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What Is Passive Aggressive Behavior and How Do You Manage It?

What Is Passive Aggressive Behavior and How Do You Manage It?

Updated on Oct 13, 2022

Passive Aggressive Behavior - Meaning, Causes, Signs, Test and More

Key Takeaways

  • Passive aggressive behavior is an indirect form of communicating negative emotions.
  • A few examples include procrastination, avoidance, backhanded compliments, and sarcasm.
  • There are certain strategies you can use to deal with passive-aggressive behaviors.

Passive aggressive behavior is indirect aggression, wherein a person expresses their negative emotions covertly. 

Sometimes, people find it difficult to communicate unpleasant feelings in a direct manner. Instead, they resort to more maladaptive ways of communicating such emotions.

Here, you will learn more about the definition, causes, examples, signs, and characteristics of passive-aggressive behaviors. You will also understand how to recognize these behaviors in yourself apart from ways to deal with people exhibiting the same.

Passive Aggressive Behavior Infographic

Passive Aggressive Behavior Infographic
Passive Aggressive Behavior – Definition & Examples
How to Manage & Stop Passive Aggressive Behavior
How to Manage & Stop Passive Aggressive Behavior

Passive Aggressive Behavior – Definition

By definition, passive-aggressive behavior is when a person does not express negative feelings openly. Instead, there is an indirect expression of these emotions. There is an incongruence between what they say and do.

Open aggression, although devastating, is easily discernible. Passive aggressive behavior, on the other hand, is difficult to spot, as it is not a direct form of aggression.

Most of us are adept at recognizing those who are openly aggressive. Even though being insulted, criticized, or denigrated by someone doesn’t feel nice, at least you are aware of why it hurts. 

However, there are instances when the people around us, including our immediate family, friends, and coworkers, make us feel uneasy but we are unsure of why. 

For instance, it might be the third time in a month that your friend makes an excuse to get out of meeting you. You convince yourself that their excuses are genuine, but you get a bad feeling.

Similarly, when someone is acting passive aggressively, they may agree with another person’s request. However, instead of following through, they will express resentment by avoiding it.

Do instances like this occur repeatedly with one or more people that surround you? If yes, you are likely dealing with passive-aggressive behavior. Such behaviors are considerably more difficult to spot than direct aggression. 

Can Passive Aggressive Behavior Be a Personality Disorder?

Passive aggressive personality disorder is a personality disorder characterized by ambivalence toward self or others. It entails a communication style wherein underlying negativism is expressed indirectly.

Passive aggressive personality disorder (PAPD) is determined by ambivalent feelings to oneself or others. It is not an official diagnosis.

Ambivalence is the phrase used to describe a person’s conflicting feelings or attitudes about themselves or a given circumstance, event, or another individual. It is considered to be chronic and typically inflexible. 

Despite having the capacity to change and pick up new habits, people with PAPD frequently continue their passive behaviors. Depending on how bad it is, PAPD can seriously hinder a person’s ability to succeed in their relationships, schooling, and employment. 

This personality disorder was proposed as a diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, and was defined as negativistic personality disorder. 

The suggested disorder, however, is not classified as a diagnostic in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition. Instead, it is listed as an example of other specified personality disorder.

There is no official medical diagnosis for PAPD. Passive aggressiveness has come to be understood as: 

  • Personality trait
  • Type of behavior 
  • Personality syndrome

Who Is a Passive Aggressive Person?

Passive aggressive people assert themselves and control situations in subtle ways as compared to aggressive people. Such conduct can prevent healthy communication and harm relationships.

A person who engages in aggressive behavior is more confrontational or openly assertive. Meanwhile, someone who is passive frequently allows others to take the lead. Therefore, a person who is passive-aggressive exercises influences over situations in a less obvious or direct manner.

There are various forms in which passive aggressive behavior crops up. Following are a few examples, which are covered in more detail in the coming sections.

  • Procrastinate when you have requested them to do something
  • Make sarcastic comments or take subtle digs
  • Ghosting or sudden disappearance
  • Indirect refusal of your request
  • Backhanded compliments
  • Making frequent excuses without directly conveying what is on their mind 

Even though they are visibly upset and not okay, a person who uses passive aggression may continually assert that they are not angry or feeling fine. 

