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.
(The bulk of the material for this blog post came from my original post entitle Passive Aggressive Behavior, The Truth Will Set You Free. This has consistently ranked as my most popular post in terms of views.)
I used to troll a message board. I describe this in my recently published eBook entitled Shame and Internet Trolling. I targeted a conservative, ex-military guy from Texas. All I had to do was post an article that put the Republican party in a bad light and that would set him off on a vicious anti-Liberal rant. It felt exciting to get him riled up. When he accused me of trolling and / or baiting I would defend myself saying that all I did was post an article I thought would generate interesting conversation. Because I did not comment on the article directly I maintained plausible deniability. It was fun to get him riled up but when he attacked me back I felt horrible. I had to get the last word in. I could not let him get the better of me. Sometimes other members on the message board would take his side. Then I would feel even worse.
The truth is that trolling and all passive aggression comes from shame. If I really felt the article was valuable in and of itself I would have advocated for it. But instead I tried to maintain deniability to protect myself from counter attack and maintain the illusion that I merely posted the article to stimulate discussion. Shame based behavior such as passive aggression comes from a mind that assumes that its true thoughts and feelings are not okay. If somebody else were able to observe these thoughts and feelings they would judge the mind harshly so the thoughts and feelings must be hidden and denied. To the shame based mind image is more important than reality. Of course this mindset is ultimately undermining and self-defeating. Reality is real (by definition). If the mind values image over reality it is in a sense denying reality and at odds with it. This results in more shame and anxiety to boot.
In the Book of John, chapter 8, verse 32, Jesus says, “[T]he truth shall make you free.” In the context of this post this statement is very powerful because shame (the motivation behind passive aggression) is a prison of untruth and unreality. In order to escape the prison of shame the mind must face its highest fear, to expose the truth within to the light of day and for all to see and judge (if they choose to) without excuses. This is a very tall order for someone who suffers from shame. I speak from personal experience and in my experience just as this prison takes many, many years to build and perfect it also takes some time (though not as much) to be torn down. The fear of exposure must be approached with caution and the waters tested gradually over time so that trust of the outside world is built up. Further, and most importantly, the shame based mind must learn to not abandon itself in the face of shame. I used to involuntarily say, “I wish I was dead” to myself whenever I felt shame or embarrassment. Then I would feel bad about what came out of my mouth. Now, when I experience shame or embarrassment I try to be aware of what is going on inside of me and then I say, “I can love myself through this experience.” I have more capacity to let myself off the hook. The reality of the situation is that shame is just an emotion and all emotions are real and okay. They have to be otherwise the one who feels the emotion is not okay. It is difficult to emerge from shame and appreciate this at first. But doing so brings forth the dawn of liberation for a shame based person and when this happens behaviors like passive aggression begin to fade away.
There is a large gap of time between last May and this October where I did not make any blog posts. I spent a lot of that time working on a book that I intend to e-publish. The book is autobiographical and discusses the connections between shame and internet trolling. Much of the book is a synthesis of my previous blog posts. I have been in contact with a well-known blogger who has published several ebooks who has encouraged me to do this. So I finished the book a few months ago. The well-known blogger put me in touch with a guy who edits and markets ebooks. I got the book edited and since that time I have been trying to incorporate the edits he suggested. Once I finish that I can start the publishing and marketing stage. The only problem is that I cannot seem to finish the editing process.
I used to wake up every morning at 5:00am and work on the initial manuscript. Once I finished it and sent it to the editor I continued to wake up at that time and write other things. Now that I am close to actually publishing I cannot seem to finish it. I stopped waking up at 5:00am. It is now hard for me to find the time. When I do make the time I sit and stare at what I have written and hate it.
I am sure this is self sabotage. I know I have to work through it. The block is my demon trying to undermine my success but it does it indirectly and passive aggressively. It does not straight out tell me not to do it. It distracts me. It saps my energy. It makes everything else seem more interesting. I am too tired. I have too many other things to do.
