How to Deal With Someone Who Is Passive- Aggressive

two angry girls on a couch

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Interacting with someone who has passive-aggressive behaviors, also sometimes referred to as a "passive-aggressive bully," can be complicated. Oftentimes, their actions are a way of coping with anger that they don't feel comfortable openly expressing.

The person may give you the silent treatment, for instance. You may have no idea why this is happening—especially if the person denied they were even mad. Or they may ostracize you from a group, use passive violence (like slamming books or doors), or engage in subtle forms of relational aggression.

Relational aggression, also sometimes referred to as social aggression, involves damaging a person's social relationships by spreading rumors, excluding them from events, or otherwise making them feel as if they are not accepted.

People who behave in a passive-aggressive way can also be sarcastic, even when sarcasm is inappropriate. When confronted with their mean behavior, they often pass it off as a joke, accusing the recipient of being too sensitive. Learning how to deal with a person who is passive-aggressive can help lessen the pain you feel from their actions.

Common Passive-Aggressive Behaviors

It's not always easy to spot someone who might fall into the category of a passive-aggressive bully. Some will sabotage others quietly, when no one is watching, then act innocent when confronted. Others are more sullen and argumentative. These behaviors can help you identify passive aggression.

Denying the Truth

People who are passive-aggressive often deny that they are hurt, angry, or offended. They also rarely say what they are really thinking, which can be confusing for people on the receiving end of their behaviors—particularly when they lash out in subtle and puzzling ways.

When someone who is passive-aggressive is confronted about acting mean, for instance, they may deny that they were cruel, even though their actions say something completely different.

In some cases, the person who is passive-aggressive may not even realize that they are angry or feeling resentful because their feelings have been repressed or they have poor self-awareness. This can lead them to complain about being misunderstood or victimized.

Shifting Blame

Someone with passive-aggressiveness rarely takes responsibility for their actions. If they don't blame you for what happened, they will blame their teacher, boss, a family member, friend, or even the weather.

A person who is passive-aggressive cannot accept that they are at fault. If something happens, it has to be a result of someone or something else. They engage in minimization and victim-blaming on a regular basis.

Someone who uses passive-aggressive behaviors to bully others typically believes that they are being held to unreasonable standards when confronted.

Mixed Messages

Another common passive-aggressive behavior is that when the person is asked to do something they don't want to do, instead of saying no, they say yes. They feel resentment just from being asked, but they hide this emotion and do it anyway.

To relieve some of their resentment, they may give the person who made the request the silent treatment. Or, they may talk about the person and even spread rumors or gossip. Other times, they may simply never follow through with what was requested.

Suppressing Anger

People who are passive-aggressive rarely show anger. Instead, they stuff it down inside.

They may even appear happy and accommodating on the outside but will act on their pent-up anger, taking it out on others in a behind-the-scenes way. By taking this approach, they are able to let out some of their hostility without ever having to admit that they are upset. 

Victim Mentality

A person with passive-aggressive tendencies often feels as if they've been treated unfairly or that they've been taken advantage of. Because of these feelings, it is not uncommon for them to have a victim mentality.

Someone acting as a passive-aggressive bully doesn't see themselves as the bully in the situation. In their mind, the other person is the one who is bullying them.

Poor Boundaries

It's also common for someone with passive-aggressiveness to lack boundaries. At the same time, they gravitate toward others who have the same type of boundary issues, often focusing on people who are conflict-averse people-pleasing.

This type of person typically won't address the passive-aggressive actions being taken against them. They also won't hold a person with these behaviors accountable for their actions.

By interacting with people who don't protect their boundaries, the person who is passive-aggressive doesn't have to be honest about their feelings or take responsibility for their behaviors. And they can continue to express their hostilities without the risk of facing a fight.

Passive-Aggressive Cycles

Passive-aggressiveness can often lead to cycles of conflict that create problems in relationships. In such cases, an individual may engage in passive-aggressive behavior to force the other person to respond, which may then be met with more direct anger or aggression. This pattern can lead to cycles of overt hostility followed by withdrawal periods. 

How to Deal With Passive-Aggressive People

If you have someone who you consider a passive-aggressive bully in your life, you can take steps to protect yourself. Here are a few options to consider.

