- Anita Astley, LMFT, psychotherapist and author of Unf*ck Your Life and Relationships
- Deborah Vinall, PsyD, LMFT, doctor of psychology, licensed marriage and family therapist, certified EMDR practitioner, and the author of Gaslighting: A Step-by-Step Recovery Guide and Trauma Recovery Workbook for Teens
- Kate Deibler, LCSW
- Peter Schmitt, LMHC, psychotherapist and assistant clinical director at Kip Therapy
- Tania DeBarros, LICSW
In truth, some passive-aggressive people might not ever reach this point of introspection because the very passive nature of their actions could lead them to believe that they aren’t contributing to the conflict at all. Instead of tackling conflicts head-on, passive-aggressive people prefer to beat around the bush and ignore the reality of their own feelings, says psychotherapist Peter Schmitt, LMHC, associate clinical director at Kip Therapy.
Ahead, read on to learn more about what passive-aggressive behavior is, how to spot it in yourself and others, and ways to stop it from derailing your relationships.
What is passive-aggressive behavior?
Passive-aggressive behavior is when someone indirectly expresses their feelings rather than directly communicates their negative emotions. A passive-aggressive person “often says things that are incongruent with what they do,” says psychotherapist Anita Astley, LMFT, author of the forthcoming book Unf*ck Your Life and Relationships. In other words, passive-aggressive people might say they’re fine, but their actions won’t show it.
Examples of Passive-Aggressive Communication
If you’re the type of empath that can easily pick up on the emotions of others, it might be glaringly obvious to you when someone is masking their unhappiness with passive aggression. For the rest of us, some passive-aggressive manipulation tactics aren’t as easily discernible; sometimes they’re even masqueraded as acts of good faith to repair the relationship, or evidence that the other person is “over it”.
Some of the most common examples of passive-aggressive communication include:
- The silent treatment
- Indirect bids at sympathy
- Unrelated complaints
- Huffing and puffing
- Subtle put-downs
- Indirect attacks or mentions online (see also: cyberbullying vs. bullying)
How Passive-Aggressive Behavior Impacts Relationships
Those on the receiving end of passive aggression might feel frustrated by their partner’s cryptic behaviors. “Dealing with someone’s passive aggression can feel like trying to read the proverbial mixed signal,” says Schmitt. Just think about a time when someone insisted that “it’s fine” when you could tell deep-down that it wasn’t—and yet you still couldn’t parse what was actually wrong for them. “The frustration over this lack of direct communication or someone else’s denial of their own aggression can serve to escalate a conflict,” he says.
The person being passive probably isn't going to be feeling great, either. “The passive-aggressive person can become even more frustrated and angry as they are not able to effectively express their negative feelings, leading to further confusion about what is actually happening that makes it virtually impossible to move from problem to solution,” says Astley.
That just means that the initial issue triggering the passive-aggressive behavior isn’t able to be resolved, leaving the passive person continually stewing. “Someone who is passive aggressive can miss out on having their emotional needs met,” says Tania DeBarros, LICSW, psychotherapist on the mental-health platform Alma. “If people don’t know how you’re feeling, it’s harder for them to know what will help you feel better.” And the longer that the passive person waits for the other person to read their mind, the more disconnection and resentment can build, she adds.
Eventually, those feelings are bound to come out in one way or another—since stifling or couching anger in passive actions does not erase it. “Because passive-aggressive people are not able to express and manage their aggression, they are more likely to once in a while have disproportionate emotional outbursts,” says Astley.
Over time, passive aggression can create a cycle of mistrust between both parties: mistrust that the aggressor will effectively communicate their needs, and mistrust that the receiver will be able to fulfill them.
What causes a person to be passive aggressive?
Like many behavioral tendencies, passive aggression typically arises first during childhood as a result of how a person is conditioned to perceive anger and aggression. “Passive-aggressive people have often learned from an early age that expressing negative thoughts and feelings is never an acceptable nor safe thing to do,” says Astley.
When someone sees or hears this message repeatedly, whether implicitly or explicitly, they can internalize it, “which creates a blueprint around the expression and management of aggression within the self and with others,” says Astley. Over time, the person may not even recognize or acknowledge anger when it arises or could learn to suppress it out of a fear of conflict, she says.
