What Is Passive-Aggressive Behavior?
Passive-aggressive behavior is when you express negative feelings indirectly instead of openly talking about them. 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.
Passive aggression can happen at home, online, at work, or with strangers. You might use this behavior because you feel angry, resentful, or frustrated, but you act neutral, pleasant, or even cheerful. You then find indirect ways to show how you really feel.
Examples of Passive-Aggressive Behavior
When someone uses passive aggression, they 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 coworker you're trying to lose weight, a passive-aggressive colleague might bring you a cake the next day.
Here are some red flags that indicate if someone is being passive-aggressive:
- Resenting or opposing others' instructions outright, though they may still do what they’re told
- Delaying a task that someone else requested or making intentional mistakes
- Having a sarcastic or argumentative attitude
- Routinely complaining about feeling underappreciated
- Criticizing others
Passive-aggressive behavior in a relationship might include giving your partner the silent treatment if they say or do something that hurts you. It also includes ghosting someone instead of dealing with an issue directly.
Passive-aggressive behavior at work might include arriving at a meeting late because you don't like the timing scheduled by your boss. It also includes undermining someone's understanding or experience with phrases such as “Like I already told you...” or “Do you comprehend what I'm saying?”
Passive-aggressive comments include backhanded compliments and patronizing or sarcastic statements. Examples are saying things such as “You'd look more professional without those tattoos,” or “It'd be nice to have as much time off as some other people,” instead of dealing with feelings and issues head-on.
Causes of Passive-Aggressive Behavior
Anger, frustration, and displeasure are normal emotions. People who rely on passive aggression rather than direct communication to show these emotions often grow up in a family where such behavior is 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.
Researchers also link passive-aggressive behavior to:
- Anxiety disorders
- Substance abuse
- Personality disorders
Is Passive Aggression a Mental Illness?
Passive aggression isn't a mental illness. However, people with mental health conditions may act in passive-aggressive ways. Passive aggression could damage your personal and professional relationships.
While it's not a personality disorder, passive-aggressive behaviors are common in those diagnosed with:
- Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD)
- Borderline personality disorder (BPD)
If your behavior is passive-aggressive and causing problems in your relationships, ask your doctor about starting therapy to find the cause of your behavior and make changes. Therapies such as cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), interpersonal therapy, dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), and social skills training, can help you with better communication skills and the ability to make better choices.
How to Recognize Passive-Aggressive Behavior
This behavior includes avoiding direct conflict but expressing negative emotions. It sends mixed messages.
Recognize passive-aggressive behavior in others. If there’s a disconnect between what someone says and does, and you’re confused, hurt, or disoriented after your interactions with them, they may be showing passive-aggressive behavior.
Recognize passive-aggressive behavior in yourself. If your actions hurt others or make them defensive or cower in response to things you say, it might be a sign that you’re being passive-aggressive.
How to Stop Being Passive-Aggressive
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.
If your behavior is passive-aggressive, and causing problems in your relationships, ask your doctor about starting therapy. It can help you learn better communication and make better choices. Therapies that can help with passive-aggressive behavior include:
Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT)
Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT)
Social skills training
Everyone can behave in a passive-aggressive manner from time to time. But if it’s a pattern, 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 they act. 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. They can give you communication skills to improve future interactions. They can also help you decide if it's time to step away from the relationship.
- Passive-aggressive behavior is when you express negative feelings indirectly instead of openly talking about them.
- Passive aggression can happen at home, online, at work, or with strangers.
- Passive-aggression isn't a mental illness. But people with mental health conditions may act in passive-aggressive ways.
- Many people don't realize that they're being passive-aggressive.
- Therapy can help change passive-aggressive behaviors.
Are people aware when they’re being passive-aggressive?
Many people don't realize they're being passive-aggressive. The behavior may feel “normal” to them
Is the silent treatment passive-aggressive?
Yes. So is being sullen, tardy, cynical, and sarcastic.
What personality type is passive-aggressive?
Passive-aggressive behavior is not associated with a specific personality type, though it does include certain behaviors. It's also not a personality disorder. However, passive-aggressive behavior can be found in those with personality disorders.