Anyone that has ever been in a relationship has probably experienced some version of passive-aggressive behavior. You notice that your partner is upset and seems angry, but when you ask them what’s wrong, their repeated and empathic response is “Nothing, I’m fine.”
While you are doubting this answer and thinking of something to say, they start to blast music in a clear attempt to annoy you. While this example is fairly clear, sometimes being passive-aggressive is so subtle that you can be hit right in the face with it and not even know.
A friend may notice your new shirt and say, “That shirt is so much better than what you usually wear.” Your first instinct is to smile and enjoy the compliment, but you may end up missing the second half of the sentence — the passive-aggressive part — altogether. It’s so common that you have probably engaged in passive-aggressive behavior in your past, whether you know it or not.
What Is Passive Aggressive Behavior?
People with passive-aggressive behavior will express their negative feelings through subtle actions and words as opposed to handling them directly. Passive-aggressive behavior may manifest itself in a number of different ways, but some of the most common signs include:
Bitterness and hostility toward other people’s requests
- Intentionally delaying or making mistakes on purpose when dealing with other people’s requests
- Having a cynical, pessimistic, or aggressive demeanor
- Frequently complaining about feeling underappreciated or deceived
- Making backhanded compliments, “Thank you for cleaning your room instead of trashing it some more”
- Passively punishing someone for a perceived slight, i.e. “the silent treatment”
- Speaking negatively about someone to other people and not directly addressing them or the problem
- Adding invalidating comments into an otherwise productive conversation, “Is there any reason why you didn’t clean your room?” contains the presumption that there is no possible valid reason
- Refusing to move beyond conflict, even while insisting that the conflict has been resolved
- Sabotaging others in deceptive ways, for example, inviting a friend to go out for a night on the town when they are trying to save money
- Getting very quiet, sullen, or distant as a response to a perceived slight
- Making comments that could be deflected as a misunderstanding, when being questioned about their passive-aggressive behavior, people tend to insist that the other person is a misunderstanding or being unfair
- Deliberately not saying what one is really feeling, saying “I’m fine” when clearly they are not
- Deliberately doing things to irritate another person, such as showing up late or “forgetting” to do something
- Making sarcastic or condescending comments
- Shifting blame and responsibility
Why Are People Passive Aggressive?
While passive-aggressive behavior can be expressed in so many different ways, there is often an underlying fear and avoidance of direct conflict, coupled with feelings of powerlessness and helplessness. There can be a number of reasons for what causes this behavior, with both biological and environmental factors likely contributing.
Some of the most common reasons for passive-aggressive behavior are:
- Upbringing. One of the more common theories is that passive-aggressive behavior starts in childhood. If a person is raised where the direct expression of emotion was discouraged or not allowed, they may feel as though they cannot openly express their real feelings. As a result, they may instead find ways to passively channel their anger or frustrations.
- Fear of authority. An employee, child, or another person in a subordinate role may fear that if they directly address their concerts then they could be punished as a result.
- Fear of loss. Some people may worry that if they tell a person how they really feel then it will cause the person to reject them.
- Poor communication. In some cases, a person will use passive aggression because their previous attempts at direct communication have not gone well. Their passive aggression may be an attempt to prevent conflict from spiraling out of control during a troubled relationship.
- Modeling. Not all people that are passive-aggressive know that they are. If they grew up with passive-aggressive parents then they may think that this way of communicating is effective and perfectly normal.
- Shame. Some people may feel ashamed of how they are feeling, especially anger. Using passive aggression, they can voice their feelings without admitting to them.
In addition to these reasons, there may also be underlying health conditions that may result in behavior that can appear similar to passive-aggressive behavior. These symptoms could be misinterpreted as being passive-aggressive when they are really signs of something more serious.
These conditions include:
- Alcohol abuse
- Anxiety disorders
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
- Bipolar disorder
- Cocaine withdrawal
- Conduct disorder
- Oppositional defiant disorder
How To Stop Being Passive Aggressive
If you are unsure whether or not you engage in passive-aggressive behaviors, then ask yourself the following questions:
- Do you often find yourself sulking when you are unhappy with someone else?
- Do you avoid people that you are upset with?
- Do you ever stop talking to people when you are angry with them?
- Do you put off doing things as a way to punish other people?
- Do you sometimes use sarcasm as a way to avoid engaging in serious conversations?
If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, then you are passive-aggressive. If you want to eliminate this behavior so you can relate to others in a healthier and more effective way, there are a few things you’ll need to do:
- Be aware of your behavior. The first thing you’ll have to do in order to change your behavior is to notice when you are acting in a passive-aggressive way. You need to develop a good understanding of why you are upset and what you feel when you use passive aggression. Pay attention to what is going on around you as you react to different people and situations.
- Understand why your behavior needs to change. It’s important to keep in mind that while being passive-aggressive is passive, it’s also aggressive behavior. It’s not a milder form of aggression but rather an indirect form of it.
- Identify the possible reasons for your passive-aggressive behavior. Why are you choosing to act passive-aggressively instead of being more direct? Is it fear of rejection or consequences? It’s important to understand why you are choosing to be indirect with your emotions.
- Thinking clearly before you act. Take your time to react instead of just responding with whatever comes naturally. After all, you are trying to change your natural reactions to situations, so instead of going with gut instinct, take your time and think rationally about how to respond.
- Stay optimistic. Give yourself time and be patient. Recognizing your own behaviors and understanding is a great first step, but altering your thinking patterns and reactions will take some time. Stay optimistic and keep moving forward, even if it’s only a little bit each day.
- Remember, it’s okay to be angry. You can still be a positive person and still feel negative emotions. Trying to eliminate passive-aggressive behaviors does not mean eliminating anger altogether, just finding better and healthier ways to express this anger.
- Be honest and direct with others and express your feelings in healthy ways. State facts and feelings clearly and be direct, but not hostile, with your opinions. Let the other person know the impact of their behavior in clear statements.
- Be open to confrontation. Remember that when you are directly expressing your needs and thoughts, it may lead to a confrontation, and that’s not a bad thing. Confrontation can be direct and respectful so long as both parties remain calm and discuss their views honestly.
You should make goals for yourself in order to help the process. Some of the hallmarks of non-passive-aggressive behavior are:
- Being able to directly talk about communication issues and relationship problems without any blame or hostility
- Owning up to your feelings
- Listening to another person’s perspective, including when they are being critical of you
- Not assuming that another person knows what you want or why you are upset
- Treating another person as a partner for resolving conflicts, not an enemy
Trying to stop being passive-aggressive can be challenging, but it’s worth the struggle. Being able to be open and direct with others will help to improve your relationships in life and lead to better communication and understanding of yourself and each other.
Attempting to change long accustomed behaviors can be difficult, but it’s not impossible. While you may be able to do this on your own, it may be a good idea to consider seeing a mental health professional in order to help you along the way. Enlisting the help of someone else can make it much easier to test out your progress in passive-aggressive behavior while pointing out where you are struggling.