What Is Passive-Aggressive Behavior?

Passive-aggressive behavior
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Passive-aggressive behaviors are those that involve acting indirectly aggressive rather than directly aggressive. Passive-aggressive people regularly exhibit resistance to requests or demands from family and other individuals often by procrastinating, expressing sullenness, or acting stubborn.

Examples of Passive-Aggressive Behavior

Passive-aggressive behavior may manifest itself in a number of different ways.

For example, a person might repeatedly make excuses to avoid certain people as a way of expressing their dislike or anger towards those individuals.

In cases where the passive-aggressive person is angry, they might repeatedly claim that they are not mad or that they are fine – even when they are apparently furious and not okay. Denying what they are feeling and refusing to be emotionally open, they are shutting down further communication and refusing to discuss the issue.

Deliberately procrastinating is another characteristic passive-aggressive behavior. When confronted with tasks that they do not want to do or appointments they do not wish to keep, the passive-aggressive individual will drag their feet. If they have been asked to complete a task at work, for example, they will put it off until the very last second or even turn it in late in order to punish the person who assigned the task.

What Causes Passive-Aggressive Behavior?

Passive-aggressive behaviors can have grave consequences to relationships between people in families, romances, and even in the workplace. So why is this often destructive behavior so common? There are a few things that can contribute to the prevalence of passive-aggression.

  • Upbringing: Some suggest that passive-aggressive behavior may stem from being raised in an environment where the direct expression of emotions was discouraged or not allowed. People may feel that they cannot express their real feelings more openly, so they may instead find ways to passively channel their anger or frustration.
  • Situational characteristics: The situation also has an influence on passive-aggressive behavior. When you are in a situation where displays of aggression are not socially acceptable, such as at a business or family function, you might be more inclined to respond in a covert way when someone makes you angry.
  • Taking the easy road: Being assertive and emotionally open is not always easy. When standing up for yourself is difficult or even scary, passive-aggression might seem like an easier way to deal with your emotions without having to confront the source of your anger.

How to Deal With Passive-Aggressive Behavior

So what can you do when confronted by a friend, co-worker, or even a romantic partner who regularly engages in passive-aggression?

The first step is to recognize the signs of such behavior. Sulking, backhanded compliments, procrastination, withdrawal, and refusal to communicate are all signs of passive-aggression.

When the other person begins acting in such a way, try to keep your anger in check. Instead, point out the other person's feelings in a way that is non-judgmental yet factual. If you are dealing with a child who is clearly upset about having to do chores: "You seem to be angry at me for asking you to clean your room."

The reality is that the person will probably deny his or her anger anyways. At this point, it is a good idea to step back and give the person some time to work through these feelings.

Recognizing Your Own Passive-Aggressive Behavior

It is often easier to recognize passive-aggressiveness in others, but what if you are the one engaging in these behavior patterns? Try to take a step back and look at your own behavior with an impartial eye.

  • Do you often find yourself sulking when you are unhappy with someone else?
  • Do you avoid people with whom you are upset?
  • Do you ever stop talking to people when you are angry at them?
  • Do you put off doing things as a way to punish others?
  • Do you sometimes use sarcasm to avoid engaging in meaningful conversations?

If you feel that passive-aggressive behavior is damaging your relationships, there are steps you can take to change how you relate to others.

  • Improve your self-awareness. Passive-aggressive actions sometimes stem from not having a good understanding of why your upset or what you are feeling. Start paying attention to what is going on as you react to different people and situations. 
  • Give yourself time to make changes. Recognizing your own behaviors is a good first step toward change, but altering your patterns and reactions can take some time.
  • Practice expressing yourself. Understanding your emotions and learning to express your feelings appropriately is an important step toward ending passive-aggressive behaviors. Conflict is an unavoidable part of life, but knowing how to assert your feelings effectively can result in better resolutions.

A Word From Verywell

Passive-aggressive behavior can be destructive, but chances are that we all respond in such ways at times. By understanding what causes such actions and how to deal with them, you can minimize the potential damage to your relationships.

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Article Sources
  • Brant, A. 8 Keys to Eliminating Passive-Aggressiveness. New York: WW Norton & Company.
  • Richardson, DS & Hammock, GS. Is it aggression? Perceptions of and motivations for passive and psychological aggression? In JP Forgas, AW Kruglanski, & KD Williams (Eds)., The Psychology of Social Conflict and Aggression. New York: Psychology Press; 2011.