Don’t You Hate it When Someone Says They’ll Do Something, but Don’t. Ever

I so enjoyed writing about psychopaths last week that I decided to take a look at some other personality disorders. They’re a fascinating bunch of behaviors that drive the rest of us ‘normies’ totally crazy.  The problem is, as we noted with Psychopaths, often people with these disorders live very ordinary lives although the people around them usually are frustrated, confused and angry.

Passive Aggressive Personality Disorder is no longer included in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic Manual.  I’m not sure why it was dropped, (I think it’s up for more study) but que sera.  People with this cluster of traits are still hard to live or work with.

By the name, you can probably tell some of the symptoms of this disorder. On the one hand, these people are very easy to get along with.  They’ll agree to almost anything.  But, try to get them to finish anything.  Good luck.

Their behavior is contradictory and inconsistent. On the one hand, they’re extraordinarily agreeable but on the other, their performance is sadly lacking and can sometimes be damaging.  It’s all about looking good but remaining in control.

People with this cluster of symptoms usually avoid as much responsibility as they can. They may be master procrastinators, never finishing anything. Or they may claim chronic forgetfulness. And lastly they usually perform your requests in a totally incompetent manner.  They’re very good at completing things on their list, but you’ll rarely get anything out of them.

The simplest way to tell if you’re dealing with a Passive Aggressive person is to listen carefully to them.  If you hear “I’m sorry” regularly, odds are you’ve been caught in their smiling web of inefficiency.

A common symptom is chronic lateness (don’t go ballistic because you’re always late – there may be other reasons for your behavior).  And of course this is always accompanied by a sincere and meaningful apology. Until next time when they’re late again. One of the clues that you’re dealing with someone who has this disorder is when you start telling them events start earlier than fact – so that you have a chance of them arriving on time.

Another cluster of symptoms is blaming, complaining and making excuses. Passive Aggressive people always have a reason for their failure. It’s always somebody else’s fault.  At a minimum, their failure is because of their poor memory.  I once had a client whose husband ‘forgot’ to tell her her brother was in the hospital.  Not his fault, he forgot.  And he was so sorry.

Some people with this disorder go through life with a perpetual smile on their faces.  You would never know to look at them, that they’re angry and resentful at you and will do anything to make you look silly, foolish or incompetent by their failure to follow through. And it is hard to see their stubbornness for what it is – a desire to do anything that will make you look bad.

Other are openly angry and resentful – of the power they give you, of your supervisory role in the company or your bigger house.  Whatever. The cause of the anger and resentment is irrelevant.

Another common statement from these folks is “I can’t”. What they should add is “I won’t, because I fear I might fail”. Since everything is a competition to these folks and the risk of failure is the most important aspect of every decision they make, they rarely try anything new.  Rather there’s always an excuse for why they won’t do something new (this can even extend to trying new foods), whether those reasons make sense or not.

So think of a smiling, cheerful woman, who is always helpful.  She is around all the time, volunteers regularly and enjoys the prominence of being part of the team.  BUT she over promises and under-delivers every time. Maybe she says she got sick. Or misunderstood. Or her cat/dog/son/niece got sick. There’s always a reason why she doesn’t follow through on her commitment and inevitably, her failure makes you look bad.  Worse, if you bring her pattern of behavior to her attention, she’ll be hurt and angry. And tell the world.

Nice, isn’t it?

Now remember, no diagnosing your siblings or in-laws.  That’s not fair. I’d love to hear if you’ve met or dealt with people like this. Is there a way to make this type of person a minor character in a book?  Would you want to?


About Louise Behiel

Author, coach, therapist, mother and grandmother. I'm on a spiritual journey and consciously work to grow every day.
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54 Responses to Don’t You Hate it When Someone Says They’ll Do Something, but Don’t. Ever

  1. For YEARS I’ve tried to figure out someone in my life. I’ve read books, I’ve researched…and you just hit the nail on the head in one short, clear, easy-to-read article. Thank you, Louise. LOL…now I just have to figure out if there’s a more effective way to deal with this person. Would I put one in a story? Absolutely. This would be the character that drives someone to the brink of murder. 🙂

    • You’re welcome. These are very frustrating people to deal with – not dangerous, except that they tend to drive those around them to murder and mayhem. The trick is not to ask them of anything – because they usually won’t deliver anyway. We end up frustrated and angry which is predictable because of who we’re dealing with.

