Passive aggressive behavior can be frustrating. Many of us have had to deal with passive aggressive people at one point or another, whether it is a family member, a coworker, or a romantic partner.
In this article we’ll explore the nature of passive aggressive behavior, why people behave as such, and how to deal with passive aggressive people in your life.
Instead of confronting an issue openly and honestly in a mature, direct way, a passive aggressive person will choose to express their anger indirectly rather than talking about it.
They may offer backhanded compliments, make you feel guilty, play the fool or display other indirect behaviors in order to avoid conflict. Their approach is a form of control, because they may fear a loss of control if they were too open, honest, and vulnerable with their real feelings.
What is Passive Aggression?
Dealing with passive aggressive people can be challenging. The individual may feel upset or hurt, but instead of dealing with their feelings through healthy direct communication, they aim to make their feelings known indirectly, ultimately causing further emotional distance.
Direct conflict is uncomfortable for them, so they approach issues in a roundabout way. Passive aggressive behavior is a maladaptive means of expressing anger because it fails to let the other person in on the real issue, keeping them guessing, frustrated, and distant.
In this article we have outlined some tips and advice to help you deal with passive aggressive people. Firstly, let’s develop an understanding of what passive aggression actually is.
Aggression Vs. Passive Aggression
Aggressive behavior is usually easy to identify. A person might yell, shout, be physically violent, or be explicitly offensive as a means of expressing their anger.
Passive aggressive behavior, however, can be harder to notice. It is not as much of a scene as outright aggression, or rage, but far more subtle. Still, it is hurtful and detrimental to our relationships.
Most of us will be indirect with our feelings from time to time. Maybe you’re too tired for a confrontation, can’t focus after a long day at work, or you simply don’t want to talk. That’s not a sign of passive aggression, just a temporary feeling of tiredness or apathy.
Still, frequent and habitual passive aggressive behavior is not the same as a once-off incident. People who behave as such may act distant and cold even when there is an opportunity to confront the issue.
Why are People Passive Aggressive?
This is an interesting question. Some experts say that passive aggressive behavior is associated with mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and insecurity.
Passive aggressive behavior may also be learned. If in one’s early years one learned that outward expressions of anger and frustration were not acceptable, they may resort to passive aggressiveness to get their feelings out.
An article published in Psychiatry points to multiple studies and reports which suggest that ‘passive aggressive behavior results from a disruption in learning how to navigate hierarchical relationships during childhood. This disruption leads to ineffective self-assertion and, thereby, negativistic mood states and cognitions.’
The passive aggressive person may struggle with self-assertion. To speak openly and confidently about why one is angry or upset takes some confidence in oneself, which may be lacking in the passive aggressor.
Another reason why someone might exhibit passive aggressive behavior is that they struggle to identify the root cause of their feelings. If one is unable to identify the root issue, it is hard, if not impossible, to express those feelings to others in a healthy way. The behavior may then be considered a coping mechanism for stuck, unknown emotions.
The context of a situation also influences a person’s tendency toward passive aggressive behavior. Sometimes we find ourselves in social situations in which an outward expression of anger would be inappropriate, so we might resort to smiling through our teeth or making a backhanded compliment to release our emotions.
Mental or behavioral health conditions
Passive aggressive behavior may stem from an underlying mental or behavioral health condition. Some conditions and disorders have symptoms that may make someone behave passive aggressively, or may look similar to passive aggressive tendencies. Such conditions include:
- Stress, burnout
- Anxiety disorders
- Oppositional defiant disorder
- Bipolar disorder
- Borderline personality disorder
- Drug or alcohol withdrawal
If your friend, family member, or romantic partner is struggling with any of the above conditions, their behavior may seem passive aggressive at times. If they are struggling, then it’s important that they seek professional help.
These reasons are no excuse for passive aggressive behavior and just because someone may have had a difficult time emotionally does not mean you need to tolerate their harmful or disrespectful behavior.
No matter what someone has been through, you’re inherently entitled to set limits and boundaries around behavior you don’t find respectable or acceptable.
Tips on How to Deal with Passive Aggressive People and their Behavior
1. Notice the signs of passive aggression
Learn to recognize signs of passive aggression, and take note when you see them. It’s normal to want to give people the benefit of the doubt, especially in a new relationship, but it’s easier to preserve your happiness and well-being when you know the early warning signs.