In the same realm, a passive person may have been “emotionally invalidated” as a child, or had their feelings minimized or dismissed to the point that, later in life, they invalidate their own feelings. “If a person doesn’t believe that their feelings are important, it can be difficult or seem pointless to express them to someone else,” says DeBarros. “Their internal dialogue may sound like, ‘It’s not that big of a deal,’ ‘I’m overreacting,’ ‘I’m being emotional,’ or ‘I shouldn’t feel X emotion because they didn’t mean it that way.’”
It’s also possible for this dialogue to develop in a particular relationship, in response to another person’s behavior, says Kate Deibler, LCSW, psychotherapist at Alma. “The person that someone feels angry with may have shown themselves previously to respond negatively toward anger,” she says, leading the other person to then conceal it at all costs. Or perhaps the passive person “lives or works in an environment where strong emotions are punished,” thus teaching them to mask these emotions, which then ultimately emerge in a passive way instead, says Schmitt.
Alternatively, passive aggression could be part of a fawning trauma response, says DeBarros. “This happens when a person develops appeasing [aka people-pleasing] behaviors to avoid conflict and to establish a sense of safety,” she says. “If someone feels that it is unsafe to directly address how they feel, they may turn to passive-aggressive behaviors instead.”
According to licensed therapist Deborah Vinall, PsyD, author of Gaslighting: A Step-by-Step Recovery Guide to Heal from Emotional Abuse and Build Healthy Relationships, passive-aggressive behavior often stems from insecurity. Expressing our desires is difficult without self-confidence, so instead, passive-aggressive people will attempt to manipulate the desired outcome through non-confrontational communication.
How To Tell if Your Behavior Is Passive-Aggressive
While you might be able to easily pinpoint these signs of passive-aggressive behavior in someone else, it can be harder to recognize when you might be the passive-aggressive one, says Schmitt. Suppressing your anger takes a lot of focus—so much so that you might not even realize you’re being passive aggressive in the moment.
The more that other people around you respond to your passive-aggressive behavior in a way that reinforces it, the tougher it’ll be for you to identify for yourself that it’s happening, too, says DeBarros.
“For example, if every time I sulk, someone gives me attention, asks me what’s wrong, or does something to make me feel better without me having to communicate my needs clearly, I will learn that if I sulk, I get support,” she says. But of course, this ignores the underlying tendency to act passive aggressively and the harm that this lack of clear communication can do to a friendship or relationship over time.
Worried that *you* might be the passive-aggressive person in the relationship? Keep reading to see five telltale signs of passive aggressive behavior.
5 Signs of Passive-Aggressive Behavior To Look For in Yourself
1. You consider yourself a non-confrontational or non-angry person in an absolute way
Maintaining a very antagonistic relationship with angry feelings—as in, “I don’t ever get angry with people”—can be a sign that you typically express your anger passively. “The truth is that we all contain aggressive feelings at times, and so an attempt to suppress that part of ourselves will ultimately come through as passive aggression or something worse,” says Schmitt.
In the same vein, feeling like you have “almost no experience with anger or irritation is a fair indicator that it’s being sublimated into something else or releasing through another pathway,” says Deibler.
That may also be the case if you consider your approach to conflict to be wholly non-confrontational but then find that people on the other end often react as if you had said something aggressive or hurtful, says Schmitt. (This just means that they could sense your passive-aggressive behavior, and they’re upset or confused by your failure to express what you’re feeling directly.)
2. Others accuse you of being indirect with your feelings
In the same way that you can probably pinpoint passive aggression in someone else more easily than you could in yourself, your close friends and loved ones probably have a better read on your passive aggression than you do. If others accuse you of beating around the bush with your feelings or label you as upset when you feel that you’ve been non-confrontational, that’s a good indicator that you're engaging in passive-aggressive behavior.
3. You say things that you don’t really mean
One of the most transparent signs of passive aggressive behavior in others is also a habit you might miss in yourself: saying yes when you mean no (or vice versa) in any context, says Astley. It can be tempting to say something just in an effort to avoid a conflict, but if the words that come out of your mouth are in direct opposition to how you feel (e.g., the now-infamous faux “I’m fine”), chances are that passive aggression will leave you stewing.