      • Definitely learned to never ask a long time ago because I like keeping my blood pressure in the normal range, lol.

        Reading through the other responses, I agree that these people are victims. That’s what bugs me the most. I do not deal well with people who can’t take responsibility and blame everyone else every time they screw up. Can’t handle whiners very well. 🙂

        And I’m like Roxy. I’ve heard the term most of my life, but guess I didn’t understand what passive/aggressive really was. I would picture protesters laying on the ground, not moving a muscle, and being dragged away by police (I don’t know why).

  2. Love the post and I think these are so helpful for our writing in coming up with truly flawed characters. Do I EVER know my share of passive aggressive people…they are the most frustrating because they think themselves blameless and victims and nothing you say will ever make them change their minds. I try distancing myself! LOL!

  3. Oh, yeah. Know a few of these. Never on time. So, so sorry. yada yada yada. As always, I give them too many chances to drive me crazy before I say, “enough!” 🙂

  4. Gerri Bowen says:

    Loved this post, Louise. Yes, I’ve known people like this. The hardest part is realizing that either you accept them and go crazy, or say good-bye. I finally said good-bye. Don’t regret it and wish I’d done it years earlier.

  5. terryspear says:

    Ohmigosh, I was thinking as soon as I saw this subject on the post, I need to post the winners of my contest!!! So thanks! Sometimes a little reminder is all we need. It is hard dealing with someone who is chronically late. We all get there on time, and for one person, we say, she’ll be here in 15-20 minutes. Or with another, I set the clocks ahead one year, so did my husband, and he was so mad because he was actually 30 minutes early to work that day, instead of his usual half an hour late. Oops. LOL!

    • Oops is right. it is frustrating when someone is chronically late. and yet, they have an excuse every time. If they’d see themselves as the rest of the world sees them, they’d stop that behavior immediately. Thanks for stopping by Terry.

  6. What a great post. I know people who are always late, but it’s because they have small children. lol I do say I’m sorry once in a while just to admit I’m wrong. Do I do it too much? No! Do I procrastinate? Well, maybe! I’m getting old and slowing down. lol Okay, Louise, I have to admit some of your post hit too close to home now. It would never have applied to me when I was young though. Smile!

    • I think that’s true for all of us Sandy I forget I don’t move as fast, or think as fast, as I used to and sometimes aren’t as productive as I’d like. thanks for stopping by.

  7. Stacy Green says:

    My husband works with one of these. It’s a royal PITA and very draining for everyone around them. I often wonder if they thrive off the effects of their chaos or are even aware of what they’re doing. And my villain in my current WIP is passive aggressive among other things. It’s a fascinating disorder, and it is surprising it was removed from the journal. Thanks for doing such a great job of breaking it down for us, Louise!

    • Stacy, Passive Aggressive people are a royal PITA. I don’t think some of them realize their effect on the rest of the world. Others are aware and they thrive on the chaos. What I find interesting is that we can tell them and tell them and tell them and nothing. I have had several couples in for counseling and when one of the partners has this disorder, it results in chaos. I recommended that they come in two cars, because she was always late. He and I would start on time and then she’d fly in. I refused to go over what she’d missed. a 2PM appointment means 2PM. After about 6 weeks, she exploded at me. And then we had a discussion about her choices. Interesting to me, she was never late for an appointment again. The point is that she had to pay the price for being late. Passive aggressives always find other people to deal with the outcome of their disorder. When we stop ‘carrying their share’ (often easier said than done, I know), they have a chance to get better. But don’t hold your breath.