Is the answer to plow through it? Is the answer to defeat the demon some other way and then be able to finish my project? I am in the middle of it so I cannot see it too clearly.
There is fear here too. I am afraid that once I publish the book people who are described in it unflatteringly will hate me for it. At the same time I fear no one will read it when I publish it. I hold these two antithetical possibilities in my mind at the same time. The demon, my shame ego, does not care about logic. It merely cares that I feel shame and remain stuck in my present situation.
The well-known blogger I spoke of told me to edit one more time, cut 30% and publish it. I think I have to start waking up at 5:00am again. It is the time of day when I am the most creative anyway. I have a marathon to run this Sunday. Part of me is saying to put this off until that is over. The same part of me (I am sure) is telling me that I am not ready for the marathon. Ha!
I hate hearing other people’s eating noises at what I consider to be inappropriate times and places. I used to work with this older guy who sat in a cubicle across the aisle from me. Anytime he pulled out a cracker or a lozenge I quickly put on my head phones and blasted whatever I could in my ears so that I did not have to listen to him. To be caught off guard and actually hear him eat would trigger me so badly I would actually feel rage. Now I work from home and my desk is near the kitchen. Sometimes when I am booting up my computer in the morning my wife will walk into the kitchen and eat a granola bar. This also triggers me in the same way I get triggered when I hear other people talking in movie theaters.
On the other hand, eating noises do not annoy me when I am sitting at the dinner table unless they are over the top slurping or extra loud chewing.
The common thread to all this is shame based judgment. The idea is that other people cannot control themselves and act responsibly in social situations. They are violating the social contract and degrading civilization. As such, I sit in judgment of them in the hopes that they will feel ashamed of themselves. The idea behind this is that since feeling ashamed is unpleasant, the person will associate feeling ashamed with the irresponsible behavior and then stop doing it. Shame based law enforcement is completely passive aggressive in its methods. At this point in my life I am well aware that this energy in me also existed in my parents and was passed down from them to me by the way they brought me up.
When I am triggered, my reaction is strong. Even if I am aware that I am being triggered it is hard not to act on being triggered. This makes me understand how my parents could not control their impulses when I annoyed them by acting in a way that seemed irresponsible or disrespectful. It was their uncontrolled impulses that instilled this urge in me to enforce shame based law enforcement on other people. I try to be vigilant about not passing this heritage on to my children. When they were younger I was unaware of this dynamic so I am sure that some of the energy was passed along. I can take comfort in the knowledge that what I have passed along to my children is much less than what was passed on to me.
There really is nothing wrong with a person eating at their desk or in a kitchen. They are not actively trying to violate me or disrespect my boundaries when they do this. It is my reaction to the situation that is problematic. I do not blame myself for this reaction because it was programmed into me by my upbringing. I cannot be held responsible for that, but I am responsible for being aware of it and making an effort not to pass it on to others.
People motivated by shame are not capable of truly forgiving other people even though they may outwardly appear to forgive wrongs committed against them.
I was taught to forgive because it is the Christian and moral thing to do. But forgiveness motivated by a sense obligation, that forgiveness is the right thing to do and withholding forgiveness would induce guilty feelings is not true forgiveness. It is shame.
In order to truly forgive I must first feel my anger for being wronged. When this happens I must also feel entitled to my anger. I must appreciate and acknowledge the wrong committed against me. If I do not do this any pretense at forgiveness is a farce.
If I am motivated by shame I will not allow myself to acknowledge the wrongs committed against me because I do not feel entitled to my anger. I will act like I forgive readily out of a false sense of morality. I will say I forgive because I want people to like me and think that I am moral and kind.
But when I do not allow myself to feel anger it stays inside and comes out in passive aggressive forms. When I do not allow myself to feel anger there is nothing to forgive really. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that if I do not feel my anger and feel entitled to it, I am not in a position to forgive. I have no standing.
Only when I properly feel my anger for being wronged am I in position to choose to forgive. It has to be a real choice and not one I feel obligated to make. If I forgive out a sense of obligation then I am not the one offering forgiveness. In that situation, whoever imposed the obligation upon me is the one responsible for forgiveness. But forgiveness is personal and cannot be given through proxy. So really, no forgiveness is given at all.
