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A Tale of Two Defiers: (Active and Passive-Aggressive)

Shelley, a twenty year old college sophomore, is an actively aggressive defier. She prides herself on being a fiercely independent person who doesn’t need or want anyone to tell her what to do. She often resorts to fighting words in her verbal outbursts:

“How could he give me such a crappy grade?”

“He’s tormenting me with that ridiculous assignment!”

“Doesn’t she know I have better things to do with my time?”

It’s not just her words that display her defiance; it’s also her actions. She feels no guilt about petty acts of defiance, like returning library books late, ignoring due dates for essays, and refusing to pay tickets for parking in no-parking zones.

It helps us to understand Shelley’s stance if we take a look at her family background. She was raised in a family in which she viewed her mother as a “doormat,” her father as a “tyrant.” Shelley was six years old when she vowed to never end up in her mother’s position. She would not tolerate being constantly berated, putdown or shut up.

defiantShelley admits to having a chip on her shoulder. But given that her thinking is dichotomous (to be dominated or to dominate), her choice is a no-brainer. What she has yet to learn, however, is that there are many ways to be in a relationship. The choice does not need to be either victim or persecutor.

As you might imagine, Shelley’s defiance creates relationship issues. As long as she’s calling the shots, relationships progress reasonably well. When others assert their rights, however, her retorts border on the abusive. Rather than viewing others as allies who offer honest feedback, she views them as controllers who threaten her personal freedom. It’s so much easier for her to express righteous indignation; so much harder for her to be introspective and open to others’ perspectives.

Now let’s take a look at another style of defying: the passive-aggressive. Jerry, a forty-two year old computer programmer views himself as a “nice guy.”  When asked to do a task, his typical response is, “no problem.”  But in the course of time, he winds up doing tasks too slowly, sporadically or halfheartedly to be effective. And on occasion, he simply dodges doing it altogether.

It also helps us to understand Jerry’s patterns if we take a look at his family background. Jerry was an only child, raised as a latchkey kid by a single mom. In his early years, she imposed on him a rigorous schedule for homework and household chores.

Though he felt she was unreasonable, he decided it was preferable to do things her way than to incur her disfavor. Though openly a compliant child, Jerry nursed a defiance that exploded (silently) as he approached adolescence. Jerry called it his “silent rebellion.” He’d agree to whatever his mom wanted but then did whatever he pleased. This, he recognized, put him in the power seat.

Jerry became skilled in using these passive-aggressive strategies:

  • “I’ll get to it in a minute, Ma.” (Never giving it a   second thought.)
  • “I did my homework.” (He only did his math homework.)
  •  “I’m doing my homework right now.” (After ten minutes, he returns to his game.
  • “As soon as I finish these other things.” (Always a reason as to why he can’t do it now.)-
  • “That project isn’t due till next week.” (He puts off responsibilities till the last minute.)

No matter how angry his mother would get, there was nothing much she could do about it. Her tirades had lost their power to intimidate him.

Such passive-aggressive behaviors are still prevalent today in Jerry’s life. He refuses to be pinned down to deadlines, won’t negotiate a compromise and won’t directly say “no”. Instead, his way of “working it out” with others is to agree, then do it his way or simply not do it at all.

Jerry’s wife says she can’t trust anything he says because he’s always got an “escape clause,” such as: “I forgot, I didn’t have the time or quit telling me what to do!”

When he’s called on his excuses, Jerry goes on the offensive saying: “Aw, come on! Why are you making such a big deal over this?”  His response implies that it’s his wife’s fault for calling him on a matter so trivial. She shakes her head in disbelief, concluding that Jerry just doesn’t “get it.”

Do you recognize either of these types of defiance in you? If you answered ‘yes,’ good. We all have a bit of defiance in us, though it’s easier to recognize  defiance in others. Want to learn more about how to change the pattern? Check out the column below for ideas.

 “If passion drive you,
let reason hold the reins.”
Benjamin Franklin

© 2014

Linda Sapadin, Ph.D. is a psychologist and success coach in private practice specializing in helping people overcome self-defeating patterns of behavior. You can reach her at

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