  8. Louise – this is really interesting. I love your term “their smiling web of inefficiency” – what a perfect description. And that was so FUNNY – asking the couple to come in separate cars! A beautiful solution.
    I do my best to avoid this character and usually do. Occasionally I get caught, but only once. Then I never depend on them again. Thanks for an excellent post.

  9. susielindau says:

    I have known people like that and have been caught waiting for them. It took me a long time to realize they would never show up. I think it is especially hard if you are the reliable type. I am not sure that it is always passive aggressive behavior. Do you think it could be mild depression? Looking back, these women were extremely stressed out with their home situations…

    You bring up an interesting point and I will have to think about narcissism as a possible personality disorder in the book I am writing now. I am thinking about making it a trilogy so it might be fun to explore mental health issues in developing characters in the next! It may simplify the motivations…Great idea!

    • personality disorders abound, Susie. they’re easy to write into a character’s make up. And yes, sometimes being chronically late is a sign of something else – but when the behavior is part of their makeup and/or majority of the ‘symptoms’ are present then it’s time to pay attention,.

  10. Jill James says:

    There is always one of these people on every committee I have ever served on. She is Suzy Cheerleader, throwing out the most impossible suggestions, whipping everyone into a frenzy, and then failing to follow through.

  11. Roxy Boroughs says:

    We’ve all heard the term passive aggressive, but until now I didn’t quite understand it. Thanks.

  12. Tawny Stokes says:

    Oh I know tons of passive agressive people. I probably am borderline PA. 🙂

  13. Veronica Roth says:

    Perhaps we all have PAPD to some degree. Aspergers also. Um..obsessive compulsive, manic depressive and, in my case, dyslexia, or whatever the new and PC term for that is. My custom is, if I can’t tolerate someone and term him/her “crazymaker”, (Julia Cameron) then I back off. But, I can see is as a huge benefit for a character to come in contact with an antagonist like this. Could wind the plot in 17 million directions trying to have your protagonist deal.

    • I totally agree – I think we all have somy level of dysfunction and of course I’m talking about the extremes. But a character with this cluster of personality traits would be good fodder for conflict and chaos. Isn’t Julia Cameron’s work wonderful? I love it. It’s relatively easy to read and understand.

      thanks for stopping by

    • Sandy says:

      Veronica, I have a great-nephew (soon to be 13) who has Aspergers. Everything has to be so perfect with him. He’s a genius, but his mom, my niece, worries about him being on his own when he’s an adult.

  14. DL Snow says:

    Yes, I’ve known plenty of people like this. This does NOT describe you, though Tawny. You do what you say and you say what you mean. However, reading the post I had a little niggling worry too wondering if this didn’t describe me a little bit. Yikes! Louise, what causes these sorts of behaviors?

    • Everyone has a little of these behaviors, but the disorder is limited to those on the far end of the spectrum – otherwise we’d all be normal. How many times have you known someone who constantly sabotaged themselves but always had an excuse. They were perfectly capable, gifted even, but never seemed to achieve their own goals but it was always someone else’s fault. Never theirs.

      As for what makes this disorder, No one really knows. If you grow up in a household with high demands and high expectations and you’re never good enough, you might get this way. Maybe you’re born with this. Definitley more research is needed. What i think is sad is that these people limit their own accomplishments and success so that they can ‘get’ back at someone else. What a huge loss, for them and their loved ones.

  15. I’ve lived with this kind of person. I also learned a lot about exactly what enabling is. So I stopped compensating, stopped rescuing, stopped covering up. Sometimes love hurts.

    • me too. and yes, sometimes love hurts. Good for you for recognizing the behavior and stopping.

      • collib says:

        I grew up with a (likely) PA parent and it makes me wonder what impact it has on the children. Maybe it would be a good motivation for a hero or heroine – although it sounds like the person with PAD is incurable, but what about the child of that relationship? I’m probably completely nuts 😉 but is that ‘normal’ under the circumstances???

