Learn where passive aggression comes from and what to do about it.
Relatively few people learn assertive communication skills growing up, and it shows in our daily lives as adults. Maybe it’s your sibling, mentioning again on a phone call that somebody ought to call Mom and Dad more often. Maybe it’s your coworker, who smiles and nods when you ask them to share that file with you, but the file never quite arrives. Or maybe it’s you, having your frustration with your romantic partner come out sarcastically instead of directly. These are all examples of what we call passive aggression, a surprisingly common – and ineffective – communication style.
Passive aggression is behavior that is aggressive toward somebody else, meaning it intends to cause them harm, but that is designed to minimize the appearance of anger and intention to hurt on the part of the aggressor (Hoffman, 1995). People who are passive-aggressive are either unaware of their anger or unwilling to show it directly, so they let it come out in passive-aggressive ways instead. By being passive-aggressive, the person can more easily deny to themselves that they are actually angry.
What causes people to be passive-aggressive? One theory is that when people grow up in an environment where their anger is punished, their efforts at autonomy are resisted, and/or they are expected to submit to others’ authority, they learn that the least dangerous way to express their aggression is passively (Benjamin, 1993). Another theory is that people who are passive-aggressive see other people as demanding and likely to ask too much of them, while they see themselves as easily controlled by others (Pretzker & Beck, 1996). In this case, people would be passive-aggressive because it is the only kind of aggression of which they think they are capable.
Passive aggression is also considered a defense mechanism in psychoanalytic theory (Freud, 1936). Defense mechanisms are unconscious, instinctual behaviors done in reaction to emotional distress that we do not think we can handle. Since passive aggression does not resolve the situation – it is not a direct or effective expression of anger – it does not solve the situation at hand, and so it is considered an immature defense mechanism (Cramer, 2015; Vaillant, 1994).
Passive aggression is most likely something we learn by example. If you grew up in a household where people would express their frustration in quiet ways that seemed meant to fly under the radar, it can send the message that direct confrontation and assertion of one’s needs isn’t acceptable, necessary, or healthy.
In addition to watching out for the examples and phrases I’ve already mentioned, you can look for general signs in somebody’s personality that suggest they are more likely to behave passive-aggressively. People who are passive-aggressive have a harder time meeting their own needs, staying regulated around other people, and feeling secure in their social relationships (King & Terrance, 2006).
In other words, if you have a hard time trusting others or you get embarrassed about your own needs, you may be more likely to try to get what you want passive-aggressively. All forms of aggression are engaged in with the goal of getting something, or setting an important boundary – if you don’t think you deserve that something, or feel guilty about wanting that boundary, you may try to get it passive-aggressively.
List of Passive Aggressive Behaviors
To help you fully understand passive aggression, here are some additional examples of passive-aggressive behaviors:
Withholding affection or relationship behaviors you usually engage in
Procrastinating on commitments you’ve made to other people
Holding back your true feelings when you say you’re being honest
Repeatedly forgetting commitments you’ve made or showing up late
Sulking or acting resentful to get attention from others
How To Deal With Passive Aggression
Here are some tips for dealing with passive aggression in yourself and in others. If you think you are behaving passive-aggressively, you can try the following:
Try your best to understand what you are feeling. Might you be in denial about feeling angry or frustrated? Sad or disappointed?
Try your best to understand how your feelings are connected to your behaviors. Do you find yourself wanting to hide from your partner or friends when you are angry at them?
Recognize that these interactions are your responsibility. If you start ignoring your partner when you feel let down by them, they cannot fix this behavior for you.
Ask someone else – who is not emotionally invested in the situation – for help analyzing what’s going on. They can give you a more objective assessment of what’s happening.
Practice articulating your feelings-behavior connection. You might say it to a friend first: “When I feel let down by him, I want to avoid interacting with him so I don’t feel more hurt.” Work up to telling the person directly what you’re feeling.
If you perceive that other people are behaving passive-aggressively, you can try the following:
Name the impact of the behavior in a way that is not shaming or blaming of the other person: “It is upsetting to me when you show up late to dinner. I want to understand why this keeps happening.”
Don’t take responsibility for a behavior that is outside your control, but also be honest about your role in the situation: “There might be times when I am not clear in my expectations, but I also think this is an ongoing pattern of behavior on your side that won’t work for me.”
Set clear boundaries to protect yourself from more passive-aggressive behavior: “If we can’t have our meals start at the right time, I may not be able to go to dinner with you anymore.”
If you notice yourself engaging in passive-aggressive behaviors, try not to start blaming or shaming yourself. We all can be passive-aggressive from time to time. It can take lots of self-reflection, the help of close friends, and lots of support and accountability to reduce the amount of time you spend responding passive-aggressively. The rewards are worth the effort and, hopefully, you can take action to reduce the impacts of passive aggression in your life.
Benjamin, L.S. (1993). Interpersonal diagnosis and treatment of personality disorders. New York: Guilford.
Cramer, P. (2015). Understanding defense mechanisms. Psychodynamic Psychiatry, 43, 523–552.
Freud, A. (1936). The ego and the mechanisms of defense. New York, NY: International University Press.
Hoffman, R. M. (1995). Silent rage: Passive-aggressive behavior in organizations. Unpublished dissertation. The Union Institute.
King, A. R., & Terrance, C. (2006). Relationships between personality disorder attributes and friendship qualities among college students. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 23(1), 5-20.
Vaillant, G. E. (1994). Ego mechanisms of defense and personality psychopathology. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 103(1), 44-50.