How to Recognize & Respond to Passive-Aggressive Behavior

In this podcast (episode #339) and blog, I talk about passive-aggressive behavior: what it is, how it can affect us, and how to manage it.

Passive aggressiveness is a form of indirect, hostile communication. People who are passive-aggressive generally mask their anger or frustration instead of being honest about their emotions. This kind of behavior is characterized by hidden antagonism and avoidance.

Almost everyone displays passive-aggressive behavior at some point in their lives—it can be challenging to be open about how we feel. However, there are people who mostly, if not always, express feelings of hurt, anger, frustration, pain, or sadness through passive-aggressive behaviors. If they are asked to do something, for example, they may respond through procrastination and sometimes make intentional mistakes. 

Someone who acts in a passive-aggressive way usually communicates more enthusiasm than they express in their bodies. Essentially, their feelings are expressed through small remarks or actions rather than directly. This can cause a lot of conflict in relationships, and can be quite destructive.

Here are some signs that someone is being passive-aggressive:

  • They are often cynical, pessimistic, or aggressive 
  • They complain about feeling underappreciated
  • They display bitterness and hostility 
  • They are often irritable and frequently disagree
  • They give backhanded compliments 
  • They often refuse to move past an issue while insisting everything is resolved 
  • They get quiet and distant the moment they perceive conflict, especially when someone gives the silent treatment
  • They shut people down and do not talk to them or try to address the issue 
  • Usually, if they are confronted about their behaviors, they will insist the other person doesn’t understand or is making unfair assumptions 
  • They assume others should know how they feel without telling someone 

Below are some examples of passive-aggressive behavior: 

  • Passive-aggressive behavior usually entails backhanded compliments. An example of a backhanded compliment that I am sure many parents have heard is: “You're amazing for going back to work. I could never let a stranger watch my kids!". Embedded within this compliment is a judgement on your chosen career as a parent. 
  • Another example of passive-aggressive behavior is often seen in the workplace: if someone proposes a new plan, a passive-aggressive person may agree with the plan openly but then intentionally miss deadlines, procrastinate, or try to undermine the plan.
  • Another common example that displays passive-aggressive behavior is shortness in language that contradicts the speaker’s body language. So, for example, a person might say “fine…whatever” in response to a disagreement, but completely withdraw afterwards.
  • Sarcasm can also be a common sign of passive-aggressive behavior, especially in people who are often sarcastic. When they receive backlash, they will usually say things like “can’t you take a joke?” or “I’m just being sarcastic, don't you have a sense of humor?”. 

There are many different reasons that may have lead someone to display passive-aggressive behavior. If someone in your life is being passive-aggressive, it is important to first recognize that no human being is flawless, and we need to show compassion without enabling negative behaviors. Second, we need to understand how to deal with people who are passive-aggressive, so that we can protect ourselves from being hurt. 

Some causes of passive-aggressive behavior are:

  1. The behavior began in childhood. The person could have been influenced by their parents or those around them, or learned passive-aggressive behaviors from their environment. They may not have been allowed to directly express their emotions growing up, so they found other ways to channel their emotions. Some people may not even realize that they are being passive-aggressive if they grew up in a household where this type of communication was common. 
  2. Some people may be passive-aggressive because they experienced abuse and/or neglect as a child. These incidents can affect someone’s self-esteem and cause them to have an aversion to outright confrontation. 
  3. Some people may act in a passive-aggressive manner because they are in an environment where open expression of emotion is not socially acceptable, such as in the workplace or at public events.
  4. Some people struggle with being vulnerable, or fear rejection and anger. They may have some social anxiety or struggle with low self-esteem. These people may find being passive-aggressive is easier than confronting others directly. 

This is why it is so important to have compassion for people who resort to passive-aggressive behaviors. We all have our flaws, and the more we try to understand others, the better we become at communicating with each other and accepting one another.  

If you know someone who acts passive aggressively and you have found that it is affecting you in negative ways, there are steps you can work through to manage how you react to them (from my mind management technique, which is called the Neurocycle):