        • Of course, I don’t diagnose but if you step out of your family and consider a family where a parent doesn’t follow through and is unreliable and imagine a child who feels responsible, in her own way, to pick up the pieces or wants to be sure she’s is never caught in that spiral. In either picture, it would be logical for that daughter to go out and succeed at all costs – she’s deal with things that are logical and consistent and she’d work her tail off to have the success that she believes another is capable of but never delivered.

          I don’t think that’s nuts, I think it’s logical and highly likely.

  16. Glad that others saw themselves in this, as I did. I’m always late. It’s got so I don’t set times – use a walk-in haircutter, etc. I hate ticking my life off in minutes, don’t even own a watch – I’m an impulsive person who tends to get caught up in things and totally forget time, and I’m sick of feeling guilty about it. If someone wants to drop me as a friend over that, I’m okay with his/her decision. There are worse character flaws. (This sounds like making excuses to those of you who are fanatically punctual, I bet. Shrug. At least, I never mind if anyone’s late for meeting me, either.)
    On the other hand, if I commit to doing something, you can 100% count on my being there 5-10 minutes late, and staying an hour or three extra if needed to clean up or whatever.
    I can be forgetful, too. (not about ‘your brother’s in the hospital’ but lots of minor things which may not seem minor to others) and I HATE trying new foods. My taste buds are not adventurous. (Love to try white-water rafting sometime, though.)
    And I expect everyone, at some time or other, has heard themselves blaming, complaining, procrastinating or making excuses. I know I have cringed to hear these coming from my lips at times.
    I didn’t relax until you mentioned the underlying anger and resentment issues. Whew! I think I’m free of those. I couldn’t hold a grudge if I tried. (I have tried; I can’t do it. I explode if justified and then forget about it.)
    Maybe PA was dropped from the APADM because so many of the symptoms are common to every honest person, and it’s hard to measure exactly when these symptoms become so habitual they are a disorder. Maybe the real problem is the person’s afraid of conflict, and if we don’t get it out one way, we will express it in another, possibly more destructive, way?
    My mother-in-law was never late, she had different symptoms, but behind her sweet facade she was pure poison. And behind the poison, was her own insecurity and lack of self-esteem. Didn’t make it easier to swallow, I can tell you, even though from a distance I pitied her. Because these people are themselves as or more miserable than they make others.

    • Thanks for sharing your experience, Jane. You’re absolutely right – we all have some of these symptoms or all of them to a limited degree. Where the disorder comes from is when we live our lives wanting more but being unwilling to put ourselves out there to get it done. Along with the behavior comes an underlying lack of esteen and fear of risk (real or perceived). There isn’t a single entry in the DSM that doesn’t apply to all of us – to some degree. In the official lingo, there are quanitifiers and time lines and very formal language. I know from my experience that this is a hard one to live or work with. The failure to complete things, the constant apologizing, the forgetfulness are crazy making. I’m not talking the casual little things we all forget (during menopause I hardly knew my own name ) but more importantly the pattern of behavior that allows non-compliance or non-completion after agreement or volunterring. Since you are very clear that you always follow through, you don’t have PAPD – that very cue sets you apart from those poor folks and tells me you’re making choices and are in control of your life – to the degree that you choose. I too gave up wearing a watch a few years ago. I had become driving and anal about the time. Now, not so much. it’s all good.

  17. boltoncarley says:

    the worst part about being surrounded by these people is that then you end up relying solely on yourself and then people accuse you of being a control-freak when really, there’s just nobody to turn to.

    • exactly – Relationships with these folks drive us to take charge and handle everything, often to their criticism and their changes that we control everything. When I left my marriage, I rarely had a lonely day but it was because I was no longer living with this disorder. thanks for stopping by. I trust you’re taking good care of yourself in the midst of this.

  18. Hmm… Do they make grandiose promises they never keep? If so, I partnered up with one—temporarily, needless to say. It’s particularly tough to deal with this type of personality when you’re used to be a go-getter who DOES do as she says most or all of the time. I wonder if it’s not in the manual because it’s not an illness, per say, but somewhat of a choice? (Or doesn’t that matter for diagnostic purposes?) At least I THINK such people can change… But who knows, really. I do know that they won’t if we facilitate. Loving the personality posts, Louise!

