Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Glum Time

Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Di...Image via Wikipedia

I was at a meeting this afternoon, and I struggled mightily against my urge to be passive-aggressive. I thought that's what I was fighting against. After the meeting, I wondered if I was correctly identifying my temptation, my siren disorder of the soul. I wandered around the net a little and found this at straightdope.com.

(I)f you look under "passive-aggressive personality disorder" (PAPD) in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the older editions--more about that below), you find the syndrome solemnly described as a "pervasive pattern of passive resistance to demands for adequate social and occupational performance." But once you delve into the history of the term, you realize that--at least in the eyes of its critics--it's mostly useful as a high-flown way to call someone a pain in the ass.

The term "passive-aggressive" was introduced in a 1945 U.S. War Department technical bulletin, describing soldiers who weren't openly insubordinate but shirked duty through procrastination, willful incompetence, and so on. If you've ever served in the military during wartime, though, or for that matter read Catch-22, you realize that what the brass calls a personality disorder a grunt might call a rational strategy to avoid getting killed.

After the war the term found its way into civilian psychiatric practice and for many years was listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the bible of the mental health trade. According to the revised third edition (DSM-III-R, 1987), someone had PAPD if he displayed five or more of the following behaviors: (1) procrastinates, (2) sulks or argues when asked to do something he doesn't want to do, (3) works inefficiently on unwanted tasks, (4) complains without justification of unreasonable demands, (5) "forgets" obligations, (6) believes he is doing a much better job than others think, (7) resents useful suggestions, (8) fails to do his share, or (9) unreasonably criticizes authority figures.

Only five out of nine, and you're it? I was not comforted. But our clever writer finishes up, after suggesting that avoiding certain kinds of confrontation can be a rational act of self-defense:

Recognizing that the definition as then formulated wasn't working but uncertain how to fix it, the compilers of DSM-IV (1994) dumped PAPD from the list of official disorders and relegated it to an appendix. The most telling complaint, in my opinion, was that merely being passive-aggressive isn't a disorder but a behavior--sometimes a perfectly rational behavior, which lets you dodge unpleasant chores while avoiding confrontation. It's only pathological if it's a habitual, crippling response reflecting a pervasively pessimistic attitude--people who suffer from PAPD expect disappointment, and gain a sense of control over their lives by bringing it about. Some psychiatrists have suggested that PAPD be merged into a broader category, called negativistic personality disorder. Diagnostic criteria: passive-aggressive plus (a) mad at the world, (b) envious and resentful, (c) feels cheated by life, and (d) alternately hostile and clingy.

We'll let the specialists work out the details. For now, though, we lay folk should strive to use the term "passive-aggressive" more precisely in everyday life. Say for instance that a coworker cheerfully agrees to refrain from a specified uncool act, then does it anyway. Is this passive-aggressive behavior? No, this is being an asshole. Comforting as it can be to pigeonhole our tormentors with off-the-shelf psychiatric diagnoses, sometimes it's best just to call a jerk a jerk.

So there you (may) have it. Today I really felt like being a jerk.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]


Peter Moore said...

Much like having a "mid-life crisis" means being a self-centered jerk

....J.Michael Robertson said...

Hey, Little Mister, let's not get personal! Of course, at this stage of the game a reference to "mid life" is quite flattering.