Emily Woods always wanted to serve a mission. She submitted her papers immediately after turning 19 and was called to serve in Paraguay for 18 months.
“Everything was perfect,” the blonde and cheerful Woods said. “I felt like I was in the right place, but then I woke up one morning, and I didn’t have an appetite or any urge to get out of bed.”
What started as a lack of appetite and energy turned into a deep spiral of depression for Woods. Just six months into her mission she was sent home due to medical concerns. Woods expected her friends to welcome her home with open arms. The exact opposite occurred.
“I remember just needing support and love from the people I cared about,” Woods said. “But coming home early from your mission is treated like a taboo. Those people would come up to me, put their hand on my shoulder and say, ‘You know what, some people just can’t handle missions, but we still love you.'”
Those comments Woods sustained soon became constant inquiries about when she would return to her mission.
“It was like my health wasn’t even important to them,” Woods said. “I felt like everyone was telling me I failed.”
Woods is just one of many LDS students at BYU who have been victims of passive-aggressive behavior.
According to a study done by Michael J. Stevens, a psychology professor at Weber State University, Mormon students who attend school along the Wasatch Front overwhelmingly resort to passive-aggression as a response to conflict resolution.
Even in an attempt to be polite, some students end up exhibiting passive-aggressive behaviors. Furthermore, students hide behind social media outlets and personal beliefs to justify this behavior. Instead of avoiding conflict, students create more conflict and hurt relationships instead of helping them.
“Passive-aggression is the least common response option to conflict among the U.S. population at large,” said Stevens. “Typically, it’s viewed as an inadequate and unconstructive strategy in the long run. They want the conflict to simply go away, but the conflict isn’t going away, and these students need to learn how to face it head on.”
Causes of passive-aggression
Nea Hughes, a BYU student from Texas, sat in her Sunday school class listening to her teacher, who was moving away and being released, give her last lesson. The teacher decided to share personal advice with each member of the class.
Hughes was investigating the church and thought this was a tradition for each teacher to pass along advice after their last lesson. She listened intently and was excited for what the teacher had to say to her. What came out of the teacher’s mouth shocked Hughes.
“She told me that I was coming to church for the wrong reasons and that I had to figure it out or I was going to be a miserable member of the church,” Hughes said. “I was dumbfounded, and she was lucky I didn’t let that drive me away.”
Hughes felt shocked and embarrassed. She didn’t have a chance to confront the teacher about it, because she was moving. “She sent me a letter when I got baptized apologizing for what she said,” Hughes said. “I forgave her, but I thought that was poor tact on her part.”
A characteristic of passive-aggressive behavior in Mormon students is to use personal beliefs and church teachings to justify conflict avoidance. LDS scriptures teach members that “he that hath the spirit of contention is not of me, but is of the devil.” Some members take this as a commandment to avoid confronting any form of disagreement, even when they are uncomfortable or unhappy with the situation. They will then inflict the “spirit of contention” by finding an indirect way to address the issue, according to sunstonemagazine.com.
Some may complain about an issue on social media after a worship service. Others may not mention any names, but they will write long blog posts about an issue or discuss them secretly to friends. Many BYU students have had roommates disagree with them via text or through a note left on a pillow.
BYU faculty member and professor of psychology Phillip Rash works closely with freshman students who struggle with passive-aggressive behavior during their first year.
“Many of these students are away from home for the first time,” Rash said. “They don’t have their moms telling them when to read their scriptures or say their prayers. They are masters of their own spiritual lives, and some feel that to be obedient they can’t have conflict.”
This behavior can cause an internal battle for some students, because they may associate with people who live a bit differently than they do. Some think their beliefs are everyone’s beliefs, and when they see something contrary to their beliefs, they want to say something about it, according to Rash.
“But they don’t go about it in the right way, because they think they are breaking a commandment by bringing it up,” Rash said.
What students can do
The LDS church has many members that come from different backgrounds and opinions. Students who come to BYU are exposed to those different backgrounds and must learn to cooperate.
Nick Ortiz, a psychology student who works closely with Rash, recommended that students actively resolve any problems or conflicts they face with roommates.
“It’s simple; they need to talk it out together constructively,” Ortiz said. “If students keep acting this way, contention will always be there, and they won’t learn how to communicate effectively.”