Passive aggressive tendencies can manifest in several ways. If someone struggles to identify their true feelings, or chooses to deal with them indirectly, they may exhibit any of the following behaviors. Each behavior serves as a means of control of people or one’s surrounding.
If you ask passive aggressive people if they’re angry, they will likely say ‘no’. They probably don’t feel comfortable with being outwardly angry, so when asked about their true feelings they are likely to deny them. Despite their denial, their behavior is often a tell-tale sign of what they really feel.
Since the person is uncomfortable with feeling angry, they may show their feelings through withdrawal or sulking.
Instead of speaking openly about the issue, they may give you the silent treatment, ignoring you when you ask them a question or not replying to a text or call.
They may seem moody or emotionally distant, which may be an attempt to influence their surroundings without talking.
Dealing with emotions through other people
Though the passive aggressive person does not want to explicitly tell you how they feel, they still want you to know. A common characteristic of passive aggressive people is eliciting an angry outburst in others, similar to the feelings they experience within themselves.
For example, a passive-aggressive child who is angry at her mother may agree to do a household chore such as taking out the garbage, but then not do it.
Her mother might ask her to do it several times, and each time she agrees, but then fails to actually do it. Eventually, the mother becomes frustrated and gets angry at the child, who complains that her mother is getting angry for no reason.
Making false promises
The passive aggressive person may agree to a request or make a promise, but words are not the same as actions. They may agree to do something, such as a household chore or take on a task at work, but then delay doing it for as long as possible.
When they eventually carry it out it’s likely to be sub-par, half done, or below an acceptable standard.
Other characteristics of passive aggressive people include:
- Frequent, non-constructive criticism
- Careless performance of tasks
- Resentment about others’ requests or demands
- Avoiding direct communication
2. Stay present and grounded
Be mindful of how you approach an incident of passive aggressive behavior. It’s good to confront the person and let them know that you will not tolerate it, but if you’re going to confront them, make sure you refer to a specific, recent incident.
For example, if your mother tells you she likes your new black dress because it makes you look slimmer, try to explain why that comment is hurtful rather than making a general statement about her constant focus on your weight in the past.
If a teacher or friend comments on your exam results by saying ‘I didn’t expect you to do so well! Good job!’, let them know how that specific comment made you feel, rather than making a sweeping generalization about their past criticism of your performance.
When you call the person on a specific behavior, they are likely to dismiss you, claiming that it was ‘just a compliment’ or that you’re being too serious or sensitive. Such comments may be an attempt to divert attention away from what was said and to avoid confrontation.
Remember to stand strong and firm within yourself, and know that if you were upset by something, your feelings are valid. Just because they dismiss you and avoid a direct answer does not mean your feelings were unreasonable.
3. Don’t take the bait
It is important to remember when approaching or addressing the behavior not to react the way the person wants you to. If you know that they want to elicit an angry reaction from you to vicariously release their own anger, don’t fall for it.
For example, if your mother mentions how your black dress makes you look slimmer, try saying ‘thank you’ instead of showing her you’re upset. It may not be how you want to react, but you will avoid giving her the satisfaction of hitting you with a backhanded compliment.
4. Check your own behavior
Are you looking at the speck in your neighbor’s eye but can’t see the log on your own? Pay attention to your own behavior and see if you’re not guilty of the same thing that’s bothering you.
Do you give someone the silent treatment when you’re angry with them? Do you use sarcasm to avoid having a meaningful conversation? Do you sulk when you’re unhappy with someone as a way of expressing how you feel?
If you answered yes to the above, you may be exacerbating the issue. Remember that passive aggressive behavior is not only harmful to the receiver, but to the giver as well.
If you notice passive aggressive tendencies in your own behavior, consider working on finding better, healthier ways to communicate. This will not only benefit the relationship, but will promote your individual happiness too.
5. Encourage communication
Often, passive aggressive people struggle to fully understand their feelings. One of the best ways to deal with passive aggressive behavior is to encourage the individual to communicate and bring to light even the ‘little things’ when they come up.