In Roman Catholicism, the sacrament of Reconciliation is performed by a priest acting in the name of God. This is forgiveness by proxy. I am tempted to say that because this is forgiveness by proxy it is therefore not authentic. But I believe something else is at work in this sacrament. Sometimes a feeling of shame is so intense that forgiveness for the sin requiring reconciliation is required. When a person seeks forgiveness of sins through Reconciliation I think he is really thinking of a way to forgive himself for whatever transgression he committed. The shame he has felt for the sins he committed is punishment enough. The anger he has vented on himself has been fully felt only there has been no release because it is directed towards himself. In this instance an outside entity may be required to release him.
Of course self-forgiveness is possible without the sacrament. Like all religious practices they are merely tools we use to relate with the grand, infinite, unknowable universe that exists both inside and outside ourselves.
Filed under Religion, Shame
I have observed atheists state that they reject religion because there is no scientific evidence to support the claims that religions make. Taking this point of view assumes that the scientific view-point is the only valid method to observe, define or otherwise deal with reality. I prefer to look at science and religion as two distinct tools that can be used for this purpose.
Following the scientific method has without question led advances in technology and in understanding the physical properties of the universe. But science only deals with that which can be measured. It seems that many scientists make the assumption that because religious concepts cannot be measured they cannot, therefore, be true.
I think this misses the point of religion. The universe contains that which is known and that which is unknown. For better or worse humanity (or at least a significant segment of humanity) is interested in that which is unknown. Science addresses this interest on the material level. But there is another segment of humanity that is not satisfied with addressing the unknown on the material level alone.
There are many things that cannot be measured that clearly exist; beauty and love for example. True, they can be measured in certain ways such as taking surveys on how many people think something is beautiful or not. But such a measurement is so far removed from the actual experience of beauty and love that it can never truly be informative of the experience.
Religion, it seems to me, is a way of addressing these unmeasurable unknowns and coming into relation with them through the experience of ritual, symbolism and sacred texts.
According to this way of thinking, one must conclude that one religion is as good as any other as long as the practitioner feels a valid emotional, connection to it. Connections of this sort usually occur when a person is brought up practicing a specific religion and their energy has bonded to the symbology and ritual practices. People attached to a particular religion might not want to agree with this point of view. Believing the religion one practices is the one true faith embodies it with a certain power that it would not otherwise have. This belief (I think) is ultimately based on ego and shame. It says my religion is better than your religion.
In the same respect, this point of view often comes forth when atheists argue with religious people. Such discussions often devolve into a battle of shame egos. This is not unique to arguments about religion. Arguments about politics follows this path as well. The argument itself has nothing to do with which appreciation of reality is correct but rather is about who is better at making the other feel foolish. This is clearly revealed when those who argue become, sarcastic, shaming, angry or flustered. Such a reaction displays that a person’s shame has been touched and they either feel shame themselves or are trying to make their opponent feel ashamed.
I have a friend named Steve. Steve lives in a world completely unbounded by shame. He fascinates and irritates me at the same time. He fascinates me because I have no personal frame of reference for his world view but I also am envious of the freedom in which he seems to live. He irritates me because from my shame ego’s perspective his mere existence is a negative judgment on how I live my life.
I remember hiking with him many years ago. We were walking along a mountain trail. He suggested we go off the path. The neo-hippie wannabe part of me readily agreed. Yeah! Stick it to the trail man who wants us to hike in specificly designated places! Another part of me was annoyed. We had a perfectly good trail to walk on, we were outside, getting exercise, being healthy and enjoying nature. His suggestion implied that walking on the path was conformist and somehow an inauthentic experience of the natural world.
Recently I thought about this interaction when I was walking on a sidewalk. Clearly the sidewalk was the designated place for me to walk. I felt annoyed that the sidewalk builder was dictating where I should walk. I considered walking off the sidewalk and cutting through a yard. Then it felt like Steve was telling me where to walk and that felt annoying too.
