Recognizing & Dealing with Passive Aggressive Behavior

By Amalia Sirica, LCSW

Passive-aggressive behavior may seem innocent on the surface but could stem from an unconscious desire to communicate anger or frustration. The behavior may arise if a person cannot communicate their feelings directly to another person or is scared to do so. This fear can occur for various reasons and may stem from their relationship with conflict in childhood. Still, avoiding your own passive-aggressive behavior and addressing it in others is possible.  

At a Glance

  • Passive-aggressive behavior may happen when people can’t communicate their feelings directly or they’re afraid of doing so. 
  • Passive-aggressive behavior is seemingly innocent, but often displays potentially harmful, impure motives.
  • The person being passive-aggressive is often unaware of their motives.
  • Someone raised in an environment lacking open, healthy conflict might automatically consider conflict a bad thing and resort to passive-aggressive tendencies. 
  • The best way to stop being passive-aggressive is to learn how to communicate directly. 

What Is Passive Aggressive?

Passive-aggressive behavior is characterized by subconsciously harmful behavior disguised as innocent actions. The person exhibiting passive-aggressive behavior might not be aware of their motives.

Causes

Several factors can contribute to passive-aggressive tendencies — key factors being the environment in which a person was raised and their relationship with conflict. If someone was raised in an environment where they never witnessed or experienced open and healthy conflict, they might always consider conflict to be negative. This could lead them to avoid conflict in adulthood, but emotions do not disappear if they are not expressed. Anger and frustrations can leak out in passive aggression if left unaddressed. Unexpressed needs and desires can lead to feelings of resentment. 

Other factors that could contribute toward passive-aggressive tendencies are an individual’s ability to handle difficult emotions and the strength or weakness of their coping skills. Sometimes these tools are learned in childhood, but not always. Coping skills can be taught if the person has a desire to learn how to properly handle stress and difficulties. 

Passive Aggressive Example

There are many different ways that passive aggression can manifest. One of the most common ways is in the form of comments or “jokes.” It’s easy for someone to pass off a remark as a joke instead of admitting that it is a real feeling or statement. 

Here’s an example of a passive-aggressive comment:

  1. Partner A is upset with partner B for not taking out the garbage frequently enough.
  2. Partner B asks partner A to do some housework.
  3. Partner A says, “Oh, sure! Just put your feet up and relax,” in a sarcastic manner. 

Because partner A doesn’t express their concerns about partner B taking out the garbage, these feelings express themselves in a passive-aggressive remark when partner A is asked to contribute.

How To Deal With Passive-Aggressive People

If you’re facing a passive-aggressive person, the best response is usually no response. Lack of engagement can defuse the situation. 

Another option is to address it head on and set a boundary. It’s important to recognize the possibility that you might receive some anger in return, but you will have set a boundary. This boundary lets the person know that you are uncomfortable with their behavior, and you’re asking them to be more direct with you if there is a problem. 

If only one person is pulling on the rope during a game of tug-of-war, it will end pretty quickly. If the passive-aggressive behavior negatively affects your mental health, setting a boundary is likely the best course of action if it’s safe to do so, but there are several options depending on the situation.

How To Stop Being Passive Aggressive

The best way to stop being passive-aggressive is to learn how to communicate directly. Learning how to communicate your feelings is tricky but worthwhile. This is not an easy thing to do for many of us, and can cause profound discomfort in the beginning. Consider practicing a direct approach with people who make you feel safe and who can receive directness and boundaries with relative ease.

Treatment & Getting Help

If you or a loved one are struggling with passive-aggressive tendencies, consider seeking therapy. Nobu, a mental health app, can connect you to a therapist, all while helping you explore your thoughts, emotions and behaviors through guided lessons, journaling and goal tracking features.

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Edited by – Erica Weiman

Erica Weiman graduated from Pace University in 2014 with a master’s in Publishing and has been writing and editing ever since. Read more.

Amalia Sirica

Written by – Amalia Sirica, LCSW

Amalia Sirica is New York State Licensed Clinical Social Worker and a writer. She received her bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Duke University and her master’s degree in Social Work from New York University… Read more.

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Medically Reviewed by – Dr. Angela Phillips

Angela is a licensed therapist and clinical researcher, and has worked in public, private, government, and not-for-profit organizations, across clinical and research-oriented roles. Angela’s clinical and research experience has included suicide prevention, cognitive behavioral… Read more.