4. You often use sarcasm to express your feelings in an argument
While sarcasm isn’t always about deflecting the conversation from how you’re actually feeling or being passive about your feelings, if you find yourself using it mostly when you’re upset or having difficult conversations, that’s usually a sign of passive-aggressive behavior, says DeBarros.
5. You expect others to just “get” how you’re feeling
If you find yourself frustrated by someone’s lack of understanding before you've taken the time to explain your feelings, you’re likely acting passive aggressively, says DeBarros. The expectation that a loved one can mind-read your feelings by way of your passive actions is a surefire route toward miscommunication and conflict—whereas expressing your feelings directly, however difficult that may seem in the moment, can put you on a path toward mutual understanding.
How To Stop Yourself From Being Passive-Aggressive
Before you can express upset or angry feelings to others in a productive way, you need to acknowledge that you do, in fact, have these feelings. “The best antidote to passive aggression is to embrace our genuine experiences of aggression,” says Schmitt.
To do that, make time each day to actively check in and identify how you feel using feeling words, says DeBarros (e.g., nervous, excited, happy, tired, upset, etc.) When creating that list for any given moment, be sure to allow room for negative feelings to surface. “Once you can identify them, practice being comfortable with them by telling yourself, ‘It’s okay; I am allowed to have these negative thoughts and feelings, and it doesn’t mean I am a bad person, but rather that I am a healthy person,’” says Astley.
While it’s certainly wise to be mindful about how you act on negative feelings, “there’s absolutely nothing wrong with having them, and they can provide valuable information as to what we need from others, and where others may be falling short of our expectations in relationships,” says Schmitt. For example, it’s only through feeling upset or disappointed with how a relationship is going and being able to acknowledge that reality that you’ll then also be able to assert your needs to your partner and have those needs met.
When sharing your feelings, recognize that the other party might not react in the way that you’d hope; acknowledge that just like you, they’re entitled to their own feelings, adds Dr. Vinall. Confrontation is scary, but avoiding the rift at hand with passive-aggressive behavior will only make things worse.
”Notice the fear of vulnerability that comes with being honest about your heart’s desires,” Dr. Vinall says, “and with self-compassion, bravely press through.”
Passive-Aggressive Communication FAQs
What is passive-aggressive personality disorder (PAPD)?
Passive-aggressive personality disorder (PAPD), as defined by the American Psychological Association, is a personality disorder that involves chronic ambivalence towards yourself and others. Those with PAPD regularly contradict themselves: They might say that a situation doesn’t bother them, but in reality, they’re deeply upset by it. People with PAPD often fall into cycles of negativism and brew in their own skepticism about themselves and others.
According to Vinall, this official classification is outdated. Passive-aggressive personality disorder was omitted from the most recent version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5-TR) due to its lack of sufficient research.
“We no longer consider this behavior as stemming from an intractable personality disorder,” Dr. Vinall says, “but as a behavior pattern that is learned and can be unlearned.”
What are the traits of a passive-aggressive person?
Low self esteem and a lack of self confidence are two of the most common traits of passive-aggressive people, says Dr. Vinall. Despite this, Vinall says that chronically passive-aggressive people often believe that they deserve special treatment, similarly to narcissists.
Additionally, passive-aggressive people often lack emotional maturity and are unable to process their anger in a healthy manner. Other passive-aggressive traits include looking down on others, general hostility, stubbornness a lack of respect for others’ wishes, and a persisting negative outlook on life, says Vinall.
Is ‘silent treatment’ passive aggressive?
One of the most common examples of passive-aggressive behavior is the ‘silent treatment’. The silent treatment is when one person completely shuts down all forms of communication with a person or party they’re unhappy with, leaving the other party to cope with unanswered questions and unresolved conflict.
This form of conflict avoidance is particularly harmful, and in practice, is actually a form of emotional neglect.
How do you outsmart passive-aggressive people?
When dealing with passive-aggressive people, it’s important to hold self-respecting boundaries, says Dr. Vinall. Without bending to passive-aggressive manipulation, take notice of avoidant behaviors and consider taking the first step toward direct communication with them.
Explore the initial rift and what feelings might be driving their behaviors. A little digging might uncover the root of the insecurity that’s driving their passive aggressiveness: Do they feel left out? Do they feel undermined? Do they feel unloved, or unimportant?
“Such an approach may soften the guarded communicator and make space for a genuine connection,” says Vinall.
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