They prevent further contact and avoid talking about the problem. They do so by rejecting what they are feeling and refusing to be emotionally vulnerable.

Causes of Passive Aggressive Behavior

In most cases, it is rather difficult to point at the exact cause of passive-aggressive behaviors. However, it can be useful to gain at least a partial understanding of why someone is behaving passive-aggressively.

Following is a list of possible reasons from which passive aggressive behaviors may stem.

1. A sense of lack of control

Most people, if not all, tend to behave in ways that they have no desire to at some point in time. Such actions can evoke hurt feelings. This agitation increases when your circumstances drive you into challenging situations.

Specifically, imagine when you need to do something that you do not want to but have to. This situation may feel beyond your control. Additionally, if you struggle to put into words the way you feel, you may try to regain control by acting on your feelings.

Most often, passive-aggressive behaviors occur when one feels powerless. It can arise when they are in a challenging situation and lack the ability to assert themselves. 

2. A fear of conflict

Understandably, a lot of individuals struggle with conflict. It is an unpleasant, tension-filled situation that can evoke a plethora of emotions. Sometimes, it is more intense in cases of close interpersonal relationships.

It is common for people to conceal their real feelings out of fear of damaging the relationship. In instances where the other party is one of authority, you may fear upsetting them. 

Therefore, to avoid conflict, criticism, and disagreements, you may end up not voicing your opinions. Consequently, this concealment or suppression results in passive-aggressive behaviors. 

3. A fear of rejection

Childhood experiences of abuse, dismissal, or neglect from family members can result in passive aggression. 

Specifically, the individual learns to protect themselves by ensuring they do not upset anyone. They go out of their way to maintain harmony and keep others happy. 

Further, such behaviors may also be learned in adult relationships. If the relationship is unfulfilling, abusive, or dysfunctional, it can lead to the development of passive-aggressive behaviors.

In all of these cases, you become accustomed to accommodating others’ needs by going along with their suggestions. If or when you want to disagree, you may end up letting off some steam in an indirect fashion. In other words, this translates into passive aggression.

4. Childhood experiences

Growing up, were you not allowed to question your primary caregivers? Were you discouraged from saying “No”? If you answered yes to these questions, it is likely that you learned other ways to call them out.

Adding to that, you may have found ways to cope with their rules that you deemed unjust, severe, or unfair. It is likely that one of the coping mechanisms was passive-aggressive behavior. This offers a way to follow through with their demands while resisting.  

Moreover, it is important to ask if, as a child, you had a strong or domineering parent or sibling. It is also necessary to understand if there was a struggle for attention, approval, and affection. Similarly, reflect on the power struggle regarding individual identity.  

Do you identify as female? While growing up, were you influenced by domineering male figures? Was there exposure to male-dominated environments, say at school, work, or even home? If yes, it could explain your passive aggression. This is particularly so if you were taught to compete instead of cooperating with fellow women.

Adding to that, social and cultural constraints that inhibit one from expressing themselves can lead to such behaviors. These constraints include gender bias, cultural discrimination, the difference in socioeconomic status, homophobia, and religious conformity.   

Along those lines, experiencing social weaknesses during the formative years can also cause passive-aggressive behaviors. These include being judged, bullied, and made fun of for one’s appearance, intellect, speech, or disability.

5. Observational learning

Further, it is possible to learn these behaviors by observing another individual. Specifically, witnessing someone deal with a dominant individual by using passive-aggressive tactics can reinforce these behaviors. 

Typically, passive-aggressive behaviors help in resisting, avoiding, or stonewalling the dominant individual. Additionally, it can also develop as a result of witnessing family members hide difficult emotions, like resentment, anger, and frustration.

These emotions are concealed but left simmering. Therefore, they result in passive-aggressive behaviors like silent treatment.  

6. Negative life experiences

In continuation of the previous point, when an individual experiences something inconspicuously harrowing, they may become passive-aggressive. 

