Making you feel guilty doesn’t always happen (in fact, hardly ever) as angry tirades of abuse. Its effect is achieved mostly in those small offhand comments, designed to make you question your view of your actions, to make you doubt yourself.
Think of the times when others have been able to adapt your behaviour and the subtlety used. It’s not “Don’t do that!”, but “if you want to do that, then go ahead”. It’s in telling you that they don’t agree with you but they are going to take a grandstand seat to watch you do it. It’s in the lack of congratulations for your achievements but a reminder that they did it before, did it better or don’t see the point of doing it at all.
The subtlety is what makes it so dangerous – you are questioning yourself and feeling guilty and foolish and they have achieved all of that with a smile on their face. The definition of passive aggressive behaviour includes the “avoidance of direct confrontation” and it is this that can make it so difficult to spot and so difficult to counter. There is nothing for you to defend yourself against, as the words used, on the face of it, appear harmless. Once you realise how bad they have made you feel, the only thing you can do is fantastise about what you could or should have said back to them.
So what can you do against the relentless attack on who you are, on your self confidence and self worth that does not appear until it has done its damage
My advice – take what they say at face value. If it is wrapped up in complimentary language, accept the compliment. If they dare you to go ahead without their permission – do it. Don’t respond by questioning yourself but instead don’t question them and hold them to what they say. Passive aggressive works because it threatens without being threatening, due to the assumptions that are loaded into the words used. But, when you take that venom out of the words, you take the energy out of the attack.
This also turns the power back to you. In effect you are saying to them, if you want to attack me, then you need to say it loud and clear, and make it obvious, because I’m going to deliberately not respond when you try to do it subtly. It might sound strange to be inviting an outright attack but they are a lot easier to defend yourself against than charming language hiding hostility.