How to Stop Being Passive-Aggressive

Cropped shot of a young woman giving her boyfriend the silent treatment after a fight

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Passive-aggressive behavior is an attempt to control or manipulate someone without being honest about how you feel or what you want, says Aimee Daramus, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist and author of “Understanding Bipolar Disorder.”

If someone has accused you of being passive-aggressive, you may wonder what that means and what you can do to reduce this behavior.

Read ahead to learn how to be less passive-aggressive and improve your interpersonal relationships.

Examples of Passive-Aggressive Behavior

Dr. Daramus shares some examples of passive-aggressive behavior:

  • Having hidden expectations: Not telling someone what you want but being angry, hurt, or offended when you don’t get it
  • Saying one thing but meaning another: Saying something nice but in a sarcastic tone of voice, or saying something mean about someone and pretending it’s a joke
  • Giving someone the silent treatment: Ignoring someone, refusing to answer their calls, not responding to their texts, excluding them from events, saying hello to everyone but them, avoiding eye contact with them, or pretending not to hear them
  • Expressing your feelings nonverbally: Smirking or rolling your eyes while speaking to someone, or expressing your displeasure by pouting, sighing loudly, or huffing
  • Embarrassing someone: Asking someone uncomfortable questions in front of others to put them on the spot, revealing embarrassing things about them, gossiping about them to others while they’re in earshot, or telling others about issues you have with them instead of discussing them directly
  • Working against someone: Pretending to support someone but secretly hoping things don’t go their way, or actively working to undermine or sabotage them so they don’t get what they want
  • Procrastinating: Taking your own sweet time to do something for someone, pretending to forget you had to do it, or intentionally keeping someone waiting
  • Giving gifts with ulterior motives: Giving gifts that are meant to change someone instead of celebrating them, such as buying them clothing that's in your style instead of theirs
  • Giving backhanded compliments: Giving someone a compliment that’s a thinly veiled insult, such as “You look so nice today, I didn’t recognize you!” or “That hairstyle is lovely, it makes your nose look smaller”

Fun Fact

The term “passive-aggressive” was first used in a clinical context during World War II, to describe soldiers who refused to obey officers’ commands.

Characteristics of Passive-Aggressive People

These are some characteristics of passive-aggressive people as compared to people who are more direct.

Passive-Aggressive People
  • Expecting others to know what you want

  • Getting upset when things don’t go your way

  • Avoiding direct confrontation at all costs

  • Not communicating openly

  • Wanting to control others

  • Seeing others as your opponents

  • Being stubborn

  • Refusing to consider that you might be wrong

People Who Are More Direct
  • Simply asking for what you want

  • Accepting things may not always go your way

  • Telling someone why you’re upset with them

  • Communicating honestly and assertively

  • Letting go of things beyond your control

  • Empathizing with others

  • Being open-minded

  • Respecting others’ opinions and perspectives

Potential Causes of Passive-Aggression

These are some of the potential causes of passive aggression, according to Dr. Daramus:

  • Cultural factors: In some cultures, direct confrontation is rude, so sometimes a passive-aggressive approach is a more acceptable way to express difficult emotions.
  • Childhood experiences: Some children grow up in families where arguing with authority figures is discouraged, or even dangerous, so they tend to avoid confrontations as adults.
  • Fear of rejection: Being passive-aggressive can stem from insecurity and a fear of rejection. If you only hint at something, and don't ask directly for what you want or need, being rejected or ignored hurts a lot less.
  • Unrealistic expectations: Sometimes, people feel that someone who really knows them or loves them would know what they want, so they don't want to have to "spoil the romance" by discussing it. A lot of characters in love stories are passive-aggressive, and that can give people the impression that real love doesn't require open communication.

Passive-Aggressive Personality Disorder

Passive-aggressive communication and behaviors can also be a result of passive-aggressive personality disorder (PAPD). PAPD can lead to relationship dysfunction and other interpersonal issues, as the disorder is marked by vindictiveness. Although PAPD is no longer listed in the DSM-5-TR, mental health professionals might still use this term.

Ways to Be Less Passive-Aggressive

Dr. Daramus suggests some strategies that can help you be less passive-aggressive and more direct:

  • Build self-awareness: Start paying attention to your own thoughts, words, and behaviors to try and identify when you’re being passive-aggressive. Spend some time reflecting on why you’re doing it and think about what you really want instead.
  • Ask for what you want: If you simply ask for what you want, you may just get it. For example, someone who asks for a promotion and negotiates for it is more likely to get it than someone who doesn’t ask. Even if you don’t get what you want, you might get honest feedback that can help you.
  • Work on your communication skills: It’s important to learn how to communicate openly, honestly, and assertively. Identify people who communicate well and follow their example. It may also be helpful to read books or take a class on communication.
  • Express anger in healthy ways: If you’re angry or upset about something, learn to express your anger in healthy ways.
  • Empathize with others: Instead of seeing others as your opponents, try to see things from their perspective and empathize with them.
  • Let go of things beyond your control: Be thoughtful about what you should and shouldn't control. Ask yourself why you feel so strongly about things that you feel you should control. Learn to let go of things that are beyond your control.
  • Build a healthy support system: Distance yourself from people who communicate passive-aggressively and surround yourself with people who are more honest and direct. Learn how to give and receive support.

Benefits of Being Less Passive-Aggressive

Aimee Daramus, PsyD

Life is a lot less high-drama when you simply ask for what you want and say what you mean.

— Aimee Daramus, PsyD

Some of the benefits of being less passive-aggressive include:

  • Improved relationships: When you ask for what you want and can be clear, you'll help foster healthier communication patterns in all of your relationships. For example, couples who use healthy communication skills report increased relationship satisfaction.
  • Greater life satisfaction: When you can be clearer and more assertive, you're more likely to get the results you're looking for.
  • More confidence: By learning how to be more direct, yet tactful, you'll likely notice that you feel more in control of yourself and thus more confident.

Frequently Asked Questions

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can a passive aggressive person change?

    Just like with any other behavior, old habits die hard. While it may take some time for someone who is passive-aggressive to build healthier communication skills, it's possible for them to improve. A mental health professional can help guide you through these changes.

  • Is passive-aggressive behavior toxic?

    Considering the fact that passive-aggressive behavior and communication can be hurtful and damaging to any relationship, it can be deemed toxic. If you are in a relationship with someone who tends to be passive-aggressive, it may be helpful to see a couples therapist together. If someone in your family uses passive-aggressive communication, family therapy can help.

A Word From Verywell

Passive-aggression is not a healthy way to communicate your feelings. If you’re upset or angry about something, it can help to discuss it openly and honestly, rather than pretending that nothing’s wrong and showing your displeasure in other ways.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Hopwood CJ, Wright AG. A comparison of passive-aggressive and negativistic personality disorders. J Pers Assess. 2012;94(3):296-303. doi:10.1080/00223891.2012.655819

  3. Laverdière O, Ogrodniczuk JS, Kealy D. Interpersonal Problems Associated With Passive-Aggressive Personality DisorderJ Nerv Ment Dis. 2019;207(10):820-825. doi:10.1097/NMD.0000000000001044

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By Sanjana Gupta
Sanjana is a health writer and editor. Her work spans various health-related topics, including mental health, fitness, nutrition, and wellness.