Simply put, some experiences are noticeable enough for one to stay grounded. Their passive-aggressive instinct may then kick in at other times. For instance, a husband may unknowingly deal with his issues with his mother by being passive-aggressive to his wife.

Therefore, a fear of being dominated again can drive such behaviors. The passive-aggressiveness may serve as a resistance strategy to protect oneself from being victimized.

7. Finding it challenging to express emotions

Many individuals struggle with expressing their emotions. In fact, a lot of people find it challenging to even recognize their emotions. These phenomena are particularly true for unpleasant or uncomfortable feelings.

Such discomfort could stem from a fear of being judged or perceived negatively.  Consequently, you do not identify and share these emotions. Instead, you may end up suppressing them.

Such avoidance of direct expression can result in the emotions coming out indirectly, giving rise to passive aggression.

Imagine a leaky pipe with high-pressure water flowing through it. If you merely try to block the flow by plastering some tape over it, the pressure will build up. As this continues to happen, it will eventually start leaking.

8. Mental health conditions

Some mental health conditions have been closely tied to passive-aggressive behaviors. These include:

  • Substance Dependence or Abuse
  • Depression
  • Bipolar Disorder
  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Signs of Passive Aggressive Behavior

From the above descriptions, it is now clear that passive aggression involves a discrepancy between a person’s words and their actions. For instance, they may say that they are happy to help, but end up complaining the entire time.

Moreover, they may do things that are superficially nice, but it goes against their wishes.

Here are some specific signs of passive aggression. Knowing these will help you identify such behaviors and act accordingly. 

  • Resentment toward a person’s requests, opposing their demands. This behavior is higher in intensity when the person is one of authority
  • Pessimistic, stubborn, and hostile attitude toward people
  • Constant complaints regarding feeling underappreciated, betrayed, and misunderstood
  • Refusal to cooperate
  • When things do not go their way, they tend to pout, brood, and even give people the silent treatment
  • Procrastination
  • Intentionally delaying, committing errors, or working less efficiently to defy others’ demands 
  • Blaming others for their problems
  • Avoidance of direct, straightforward communication
  • Ignoring people’s calls and messages
  • Habit of making ambiguous or vague criticisms directed at no one specifically 
  • Withdrawing in the face of physical affection, such as hugs and kisses
  • Snapping at people for minor and unintentional mistakes
  • Showing up late to dates or canceling them at the last minute under the pretext of being busy

Characteristics of Passive Aggressive Behavior

There are a few common characteristics displayed by people who engage in passive-aggressive behavior. These individuals are typically:

  • Unreasonable to deal with
  • Seldom express their emotions directly
  • Uncomfortable to experience
  • Repeat evasive/dishonest behaviors

Additionally, the following is a list of specific traits that characterize these behaviors along with examples.

  • Veiled hostile humor – sarcasm, repetitive teasing
  • Veiled verbal hostility – gossip, invalidating people’s experiences 
  • Veiled relational hostility – silent treatment, social exclusion
  • Underhanded sabotage – purposely undermine tasks, agreements, and the like
  • Resistance – rigidity, stubbornness 
  • Victimhood – exaggerated personal issues
  • Disguised psychological manipulation – excuses, backstabbing, sending mixed signals
  • Stalling – procrastination, stonewalling 
  • Self-punishment – addiction, self-harm, deliberate failure 
  • Guilt-baiting – personal attacks, unreasonable accusations

Examples of Passive Aggressive Behavior

Following is an account of some examples of passive-aggressive behavior.

1. Lateness

Lateness in and of itself does not passive aggression, considering most individuals tend to be late from time to time. Therefore, what makes lateness passive-aggressive boils down to two incidents.

First, the commonality of lateness makes it an effective form of passive-aggressive behavior. Specifically, it provides plausible deniability to the individual claiming to have had an emergency, lost track of time, and so on. 

Second, frequently being late is a sign of passive aggression. It communicates a complete lack of respect or undermines the importance of a person. Moreover, it is also an effective way to avoid discomforting situations, making it a tool of passive aggression.

