiliation had the effect of negating my truly feeling those emotions and getting the relief they should have provided me.
I have since learned that in order to be a full person and to grow I must be able to feel my sadness and anger without humiliation. I need to own those feelings as authentic and acceptable parts of me. I need to welcome them in a non judgmental manner and with love. They are the truest emotions I have and I can never fully feel happiness if I am never allowed to feel those feelings without feeling humiliated for expressing them outwardly. They reflect my true self and if I reject them I reject my true self as well.
For a long time I did not know any of this. I thought it was wrong to express sadness and anger. I thought strong, responsible people do not do this and only weak and irresponsible people cannot control the outward expression of their true emotions. But suppressing or perhaps repressing these emotions caused anxiety and depression. It also caused passive aggressive behaviors like internet trolling, and the sarcastic judgment and shaming of others. It also gave rise to addictions that numbed out the feeling of humiliation.
When I finally was able to feel my sadness and anger without humiliation the anxiety, depression and all the rest of it began to ebb. It was as if the humiliation was a foreign entity that invaded my body. It was a parasite that reproduced itself from person to person by the way I was treated and by the way I in turn treated other people. By becoming aware of this dynamic not only did I begin to heal myself but I also took steps to stop the spread of this illness.