Passive-aggressiveness refers to an indirect communication style through which a person exhibits a disconnect between what they say and what they mean or feel. For example, someone may be passive-aggressive if they say everything is fine when it seems obvious they’re upset. Passive-aggression can also mimic people-pleasing, where a person tries to accommodate others despite having resentment or animosity toward them.1
What Is Passive-Aggressive Behavior?
People who act passive-aggressively struggle to be assertive with their needs and feelings. They typically want to avoid conflict or maintain some sense of control in a relationship. Instead of sharing what’s honestly on their mind, the behavior can range from mild, snarky comments to gaslighting or emotional manipulation.
Passive-aggressive behaviors can include:
- Giving the silent treatment
- Procrastinating a project (knowing that it affects others)
- Giving backhanded compliments
- Using sarcasm or snarky comments
- Subtly or “politely” talking about topics, knowing it makes others comfortable
- Pretending you don’t know how to do something to avoid doing it (often known as weaponized incompetence)
7 Examples of Passive-Aggressive Behavior
People can be passive-aggressive in all different kinds of relationships, including romantic, platonic, work, and familial. However, the behavior is not always consistent. For instance, some people may only be passive-aggressive in certain settings or under specific stressors.
Here are seven examples of passive-aggressive behavior:
- A partner intentionally acting confused about your boundaries in a relationship
- A coworker insisting they can’t complete an assignment, but doing so anyway
- A friend saying your new haircut “makes you look so much younger” as a backhanded compliment about your age
- A friend ignoring your texts and insisting they didn’t see them
- A parent sarcastically telling their toddler that they are such a dream child during a tantrum
- A loved one insulting you and then insisting they were just kidding
- A boss insisting that they told you about a task, even though you know they didn’t
What Causes Passive-Aggressive Behavior?
Passive-aggression is a form of underlying anger and insecurity, and is used to intentionally conceal a person’s true emotions. This communication represents a pattern of avoidance behaviors. Passive-aggressive people often feel anxious or unsettled in a relationship, or want to gain more power and control.2
Personal Mental Health Struggles
People who are passive-aggressive may be experiencing underlying mental health issues like depression or anxiety. The behavior often becomes a pattern for dealing with social distress or relationship insecurity. Additionally, passive-aggression can also coincide with personality disorders, particularly borderline, histrionic, narcissistic, and antisocial personality disorders.
Passive-aggressive communication can run in families. Families may routinely deny emotional expression and pretend as if their real anger doesn’t exist. Or, they only allow or enable one person to express anger. If caregivers are passive-aggressive, children may grow up learning that engaging in such behavior is acceptable for meeting their needs. Likewise, they may have been raised within a family dynamic where assertiveness is perceived as selfish or cocky, thus reinforcing the problematic behaviors.
Certain situations may call for different emotional expressions, which may explain why someone acts passive-aggressively only at specific times. For example, someone may feel confident in most of their relationships, but still feel inadequate when with their mother. As a result, they may act passive-aggressively with her, because they don’t feel safe expressing their true emotions in her presence. Or, a new boss may feel inferior in their role. So, instead of telling their team exactly what work needs to be done, they don’t articulate their expectations clearly, and then they become upset when employees don’t perform efficiently.
Fear of Confrontation
A fear of confrontation also often coincides with passive-aggressive behaviors, which is typically seen in those who are people pleasers. In these cases, a person doesn’t want to stir the pot, but they also can’t completely hide their anger or frustration. This pattern frequently fuels further relationship conflict. The recipient of the passive-aggression can generally sense something is wrong, but they could feel uncomfortable addressing it directly.
In abusive relationships, one or both partners may become passive-aggressive. Perpetrators may use these behaviors to intentionally confuse or irritate another person. They tend to engage in gaslighting, silent treatment, and backhanded compliments. Moreover, they may oscillate between aggression, passive-aggression, and assertiveness to further complicate the dynamic.3
Victims may engage in passive-aggressiveness, because they feel it’s the only safe way to stand up for themselves. They might also mirror their abusers, because the outcomes seem more effective than being assertive.
People with low self-esteem may act passive-aggressively, because they don’t have the confidence to express their needs confidently. This pattern commonly correlates with other risk factors, such as people-pleasing, fearing confrontation, and experiencing anxiety or depression symptoms.4
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How to Recognize Passive-Aggressive Behavior
Sometimes passive-aggressive behavior is incredibly apparent–other times, the behavior is more covert. But, when you’re involved with someone who acts passive-aggressively, you will typically find yourself feeling annoyed or confused. You seem to know something is wrong, but you may not exactly be sure what’s really going on.