2. Ghosting

One of the classic types of passive-aggressive behavior. It is particularly prevalent in the dating world. Instead of taking ownership of their decision to not talk to you, they will abruptly stop talking to you. 

Specifically, they simply end all communication and contact. There is no warning or explanation. Even if you attempt to reach out or communicate, they will pay no mind to it. 

3. Weaponized kindness

On some occasions, passive-aggressive people overcompensate. They engage in supposedly kind and helpful behaviors to express their emotions. 

For instance, suppose a close one forgot to do something for them. In such cases, they express anger by doing more than necessary for them. Following this, they will display their aggression by mentioning how they could never ignore such an important task.

4. Weaponized incompetence

Weaponized incompetence is when an individual deliberately comes across as incompetent. They do so to avoid doing something they do not want to or as a means of punishing someone. 

For instance, your partner may act as if they do not know how to do a household chore so they do not have to do it. This way, they will have you step in to do it for them. 

Understandably, not everyone is fond of doing chores or household tasks. However, there is or should be an established understanding that it is shared between the partners. It would be unfair to expect one party to carry out all these tasks. 

Oftentimes, however, what happens is weaponized incompetence. One partner will claim to have no idea how to do something or that they are not good at it, so the other person picks it up. 

This form of passive aggression is most commonly found in heterosexual relationships. Specifically, the male partner feigns incompetence so the woman does most of the domestic work. 

5. Patronizing

There are times when people will passive-aggressively express themselves by being patronizing. In other words, they will appear kind and helpful. On the inside, however, they will feel a sense of superiority. 

There are several ways one may patronize you. Some of them include interruption, making comments that undermine you, and even condescending behaviors. 

For instance, they may say something and follow it with a condescending, “Do you know what I mean?” thereby undermining your intelligence. 

They will be vaguely disrespectful by addressing you as “kid,” “honey,” “chief,” and even “big guy.” Specifically, the first two nicknames are belittling by exaggerating the role a person plays. Conversely, the latter two undermine the person’s intelligence.

The bottom line with being patronizing is that they will make themselves seem superior, and you inferior. There is always an underlying sense of condescension. 

6. Making excuses

Sometimes, people will continually make excuses for their actions instead of expressing their grievances openly. They would invent justifications for doing or not doing something.

Frequently being unwell to the point where it interferes with obligations or ‘forgetting’ crucial appointments or dates are a few examples.

7. Making contemptuous comments or taking subtle digs

Taking digs, subtle put-downs, and unpleasant comments are some ways in which a person behaves passive-aggressively.

Specifically, an individual might deliberately comment on something that they know will make the other party uncomfortable or offend. For instance, they may pass judgment on their weight or dating life with the full knowledge that it is a sensitive topic.

Another instance is using another person’s history against them. For example, a partner using a past incident against you is essentially ‘digging’ at you even after years of the event. They do not let you live it down and use it against you in subtle ways.

Three elements characterize subtle digs.

  • The individual passes the comment within the context of casual conversation, so the recipient is unprepared for it.
  • The comment is derogatory and is intended to hurt the other.
  • There is a single element of truth veiled by mistruths. The recipient ends up buying into the mistruths because of the one fact at the center of it.

8. Unsolicited advice

Unasked-for opinions on sensitive subjects can come off as passive-aggressive. They are quite similar to patronizing comments. Unsolicited advice often comes across as a means of manipulation. 

When someone asks for advice, it can be very useful for them to get it. However, giving unsolicited counsel might make the other person feel inadequate and incapable of coming to their own judgments.

Examples include “I’d focus on dropping a few pounds if I were you.” or “You’ve been looking extremely tired lately, you should get more sleep.”

Unsolicited advice, especially when given frequently, can tarnish relationships. Inserting your opinions or ideas when not desired is impolite and arrogant. Further, it conveys a superior attitude because it implies the advice-giver is an expert on what is best or correct. 

9. Backhanded compliments

Backhanded compliments are insults slipped into conversations under the guise of flattery. They appear positive but entail foul qualifiers that dilute any pleasant feelings that compliments evoke.

