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What is Passive-Aggressive Behavior?

What is Passive-Aggressive Behavior?

What is Passive-Aggressive Behavior?

Passive-aggressive behavior is when a person indirectly expresses negative feelings instead of addressing them head-on. Essentially, there’s a disconnect between what the person aggressive person is saying and what they do.  

Even though passive-aggressive behavior can be a symptom of certain mental health conditions, it isn’t itself a mental illness. However, passive-aggressive behavior can cause issues in inter-personal relationships or at work. As a result, working on passive-aggressive behavior can help enhance your life. This article will discuss passive aggression and what you can do to manage it.   

What are some signs of Passive Aggressive Behavior

Some common signs of passive-aggressive behavior include:

  • Resenting and opposing the demands of others, especially people who hold authority
  • Resisting to cooperation, procrastinating, and making mistakes on purpose when responding to others’ demands
  • A hostile attitude
  • Complaining often about feeling underappreciated 
  • Criticizes other people 

For example, when someone is passive-aggressive, they may comply with a demand but then complain while doing the task. As a result, they may be acting one way on the surface but being oppositional to the other person’s wishes. 

What are some specific Examples of Passive-Aggressive Behavior?

Passive-aggressive behavior can look like:

  1. Continual lateness
  2. Avoidance, Ignoring and Procrastination
  3. Weaponized kindness, like going above and beyond for someone they are angry at 
  4. Sarcasm
  5. The Silent Treatment 
  6. Subtle digs at people 
  7. Weaponized incompetence, aka, pretending to be incompetent to avoid doing an unpleasant task. 

What causes passive-aggressive behavior?

Professionals in the mental health field generally believe that passive aggression is a learned behavior from childhood. However, experts haven’t found a direct specific cause.

Some things that may influence passive-aggressive behavior include: 

Parenting style and dynamics between family 

Many people who engage in passive-aggressive behavior may have never been allowed to question their caregivers or say no to them. As a result, passive-aggressive behavior could be a way to cope by providing a way to obey while still resisting.

Fear of being rejected 

Neglect, abuse and rejection from loved ones in childhood or from romantic partners as adults can lead to passive-aggressive behavior. In other words, you may have learned behaviors of keeping other people happy to protect yourself. 

As a result, you may become accustomed to accommodating others by going along with whatever they say. That way, when you disagree, you may express this frustration indirectly.

Needing to maintain control

Most people must do things they don’t want to do at some point in their lives. As a result, they can feel frustrated, especially if their circumstances can lead to unpleasant situations.

When you can’t avoid these things you don’t want to do in your life, you might attempt to regain control by acting out the feelings you can’t put into words.

Wanting to avoid conflict

Many people experience difficulties with tension and conflict in interpersonal relationships. In addition, you might worry that saying your true feelings will negatively impact relationships. As a result, you won’t express your feelings and resentments to avoid conflict or criticism. 

Issues with expressing emotions

Recognizing or expressing emotions can be difficult, especially when the feelings are unpleasant. Also, you may bury your feelings or worry about how your true feelings will impact how others view you. However, avoiding expressing your authentic feelings can change your mood and behavior. 

What are some negative consequences of passive aggression:

Some negative impacts that could result from passive-aggressive behavior include:

  • Suspicion and distrust of another person
  • Creating stress
  • Issues in interpersonal relationships
  • Patterns of poor communication
  • Leading to more overtly aggressive behavior
  • Poor mental health outcomes

What are some Management Tools for Passive-Aggressive Behavior?

One challenge with passive-aggressive behavior is that many people don’t realize they’re doing it. In essence, the behavior may not feel unusual to them. In addition, they might think it’s better to avoid hurting someone’s feelings or preventing a negative outcome.

Everyone can engage in passive-aggressive behavior occasionally. However, if it becomes habitual, then it can create issues. If a loved one’s passive-aggressive behavior negatively impacts you, you can be more direct about what you require from them without labeling their behavior as such. 

One way to do so is by using “I” statements. For example, you could say, “I don’t like it when you are always late or bailing on our plans. It makes me feel like I’m not important to you. Can you try to make more effort from now on?” Often, behaving more assertively can set an excellent example for the other person.

You may also have to repeatedly tell a passive-aggressive person your needs before any improvements occur. However, suppose they continue to engage in the behavior. In that case, you can always speak to a qualified mental health professional about it, like one of the verified therapists on LGBTQ and All. A mental health therapist can provide strategies and communication skills to improve your interactions. In addition, a therapist can determine whether or not this relationship is one you should keep or step away from for the time being.  

Here are some other tips you could try with a person engaging in passive-aggressive behavior: 

  • Avoid making assumptions about their behavior – empathizing can sometimes lead to the person feeling misunderstood.
  • Politely asking questions as a way to create productive communication.
  • Tell them that you support them sharing their feelings.
  • Inform them that you’re willing to explore solutions together.
  • Provide extra patience and compassion.
  • Offer them space to work through their feelings.

If you believe you are the one engaging in passive aggression, therapy can also be an excellent strategy for you. That way, you can be more assertive and have better dynamics in your relationships. Check out our database at LGBTQ and All for a list of mental health professionals that specialize in coping with passive-aggressive behavior or other forms of behavioral intervention. 


Passive aggression can result from many different factors, but you can continually improve this behavior or help others work on it. Working with a qualified mental health professional can improve your life and relationships and help you find better communication strategies. Visit our Lifestyle Guide for more mental health tips! 

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