  1. GATHER: Before dealing with someone you know who’s passive-aggressive, try to make sure you’re not coming from a place of anger, fear or frustration. Gather awareness of how you are feeling physically and mentally. Try to calm yourself down by doing something like breath work or yoga before trying to talk with the person in question. 
  1. REFLECT: If you realize that you feel uneasy when you are about to see someone, or if any of the above descriptions and examples of passive-aggressive behavior triggered you, then explore these feelings. Do you know someone that displays these behaviors? When? How? What do you do when you are triggered? Reflect on how and why you feel the way you do. This will help you identify patterns in their behaviors and how you react to their behaviors.  
  1. WRITE: Write down your reflections to help organize your thinking and look for patterns.
  1. RECHECK: Work out your “antidotes”. How can you reconceptualize the situation? How can you get yourself in the right space to deal with this? Here are some examples: 
  • Try to communicate to the person that this is an open environment and they are safe to share their emotions
  • Try to not become reactive, as this is exactly the thing that passive-aggressive people will try to avoid, which may exacerbate the situation
  • Try to avoid name calling
  • Try to avoid calling them passive-aggressive
  • Try to show them grace in the same way you would want someone to show you grace 
  1. ACTIVE REACH: Practice your thought antidotes so they become a habit! These can include: 
  • Practicing assertive communication. Be open and honest and direct, and be specific about the ways in which you have been negatively impacted by their behaviors, but remind them that this issue won’t change how you feel about them and that you want to address it because you care about the relationship.
  • Recognize that sometimes these attempts don’t work because passive-aggressive people have formed a very hard shell for protection. In these cases, try to validate and empathize with them, insofar as you can. Listen to their reasons or excuses (even if it’s frustrating to hear) and try to understand why they are acting in a passive-aggressive way. But, also set clear boundaries that there are certain behaviors that are hurting you. You may find that after this type of conversation they will start working on changing their behaviors to improve your relationship.
  • If you have tried many times and the person is unwilling to listen or continues to harm you through their passive-aggressive behavior, you need create space and set firmer boundaries to protect your mental wellbeing.

But what if you are the one acting passive aggressively? Here are some signs to look out for and questions to can ask yourself if you think you may be have passive-aggressive tendencies:

  • Do you feel confused or conflicted about your emotions? 
  • Do you feel shame, embarrassed or scared about how you feel?
  • Do you fear conflict and avoid open confrontation, especially if “heavy” emotions are involved? 
  • Do you feel like other people won’t care about you or your emotions? 
  • Do you often keep quiet if you have a different view or opinion because you fear you will lose another person’s approval? 
  • Do you ever feel frustrated or angry at someone but don’t feel prepared to talk to them about it? Do you struggle to talk about how you feel when someone has hurt you?  

As mentioned above, passive-aggressive behavior stems from a type of self-protection and fear of vulnerability. However, it can be very damaging, especially when it comes to your mental health and relationships. 

If this is something you need to work on, below are some simple mind management steps you can take:

  1. GATHER AWARENESS of how you are being passive-aggressive. What does this behavior look like in your life?  
  1. REFLECT. The best way to begin to work on this behavior is to try and understand why you communicate like this. Where does your passive-aggressive behavior stem from? Is this the way you grew up? Is this how you learned to express your emotions as a child? Is there a past trauma that you can tie this behavior to? Do certain situations trigger your passive-aggressive tendencies more than others? Have you tried communicating to people in an open way? If not, why? These questions can help you recognize your own passive-aggressive behavior in different situations, so you can take the first steps towards changing how you manage your feelings and act on them.   
  1. WRITE down your reflections to help organize your thinking. This is also a great step to do with a therapist or counselor, where you can also practice open and honest communication. 
  1. RECHECK: Think about what you have reflected on and written down. What are your thought “antidotes”? This includes:
  • Recognizing that it is normal to have feelings of anger and frustration with family and friends and still have a healthy relationship with them.
  • Being open to confrontations. All relationships have tough moments, and avoiding them can be more detrimental than working through them.  
  1. ACTIVE REACH: Try practicing your antidotes to develop new ways of thinking and acting in tough situations. Some ways you can do this is:
  • Practice expressing how you feel. When you do this, use assertive communication, which is a way of clearly expressing your thoughts and feelings without harsh language and without putting down the other person’s thoughts and feelings. Don’t just assume that they know what you want or need. This also involves treating the person you are in conflict with as a part of a team, where you both need to figure out how to resolve the issue—don’t see them as the “enemy”.
  • Give yourself time and grace as you work through this behavior. Remember, nothing can be achieved overnight. Don’t get frustrated at yourself if you find yourself reverting to these old behaviors again; the very fact that you are willing to work on yourself is amazing!

For more on managing passive-aggressive behavior, listen to my podcast (episode #339), and check out my latest book Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess and app Neurocycle.

If you enjoy listening to my podcast, please consider leaving a 5-star review and subscribing. And keep sharing episodes with friends and family and on social media. (Don’t forget to tag me so I can see your posts!).    

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Podcast Highlights

2:05 What is passive aggressive behavior? 

5:00, 38:30 When you are aware of an issue, you can change it! 

7:30 What are the signs of passive aggressive behavior? 

15:10 The power of compassion & understanding 

18:00 Some causes of passive aggressive behavior 

22:20, 26:30 How to respond to people who are passive aggressive

33:40 The importance of boundaries to protect yourself from passive aggressive behavior

36:40 What to do if you act in passive aggressive ways? 

38:00 How to use mind management & the Neurocycle to work on your passive aggressive behavior 

This podcast and blog is for educational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice. We always encourage each person to make the decision that seems best for their situation with the guidance of a medical professional. 

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