A few examples of backhanded compliments include:

  • “I bet you looked good when you were younger.”
  • “You are really fast for your size.”
  • “You did a great job, for an intern.”
  • “If  you work hard enough, I am sure you will succeed someday.”

10. Passive aggressive body language

The same goes for passive-aggressive body language. Instead of expressing their annoyance directly, they can be pouting, crossing their arms, or rolling their eyes.

In essence, passive-aggressive behavior is any action that conveys unpleasant emotions without explicitly expressing them.

11. Indirect refusal or rejection

Another form of passive-aggressive behavior is an indirect refusal of meeting someone’s needs. For instance, if you request someone to do something multiple times. They do not say no outrightly, but they do not intend to follow through. 

This kind of avoidance can be out of spite, without communicating what is going on directly.

12. Sarcasm

In some cases, sarcastic comments are a form of passive-aggressive behavior. 

Let us suppose you invite your significant other to a night out with your friends. If they respond, “Yeah, I just love hanging out with your friends,” in a sarcastic tone, that is passive-aggressive behavior.

Instead of being straightforward about their feelings revolving around your friends, they express hostility under the guise of a funny comment.

13. Silent treatment

Unfortunately, silent treatment is often used by many to communicate their displeasure, contempt, and disapproval. It is highly likely that you have given it to someone yourself at some point. 

Silent treatment is when someone refuses to talk or even acknowledge the other party. It can happen in any relationship, be it romantic, platonic, familial, or even professional. 

In some cases, silent treatment is not as explicitly expressed. It is more subtle in that their lack of acknowledgment may seem “accidental.” It happens quite randomly and you are left wondering whether it is deliberate or unintentional.  

For instance, let us suppose at your workplace, your colleague ignores your comments. However, they do so inconsistently that you are left wondering whether it was intentional or otherwise. 

14. Avoidance

Some individuals use avoidance strategies to showcase their aggression rather than being direct about it. Following are a few examples of such behaviors.

  • Delaying getting back to someone
  • Putting off work as requested by someone
  • Avoiding specific conversations, particularly if they are aware of the other party’s interest in discussing these topics
  • Ignoring people they know at parties or other social settings
  • Avoiding returning a close one’s call or message  

How to Manage Passive Aggressive Behavior

Having received an in-depth account of passive-aggressive behavior, you may be wondering how to deal with passive-aggressive people. 

1. Recognize the signs

Use your knowledge of passive-aggressive behavior to identify when someone is behaving passive-aggressively. For instance, they may sulk, provide backhanded compliments, withdraw, avoid, refuse to communicate, or even procrastinate. 

2. Keep your anger in check

Understandably, it is frustrating to be around passive-aggressive people. However, it is important you keep your anger under control. 

Counter-aggression, as tempting as it may be in such cases, will only worsen the situation. It can potentially set off a vicious cycle of escalating aggression. 

3. Take a compassionate approach

Approach them in a non-judgmental way. You can still point out their feelings factually, but do so in a compassionate manner. When you address behaviors without seeming accusatory, people are more likely to open up. 

With that said, it does not mean they get away with it. They understand you are holding them accountable for their passive aggressiveness while giving them the space to open up.

4. Provide them space

Giving them the space to work through their feelings can be helpful for them and you. Allow them to find the opportunity to think through their emotions. 

5. Set boundaries

If the passive-aggressive person refuses to acknowledge their behaviors, it is important to draw boundaries. These will help decide what you are willing to tolerate and what you are not. 

For example, if they continue giving you the silent treatment, do not call more than a couple of times. 

6. Discuss their emotions

In essence, passive-aggressive behaviors are a masked way of expressing one’s emotions. Therefore, rather than talking about their behavior itself, try responding to their emotions. 

For instance, you can say, “I understand you are upset with me because I forgot to follow through on our plan. I want to make amends. Can we please work on it together?”

How to Stop Passive Aggressive Behavior

In some cases, it is easier to identify signs of passive aggression in others than it is in oneself. If you suspect that your behavior may be passive-aggressive, sit back and assess it objectively. 

You can prevent yourself from behaving passive-aggressively by asking yourself the following questions from time to time.

