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A Tale of Two Defiers

A Tale of Two DefiersShelley, a 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 parking tickets.

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 6 years old when she vowed to never end up in her mother’s position. She wouldn’t tolerate being berated, put down or shut up.

Shelley 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 calls 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.

Now let’s take a look at another style of defying: the passive-aggressive. Jerry, a 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 it 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. He 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 being 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 calls 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 gave it a second thought.)
  • “I did my homework.” (Yes, but only his math homework.)
  • “I’m doing my homework right now.” (After ten minutes, he returned to his game.)
  • “Don’t worry. I’ll clean up my room.” (Never specified when.)
  • “That project isn’t due till next week.” (Put off responsibilities until the last minute.)
  • “As soon as I finish these other things.” (Always a reason as to why he can’t do it now.)

No matter how angry his mother would get, there was nothing much she could do; 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 it in others. Want to learn more about how to curb your defiance? Here are a few strategies that might be helpful to you:

  • Work with your team, not against it.Things tend to get accomplished faster and easier when you function as a team player, not as a rebel bucking the system. Though teams are often thought of in terms of sports, many other teams exist. A family is a team. Indeed, when a family is called ‘dysfunctional,’ it’s because they’re not acting the way a team should — pulling together for a common purpose. Work groups are teams, as are community groups. Think about being a part of the team instead of apart from the team.
  • Choose your battles carefully, weighing what’s really worth fighting for.Reserve your acts of rebellion for important issues. Maybe there is a situation in which you truly are being taken advantage of. Or a rule that is clearly discriminatory. Or an environmental issue that’s offensive to your morality. For these types of situations, be a rebel. But don’t be a rebel without a cause. Though you may think of yourself as a trailblazer, make sure you’re not fooling yourself. Many a narcissist masquerades as a rebel, their dissent based on nothing deeper than: I don’t want to do it.
  • Limit your whining and complaining.A little whining may actually improve your outlook on obligations. After all, life can be difficult. When things don’t go your way, you need to find some way to let off steam. You complain, you grumble, you tell your story to one or two empathetic friends, presto, you feel better. But whining that goes on day after day; well, that’s a whine of another color. Hence, if your goal is to be a winner, you must limit your whining. When you’ve reached your limit, you may be stymied as to what else to do if you’re still feeling frustrated. Here are a few suggestions:

    When problems arise, look for solutions.

    When disappointments occur, accept them as letdowns, not defeats.

    When others annoy you, shrug it off.

    When a situation needs to be addressed, speak up.

  • Mean what you say and say what you mean.This advice is especially relevant for passive-aggressive defiers. Think before you speak. Avoid saying what others want to hear just to appease them. Don’t commit to doing a task if you don’t intend to do it. If you do commit then later change your mind, take responsibility for that change by telling the person involved.
  • Do what needs to be done.Be in charge of yourself. Don’t wait until you fall behind, creating a need for a parental figure to berate you, punish you or nag you about your responsibilities. If you need a reminder (and who doesn’t), use technology. Gadgets can beep you, buzz you, and gently remind you about what you need to do. If you’re the non-tech type, Post-it notes, calendar reminders, even scribbled notes on your desk can work. Which appeals to you? Figuring out a way to remind yourself of your obligations or waiting until an authority figure berates you (which then triggers your defiance).
  • Apologize if you haven’t done something you said you would.A lot of defiers hate making apologies. They equate it with a loss of power or defeat. An apology is nothing so repugnant. It’s simply a courtesy, a way to indicate that what you did or didn’t do negatively affected someone else. It may also be a prelude toward renegotiating what didn’t work out, as in, “I apologize for not returning your call sooner; do you have time to talk now?”

Letting go of your defiance is empowering. Why? Because defiance is a reaction to what someone else wants. When you act (not react), you choose your response, not rebelliously but based on your reflections on how to deal with the situation.

© 2014

A Tale of Two Defiers

Linda Sapadin, Ph.D

Dr. Linda Sapadin, psychologist, success coach and author is proud to announce the publication of her new book, Overcoming Your Procrastination: College Student Edition – Advice for 6 Personality Styles available on Amazon. Now more than ever with remote learning, this book is a must-have. If you’re a perfectionist, dreamer, worrier, crisis-maker, defier or please, grab your copy. No longer a student? Get my book How to Beat Procrastination in the Digital Age – 6 Change Programs for 6 Personality Styles. Visit to subscribe to my free e-newsletter. Contact her at

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APA Reference
Sapadin, L. (2018). A Tale of Two Defiers. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 25, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 30 Apr 2014)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.