Here are some signs of passive-aggressive behavior:
- They seem visibly distraught but refuse to tell you why (or they say “I’m fine”)
- They use nonverbal cues that express annoyance (rolling their eyes, sighing, walking away)
- They frequently complain about feeling undervalued or underappreciated without going into specifics
- They seem to keep tabs on how often they feel wronged or hurt
- They act as if any positive behavior is a significant favor or compliment
- They insist they’re over an argument, when it’s clear they’re still upset
- They get upset or defensive when someone wants to have a direct discussion
Effects of Passive-Aggressive Behaviors
Passive-aggressive behaviors feel frustrating, confusing, and stressful for the other people involved. These feelings tend to be universal, whether you’re in a professional or personal environment. Because passive-aggression may occur suddenly, those on the receiving end can feel like they’re constantly walking on eggshells. Miscommunication tends to be a frequent pattern, and it may seem like you “can’t win” no matter what you say or do.
For example, someone might become increasingly frustrated when their partner behaves passive-aggressively. Over time, this pattern can result in ongoing communication problems and even relationship burnout. Passive-aggression also impacts children tremendously. Constantly trying to guess a parent’s emotional state can coincide with parentification, internalized child guilt, and attachment problems.
How to Deal With a Passive-Aggression Person
Although dealing with passive-aggression can feel exhausting, it’s important to learn how to effectively handle it. You don’t want to act the same way–that only perpetuates more toxicity.
Here are some helpful tips to consider when dealing with passive-aggressiveness:
Express Your Feelings
You have an inherent right to share your thoughts and feelings with other people–downplaying or ignoring them often enables problematic behavior. Try addressing someone with phrases like, That comment hurt my feelings, or When you give me the silent treatment, it makes me feel confused and undervalued.
Identify the Specific Behavior That Bothers You
Model being direct by highlighting the particular behavior you want changed. For example, you might say, I really don’t like when you give me the silent treatment, or, You told me you weren’t upset, but then you rolled your eyes. That’s confusing to me. There’s a chance the other person might respond with even more passive-aggression. However, you’re still asserting your needs and refusing to give into the manipulation.
Aim to Stay Calm
Passive-aggression can be a covert attempt to gain attention and solicit emotional reactions. Providing a heightened response can escalate the other person’s behavior. Instead, aim to stay neutral when you respond. Don’t yell, criticize, or get defensive (even if you feel tempted to do so).
Take a Break
If someone continues to act passive-aggressively with you, it’s perfectly reasonable to cool down or walk away. This strategy is typically better than reacting defensively. Wait until you’re in a calmer mindset to approach the situation again.
Avoid Taking Things Personally
Remember, passive-aggressive behavior stems from another person’s issues, not yours. If you frequently become offended or take things personally, you may unknowingly enable their patterns. Remind yourself that you don’t have to accommodate someone who’s being passive-aggressive with you. By staying objective, you can maintain your composure and control over the situation.
Praise & Reinforce Assertiveness
Many people act passive-aggressively when they don’t believe they have another viable communication option. You can affirm positive behaviors with comments like, I really appreciate you telling me what’s on your mind, or Thank you so much for being honest with me.
How to Stop Being Passive-Aggressive
If you identify personal passive-aggressive behaviors within your relationships, it’s important to take steps to change them. Passive-aggression can erode trust and security–over time, it can make you feel isolated and disconnected from others. Although assertiveness can feel intimidating, it gets easier with practice.
Here are some tips on how to avoid using passive-aggressive behaviors:
- Recognize your patterns: Try to cultivate insight into how, when, and with whom you’re passive-aggressive with. This awareness is important for developing a plan for change.
- Validate your anger: Recognize that it’s okay to feel angry or upset about a situation. By honoring this feeling, you may be more likely to express it accurately to others.5
- Practice self-expression with safe people: Try to get in the habit of being assertive with people who will be receptive to it. Eventually, this can translate to you feeling more comfortable with practicing it in other settings.
- Focus on making little changes: Changing communication patterns takes time. Instead of assuming you’ll never be passive-aggressive again, focus on making small improvements individually.
- Hold yourself accountable: The next time you are passive-aggressive with someone, identify the behavior and apologize for it. Try to avoid becoming defensive about why you acted that way–the goal is to practice a more mature way of communication.
- Reevaluate certain relationships: If you feel like you can’t stop being passive-aggressive with a certain person, the relationship may need new boundaries. Or, it could be a sign that you’re in an unsafe or unhealthy dynamic, and you need to maintain more distance.
Can Therapy Help?
Therapy can help people overcome passive-aggressive behaviors and difficulties within their communication styles. Receiving professional help can teach you about the triggers contributing to your passive-aggression, while also introducing you to new ways to assert your emotional and personal needs. For example, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) practitioners often use assertiveness training to help clients recognize and advocate for their needs.
If the passive-aggression exists primarily within the context of a romantic or familial relationship, couples therapy or family therapy may help. These therapists examine the entire relational system to explore why your behavior occurs, and how it can be changed. If this is the case, consider finding a therapist with experience in systemic therapy.
Overcoming deeply-entrenched unhealthy communication patterns can be challenging. If you act passive-aggressively, having an awareness of this problem is the first step toward addressing it. With time, effort, and willingness, you can change your behaviors. If you feel stuck with what to do next, consider reaching out for professional support.
For Further Reading
- 15 Best Books on People Pleasing
- Best Books on Communication
- The Angry Smile – Life Space Crisis Intervention