  • Do you engage in avoidance when someone has upset you?
  • When you are not happy with someone, do you often find yourself pouting? 
  • When you are upset with someone, do you ever cease talking to them? 
  • Do you put things off to punish other people? 
  • Do you make sarcastic comments to sidestep having serious talks?

There are actions you may take to modify how you react to others if you feel that your passive-aggressive tendencies are hurting your relationships. 

1. Become more self-aware

Lack of awareness of your feelings can occasionally lead to passive-aggressive behavior. As you respond to various individuals and situations, start observing how you are feeling emotionally. 

2. Recognize the reasons why you should change 

It’s crucial to understand that just because something is passive doesn’t make it any less hostile. In essence, passive aggression is an indirect kind of hostility; it is not always a more subdued one.

3. Allow yourself enough time to change

The first step toward change is acknowledging your own behaviors, yet changing your ingrained patterns and responses may take some time. As you attempt to lessen your passive-aggressive reactions, be kind to yourself. 

4. Recognize that it’s okay to feel angry

You can feel emotions that we generally classify as negative while still being a positive person. And you can harbor animosity toward something the other person did while still being a loving friend, girlfriend, boyfriend, wife, husband, parent, son, or daughter. 

5. Get comfortable speaking your mind

It’s crucial to comprehend your emotions and discover proper ways to communicate them if you want to put a stop to passive-aggressive behavior. 

Although conflict is an inevitable aspect of life, understanding how to express yourself successfully can lead to more favorable outcomes.

6. Approach confrontation more openly

Directly expressing your desires may result in conflict, but that’s not always a negative thing. Even while positivity might not be the first word that springs to mind when you think about confrontation, remember that it can be straightforward and courteous.

Passive Aggressive Behavior Test

Considering the fact that passive-aggressive behavior is not a diagnostic condition, there is no standard means of testing its presence. 

However, identifying destructive behaviors and erroneous thought patterns and changing them may be possible with the aid of a psychiatrist, psychologist, or medical professional who has experience with mental health issues. 

Other mental health problems that may coexist with PAPD may be identified or diagnosed by healthcare professionals using appropriate assessment methods.

Passive Aggressive Relationship

Behavior that is passive-aggressive might harm one’s relationship. It can be challenging to determine when your relationship is experiencing major problems because of this behavior’s subtlety. 

When You Are Passive Aggressive 

Have you found yourself unable to express your disapproval or contempt directly? Do you find indirect ways to communicate such feelings, such as by avoiding, making excuses, procrastinating, or giving silent treatment? If yes, you are likely to face relationship issues.

Finding a solution is impossible if your issues are not clearly expressed. Your partner will become confused if you act covertly rather than communicating your demands and disappointments. 

You can come to a resolution and find closure when anger is communicated in a constructive manner. Instead, if you employ passive-aggressive strategies, the anger is still present and frequently felt, but it is superficial.

This prevents things from being openly discussed and resolved and greatly irritates your partner. When your partner isn’t communicating openly with you, it is difficult to feel close to them.

When Your Partner Is Passive Aggressive

If you find your partner behaving passive-aggressively, here are a few things you can do in such cases.

  • Establish a meeting place and time with your companion. Make sure you are both at ease, without any other commitments or distractions, and that you are both calm.
  • Keep in mind that the matter at hand is passive-aggressive behavior, not feelings of anger itself.
  • Try using “I” statements. For instance, “I feel perplexed and upset about the jokes you’ve been making. I understand it is difficult, but I would rather you tell me directly about how you feel. After that, we can discuss it and I will be able to relate to your feelings.”

A Word from ThePleasantMind

Dealing with a passive-aggressive person can be difficult. This is because, in contrast to overt types of aggressiveness, it is less direct. Further, it can be challenging to address these behaviors openly without setting off a denial even when one is aware of it.

Although it can be devastating, all of us occasionally act in passive-aggressive ways. You may address passive-aggressive tendencies with the people in your life and reduce the potential harm to your own relationships.

Learning what triggers such behaviors and how to deal with them is a good start. Additionally, improving one’s communication skills can also be beneficial. 

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