Here's What It Means to Be Passive Aggressive
Medically reviewed by Dakari Quimby, PhD
Being passive aggressive refers to expressing negative emotions such as anger, resentment, or hostility—indirectly. If you’ve ever felt undermined by a colleague at work or subtly mocked by a friend, you may have been the recipient of passive aggressive behavior.
Instead of being overtly aggressive, passive aggressive people communicate their frustrations in ways that appear innocuous on the surface. Some people engage in passive aggressive behavior only once in a while or in certain contexts. Others develop an unhealthy pattern of masking their harmful motives.
Learn more about what it means to be passive aggressive, include common causes and examples as well as ways to deal with it.
Examples of Passive Aggressive Behavior
Passive aggression can be difficult to spot because it typically looks outwardly harmless. That’s partly why it’s so frustrating to deal with. You might have a sneaking suspicion that your co-worker, relative, or even partner is cutting you down, but they can maintain plausible deniability.
Still, there are some telltale signs that you’re dealing with a pattern of passive aggressive behavior. Examples include:
Ghosting: One classic type of passive aggressive behavior is ghosting. Cutting someone out with no explanation is one way that people use to express their resentment or anger while avoiding conflict entirely.
The silent treatment: Some people who are uncomfortable with confrontation may find ways to show you they’re upset rather than telling you. Examples include giving you the silent treatment, acting cold and distant, or slamming doors and cupboards.
Hostility masked as humor: Has anyone made a cutting, sarcastic remark or a cruel insult at your expense but written it off as a joke? Often, passive aggression is thinly veiled as humor.
Subtle sabotage: Passive aggression sometimes manifests as covert sabotage. Someone may ostensibly agree to do something–for example, to complete a task at work or do you a favor–only to perform poorly. They may undermine you by making excuses or procrastinating.
Two-faced gossip: Some passive aggressive people will put on a front, acting friendly to your face but talking negatively behind your back to others. This pattern is especially common in friend groups and the workplace.
Related:What Are the Signs of Toxic Friends?
Causes of Passive Aggression
Everyone displays passive aggressive behavior on occasion. This is especially common in situations where we don’t feel like we can speak up without picking a fight. For example, you may feel that you can’t communicate your frustrations to your supervisor at work directly. Instead, those negative emotions might come out in other ways.
There are a few possible reasons why someone may display a pattern of passive aggressive behavior. Potential causes include:
Conflict avoidance: Passive aggressive behavior is often used as a defense mechanism to avoid confrontation and conflict. This pattern of conflict avoidance can develop for many reasons, from a lack of healthy boundaries and effective problem-solving skills to a history of being invalidated or punished for assertiveness. For example, someone who was raised in a culture or family where direct communication was considered taboo might develop passive aggressive traits as an adult. Chronic stress and certain personality traits, such as neuroticism and introversion, can also play a role.
Trauma: Childhood trauma is a risk factor for displaying passive aggression later in life. People who were neglected or invalidated in their early years may feel afraid or incapable of expressing negative emotions directly.
Mental health conditions: Passive aggressive behavior isn’t necessarily a symptom of mental illness. However, studies indicate that certain mental health conditions–such as adjustment disorder, borderline personality disorder (BPD), eating disorders, and depression–are associated with higher levels of passive aggressive traits. Research indicates that many people with depression, for example, develop passive aggressive patterns as a form of self-sabotage.
How to Cope With Passive Aggression
It can be difficult to know how to deal with passive aggressive colleagues, friends, or family members. Here are a few ways to cope with passive aggressive behavior:
Stay calm: It may be tempting to get upset in the moment if you’re feeling attacked or defensive. But it’s more productive if you keep your cool. Try as hard as possible not to take the bait and become aggressive yourself.
Use humor to deflect: Making a joke can sometimes defuse a situation and disarm someone who’s made a rude, passive aggressive comment.
Consider their perspective: There is often an underlying reason for passive aggression. For example, is the other person feeling burned out and overworked? Unheard? Taken advantage of or taken for granted? Do they feel powerless or silenced? Take an empathetic stance and question whether you could do anything to help.
Work as a team: When you’re dealing with a pattern of passive aggressive behavior, it can be easy to question yourself. You may wonder if you’re reading too much into things or being overly sensitive. Get a “reality check” from someone you trust to find out whether they see the situation the same way you do.
Keep a paper trail: In professional settings, it’s important to document everything you do if you feel like you’re being undermined. To avoid being blamed for your colleague’s (or supervisor’s) performance, keep a paper trail by getting your communication in writing.
Communicate directly: Some people are passive aggressive without realizing how their behavior is affecting others. Direct, assertive, and respectful communication can sometimes stop passive aggression in its tracks. If someone makes a hurtful comment, try letting them know how you feel in the moment.
Disengage if possible: In some cases, passive aggression develops into a persistent, toxic pattern. If you’ve tried the above tactics and things aren’t changing, consider limiting your contact with the person in question. Speak to them only when necessary or not at all, and try not to take their actions to heart. At the end of the day, you can only change and control your own behavior.
A Quick Review
Passive aggressive behavior refers to expressing frustration and other negative feelings in an outwardly innocuous or “innocent” way. For example, someone may take out their anger on you by giving you the silent treatment or making an underhanded remark rather than talking to you directly.
Almost everyone is passive aggressive at times, but sometimes it can become a harmful pattern of behavior. This may be related to a history of trauma, a desire to avoid conflict, or the effects of certain mental health disorders. You can deal with passive aggressive behavior more effectively by staying calm in the moment, giving the other person space to voice their feelings, and setting healthy boundaries.
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