Recognize That You Did Nothing Wrong

It's not uncommon for the recipient of passive-aggressive behaviors to feel that they are a bad person or deserving of poor treatment, says Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD, a clinical psychologist who practices in New York City.

"Many rationalize their mistreatment by believing that they somehow did something worthy of the behavior they are receiving," says Romanoff, "which enables a complacency to continue to accept it."

Over time, this can have many negative effects, including eroded self-esteem, reduced productivity, and damaged relationships. One of the first steps you can take when dealing with a person who is passive-aggressive is to recognize that you don't deserve their poor treatment.

Set Boundaries

"To overcome passive-aggressive bullying, it is important to set boundaries when you’re feeling violated," says Romanoff. "Folks who get targeted often have difficulty with being assertive and affirmative, which is a similar challenge for those who resort to passive-aggressive bullying – creating a vicious cycle."

Setting boundaries can help stop this cycle. How? "These are often subtle moments," says Romanoff, "like when someone inquires too deeply, you can pause and think about how you want to respond instead of allowing them to violate your boundaries."

Address the Behaviors

Passive-aggressiveness is characterized by a desire to avoid discussing issues that may be bothering the person. Addressing their behaviors is one way to bring these issues more into the open. It also establishes your willingness to hold the person accountable, which helps stop the passive-aggressive cycle.

Confronting a person with passive-aggressive behaviors at work, school, or home requires honesty. Let them know how their behaviors affect you. Be clear on how they make you feel.

When confronted, the person may make inappropriate remarks and mumble under their breath. Don't let their hostility and inappropriate actions keep you from addressing their behaviors. Calling the behavior out with no apologies is essential.

Be Direct

When dealing with someone who is passive-aggressive, be assertive and clear about your expectations. This helps establish your boundaries. It also reduces the risk of any miscommunication about what you want or need in the relationship.

Another benefit of directness is that it holds the person accountable for their actions. It tells them that you recognize what they are doing and that you're not going to allow them to engage in those behaviors when interacting with you.

Control Your Response

Focus on staying calm. Keep your voice neutral and hold your emotions in check. The less you react to a person's passive-aggressive actions, the less control they have over you.

Remind yourself that while you cannot keep someone who is passive-aggressive from slamming doors or pouting, you can control your response. Choose to respond in a healthy way to their unhealthy behaviors to help keep it from being a toxic relationship.

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Recognize You Cannot Change Them

While confronting passive-aggressive behaviors is a positive first step, there is no guarantee that the person will accept what you are saying. There is also no guarantee that they will decide to change, becoming more open about their emotions when they are feeling angry.

Instead of concentrating on everything they need to do to stop being passive-aggressive, focus on what you can do to improve the situation. Use your energies on actions such as setting boundaries or communicating honestly about how their actions affect you.

Avoid Getting Offended

Remember that passive-aggressive anger stems from the person's experiences and background and, therefore, is not your responsibility. If you allow yourself to get offended, it becomes more difficult to keep your composure.

You do not have to appease someone who is passive-aggressive. Stick to what you know is right regardless of any emotional abuse they may inflict.

Be Empathetic

It can be challenging to be compassionate and empathetic toward someone who is difficult to be around. But in the end, it can be very effective. You could say something like: “It seems like you're frustrated by what happened at practice yesterday. That must be difficult.”

Remember, people who are passive-aggressive often feel misunderstood. So, if you try to understand where they are coming from, it can go a long way in helping you cope with their behaviors.

A Word From Verywell

Dealing with someone who is passive-aggressive isn't always easy. However, being firm, direct, and honest in your response can help open the lines of communication while establishing boundaries that serve to stop the passive-aggressive cycle.

It can also be helpful to remember that under the passive-aggressive behaviors is someone who is angry and feels misunderstood. Recognizing these feelings and showing a little empathy might help them see that you're on their side—and that you're there to help them find healthier and more effective ways to resolve their anger.

6 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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By Sherri Gordon
Sherri Gordon, CLC is a published author, certified professional life coach, and bullying prevention expert. She's also the former editor of Columbus Parent and has countless years of experience writing and researching health and social issues.