In this scenario I do not really know what I want. If I walk on the sidewalk I am conforming to society’s rule. If I stray from the sidewalk I am conforming to Steve’s neo-hippie ethic. If I ask myself what I truly want to do in this scenario my mind goes blank. I have no real, whole-hearted desire. Rather, I am trying to please two alien masters. I am motivated by a desire to avoid the shame that goes along with making the wrong choice.
Even though I do not know what I want, I think the feeling of being annoyed is informative. From the shame based perspective, feeling annoyed is wrong. By being annoyed, on a passive aggressive level I am fighting the system and fighting the system is sinful. Passive aggression is a primary tool in the shame-based tool box. But the feeling of being annoyed is also a message from my true self. There is something happening in the universe that I do not like. That is the truth. That is the key to finding out what I truly want.
Gestalt therapy taught me that my feelings are always right and never sinful. That is, there is always a legitimate reason behind my feelings. They do not arise because I am flawed. I think my feeling of being annoyed comes from the no win situation my shame ego has constructed for me. I can choose to walk on the sidewalk or cut across a yard. Either way I am conforming and as such, unoriginal and inauthentic which is shame worthy. It is the no win situation itself that irritates me. I want to be unbound by shame and the no win situation.
I imagine Steve would not spend a second of his life considering any of this. He would walk where he wanted to walk because he wanted to. How utterly simple. How utterly beautiful. The no win situation is a construction of my shame ego as is not knowing what I want.
In order get out of the hell of my job I had to get laid off. I was too ashamed to quit with all the bills I was responsible for and the family I had to feed and clothe. If I quit my job simply because I found it unsatisfying I would be irresponsible and undisciplined. But, if my job could kick me out of our relationship I could tell myself and the world that it was not my fault. I would avoid the shame of being irresponsible. And so I self-sabotaged until it happened. I put less effort into my work. I did not learn the million rules to the document review that bored me to tears every day.
Passive aggression is the primary tool a shame-based person has to get what he wants in the world. To come out and claim what he wanted would be selfish, childish and undisciplined. To be honest would risk hurting someone else’s feelings. To the shame-based it is always better to employ a strategy of plausible deniability.
Once I left my job I found myself in a position where, if I chose to, I could finally begin face the issue of shame in my life. But, in order for me to finally face my shame I could not do this through passive aggression. I had to face my shame honestly. For me, that meant I had to go back to the source of my shame, which is my parents.
This sounds condemning and critical from a shame-based perspective because shame cannot admit its faults. That is too painful and opens itself to attack. In a shame-based world there is no mercy or forgiveness. There may be the pretense of mercy because to be unmerciful is shameful but below the surface were truth resides there is none. All mistakes, faults and flaws are punished and leave a permanent mark that can never be erased. So for me to say the source of my shame is my parents is very difficult. To say this is being ungrateful for all the good they did for me. To say this is to be disrespectful to my parents, which is something that a good son would not do. To say this would hurt their feelings and would be selfish of me. All these moral precepts were instilled in me by my parents. All these precepts (whether true or not) are my shame’s way of keeping me from facing my shame. So, in order for me to face my shame I had to see clearly and honestly what my parents had done to me. In order to do this I had to see clearly and honestly that this shame did not come from a place of love. That is not to say that they did not have love for me but rather the shame they instilled into me did not come from love.
Of course I did not know any of this before my wife, our two daughters and I moved in with my parents. But I was in a position to find out. I had finally reached the rock bottom of my shame. I was 39 years old, unemployed and living with my parents in my childhood home. I was so humiliated that I was laid off and could no longer afford the mortgage on my house. I was so ashamed that my wife and I were not getting along. I was so utterly ashamed that I could not afford to buy my kids the things and the lives I thought they should have.
I had hit rock bottom and there was nowhere to go from there but up. To go up from there, however, required effort and understanding. Thank God I received the teaching that gave me the understanding. Thank God I developed the courage to put forth the effort and truly face shame.