    • Yes, grandiosity is part of the syndrome. they regularly seem to find partners who are doers – people who will follow through and get things done and then be criticized for being control freaks. I do believe that anyone can change is there’s enough desire. But these people generally don’t get the message that change is possible, instead they move on. Usually to another ‘control freak’ who bosses them around. LOL

  19. Characters in a book… don’t know if I’d do one, but I’m guessing Bartleby the Scribner was PA! He was so annoying, I hated that story when we had to read it in high school!

    My brother is ALWAYS late to family gatherings. I don’t think he’s PA, but my mom has theorized it’s his way of having “control” over the event and us. We usually just start eating without him (and assign him to bring dessert) LOL!

  20. Debra Kristi says:

    Now that I have written my response and deleted it several times…what if this person is a total go-getter in one environment and then completely morphs into the passive/aggressive in another? What does that make them? And their actions often make the all-the-time go-getter usually late for planned meetings and events, something they were never used to before?

    What is the person who simply won’t commit to a decision one way or the other? It’s always “maybe” or Let me think about it.”

    I know a few of these in my life and they have been very close to me. One got so bad we started telling him things started hours before they really did. Once he showed up so proud that he was on time for a change and I had to inform him he was 24 hours late. Oops.

    Dealing with these personality types is frustrating and exhausting. Your post are very insightful and enlightening. Thank you, Louise.

    • This individual must totally frustrating for you – it would drive me crazy. But actually it’s not all that uncommon. Let me paint a picture, since I’m not diagnosing…If he has a strong desire to succeed and is driven by those needs for accomplishment, recognition and financial rewards, then he will of course do really well in the corporate world. But if he is unaware of or fails to meet his emotional needs then it is not unlikely that he will become passive aggressive in his personal life. His personal code of ethics won’t allow him to fail at relationships, but his code will allow him to make life miserable for the people around him who meet those emotional needs – or want to. And sometimes, all the stuff at work that can’t come out (because of the drive to succeed) gets driving into his personal life, making the people around him crazy. The base cause of Passive Aggression is anger and frustration – that he hasn’t succeeded enough, or that these emotional demands on his time are taking him away from important things.

      this has nothing to do with your question but I offer it as a question: I wonder sometimes if having an affair isn’t a passive aggressive way of ending a marriage. I don’t want to be the bad guy and I don’t want to just say ‘I’m out of here’, so I fall in love with someone new, then can justify leaving – because I deserve to be happy. I didn’t intend this to happen. It caught me by surprise. Although the result for the other partner is devastating, it’s not my fault because I fell in love. (ignoring the fact that if I hadn’t put myself in the place of being willing to have an affair, it wouldn’t have happened.

      I don’t feel like i’ve answered your question very well, Debra, but I don’t want to get into analysis either. Feel free to follow up, if you choose.

  21. I did know a person like this, and for someone like me who feels a real sense of responsibility, it’s particularly difficult because when things didn’t get done, I was the one who had to pick up the slack. Perhaps that was enabling, but when my reputation (in this case, grade since I was in school) hung on it, I felt like I didn’t have a choice.

    • they always find us responsible ones…LOL and of course you have to make choices about how far you go and why. if you’re clear, then you’ll be fine and it sounds like you were.

  22. iamnotshe says:

    Wanted to just say “hi” but AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA! From the archives of the C family! My Go* how sorry we all are!!! 😉 Or we didn’t mean to …. YOU are overreacting. Great to be a grown-up and dealing with my own sh**! At least i can take responsibility for my faults, and save the judgment for the passive aggressive. 😉

  23. CrimeDime says:

    Great post, Louise! I love the way you explain things. So: can you come over to my office and straighten out a few of my colleagues? 😉 I truly think Passive Aggressive needs to go back in the DSM.

  24. Kourtney Heintz says:

    Terrific explanations. You really make hard concepts easier to digest. 🙂

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