What Is Passive-Aggressive Behavior?

During World War II, when soldiers wouldn't follow officers' orders, experts described them as "passive-aggressive." A new term back then, but still relevant today.

Someone who uses passive aggression doesn't express negative feelings directly. Though they feel angry, resentful, or frustrated, they act neutral, pleasant, or even cheerful. They then find indirect ways to show how they really feel.

Passive aggression isn't a mental illness. But people with mental health conditions may act that way. If you find yourself behaving like that, it could damage your personal and professional relationships.

How Can You Recognize It?

When someone uses passive aggression, he might say one thing, like "Sure, I'd be happy to!" and do another, like brood and complain while completing the task.

They might also do something that seems kind on the surface but is opposite to another person's wishes. For example, if you tell a co-worker you're trying to lose weight, a passive-aggressive colleague might bring you a cake the next day.

Some red flags that someone you know is being passive-aggressive:

  • Resents or outright opposes the instructions of others, though he may still do what he's told
  • Delays finishing a task that someone else requested or makes intentional mistakes
  • Has a sarcastic or argumentative attitude
  • Routinely complains about feeling underappreciated

Why Do People Behave This Way?

Anger, frustration, and displeasure are normal emotions. People who rely on passive aggression rather than direct communication to show these emotions often grew up in a family where that behavior was common. It might not have felt safe for them to directly express their feelings as a child.

But people can also pick up this behavior as adults. They may act this way because it helps them get what they want. They may do it to avoid confrontation. Many people are only passive-aggressive in some situations -- for example, at work -- but not in others.

What Can You Do About Passive-Aggressive Behavior?

Many people don't realize that they're being passive-aggressive. The behavior may feel "normal" to them. Or they might think it's the best way to avoid hurting someone's feelings or to prevent something bad from happening, like losing their job.

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Everyone can behave passive aggressively from time to time. But it is often a pattern, and that's when it's a problem. If the passive aggression of a friend, family member, or colleague is troubling you, try being direct about what you want or need without labeling their behavior as "passive-aggressive."

Using "I" statements can be helpful. For example, "I don't like it when you regularly show up for meetings late. It makes me feel like this isn't important to you. Would you please try to be on time going forward?" Sometimes behaving assertively can show the other person how to behave that way, too.

You may have to keep telling a passive-aggressive person your needs before you see an improvement in the way he acts. If the behavior doesn't change, consider getting the advice of a therapist. A therapist can help you understand ways you may be contributing to the situation. He can give you communication skills to improve future interactions. He can also help you decide if it's time to step away from the relationship.

If you believe that your behavior may be passive-aggressive, also see a therapist. He can help you learn to be assertive and improve your relationships.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on August 06, 2019

Sources

SOURCES:

Mayo Clinic: "What is passive-aggressive behavior? What are some of the signs?"

Journal of Personality Assessment: "A Comparison of Passive Aggressive and Negativistic Personality Disorders."

Princeton University: "Choosing Your Communication Style."

Institute on Community Integration, College of Education, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis: "Passive Aggressive Behavior … Preventing and Dealing with Challenging Behavior."

Judith Orloff, MD, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry, University of California, Los Angeles; author, Thriving as an Empath.

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