The issues might seem small or insignificant, but if something is causing anger in the person, it’s best that they get it all out. Over time, they may be able to contain and process their feelings on their own, but if they tend toward passive aggressiveness now, the little things will soon build up and lead to resentment and major conflict.
6. Set boundaries
Boundaries are your responsibility to yourself. They are not something that others have to uphold for you. When you set a boundary, you let others know what you will and will not tolerate. The person might fear the consequences of outward expressions of anger, but let them know that their indirect anger has consequences too.
Remember that your health and well-being should always be your utmost priority, so if someone’s behavior is bringing you down and making you feel like less than you’re worth, it is well within your right to set a boundary, which sometimes looks like cutting that person out of your life.
You may not wish to completely cut them out, but still it’s essential to set healthy boundaries for yourself as soon as possible, rather than not setting them and regretting your procrastination later.
For example, if someone promises to pick you up at a certain time, however, they repeatedly show up late and fail to let you know in advance that they won’t be on time, you could set a boundary by letting them know that if they’re late again next time and fail to let you know, you won’t be going with them.
Passive aggressive people will continue to behave as they do if you don’t set a boundary. If you continue to let their passive aggressive behavior slide, what do you teach them about yourself?
How do you expect them to behave next time? Between the lines, you’re telling them that their behavior is acceptable.
If you set a healthy boundary by letting the other person know that you will not tolerate their passive aggressiveness, you teach them that if they want to maintain their relationship with you they’ll have to find a healthier way to communicate.
How to Deal with Passive Aggressive Behavior in the Workplace
Dealing with a passive aggressive coworker can be tricky. At work, we usually try to maintain some sense of detachment and decorum in our relationships. This is already difficult at times, and passive aggressive coworkers can make it all the more challenging.
If one of your coworkers or your boss displays a pattern of passive aggression, try to explain to them that their behavior is affecting your well-being, which may in turn affect your work performance.
We don’t usually have the freedom to be as emotional in the workplace as we can sometimes be in the family or with a partner, but letting your coworker know that you notice their behavior and asking them to be more open with communication can go a long way in improving the workplace atmosphere.
Perhaps their behavior makes you lose focus, which is a perfectly valid reason to confront it. Maybe their behavior leads to a less productive work day because they are less engaged with their own tasks.
These are logical reasons why you could ask someone to stop being passive aggressive and deal with their feelings upfront.
How to Deal with Passive Aggressive Behavior in the Family
Dealing with a passive aggressive relative presents unique challenges. Dealing with passive aggressive partners or coworkers may be solved, in extreme cases, by cutting that person out of your life, but family members can be harder to cut out.
Just because someone is a family member, that doesn’t mean you need to put up with behavior that you wouldn’t tolerate from anyone else. Relatives, especially older relatives, can sometimes make you feel bad for confronting them because you should ‘respect your elders’. What they may not realize is that respect is not about conforming to and enabling their unkind or disrespectful behavior.
How to Deal with Passive Aggressive Behavior in Romantic Relationships
Romantic relationships can be tricky to navigate. Often they shed light on our most vulnerable selves, so it’s easy to get caught in emotional turmoil.
We tend to project our deepest fears and insecurities onto our partners, which is why many people may exhibit passive aggressive behavior toward those with whom they’re in a relationship.
If your partner is behaving passive-aggressively toward you, try to confront them about it. Let them know that you are willing to openly discuss any issue they have, but that they’re going to have to be honest and upfront if they would like to continue the relationship.
Sometimes, a partner’s unhealthy behavior calls for separation. At work and within the family it can be harder to remove yourself from situations in which a person is behaving passive aggressively toward you, but in a relationship where you have the freedom to change the situation, some distance or separation may be necessary.
The Bottom Line
Hopefully you have found this article helpful in understanding what passive aggressive behavior is and how to deal with it properly. When it comes to passive aggressive behavior, make sure that you notice the signs, set boundaries, check your own behavior, don’t take the bait and encourage open communication.
Reading up on upsetting and frustrating behavior is an excellent way to support and cultivate your own psychoeducation, and helps you gain a deeper understanding of why you or the people in your life behave in a certain way. Still, remember that each person is unique, and there are infinite possible cases for one’s behavior.