Warning Signs of Passive-Aggressive Behavior

Passive-aggressive behavior is when a person has a hostile motive that they are unaware of, and they act in a harmful way that seems accidental or neutral. This may include things they do as well as things they say.

Passive-aggressiveness is not something that happens once. It's a pattern or theme in communication and behavior. For example, someone who is jealous of the job promotion of another person may congratulate them, and then continually make mistakes and comments that reflect poorly on the job performance of the other person.

Those who struggle to process their thoughts and/or feelings and communicate directly may exhibit passive-aggressive behavior.

This article discusses how to recognize passive-aggressiveness in yourself and others, what causes passive-aggressive behavior, and some examples. It also covers what you can do when someone is being passive-aggressive toward you.

group of people around a table, one looking unhappy, listening to another person speak

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Recognizing Passive-Aggressive Traits

A longstanding pattern of passive-aggressive behavior that negatively interferes frequently with work, home, or academic success can be diagnosed as passive-aggressive personality disorder.

A person with this personality disorder may show signs in the ways they behave and communicate. Passive-aggressive personality disorder is sometimes referred to as negativistic personality disorder.

DSM-5 Classification

Passive-aggressive personality disorder is not listed on its own in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders (DSM-5) but is instead classified as an unspecified personality disorder.

Behavior

Passive-aggressive behavior traits are the actions, or inactions, that are taken out of negativism. This means when a person behaves passive-aggressively it stems from skeptical or negative thoughts.

Examples of passive-aggressive behavior traits include:

  • Being late
  • Intentionally not being efficient
  • Misplacing or being careless with important things
  • Missing appointments due to forgetfulness
  • Procrastination or leaving tasks and responsibilities to the last minute
  • Repeated mistakes or patterns of different mistakes
  • Stubborn behaviors

Communication

Passive-aggressive traits can present in communication, too. This type of communication is when there are underlying, negative thoughts or feelings but it seems passive on the surface.

Examples of passive-aggressive communication traits include:

  • Cooperative communication despite uncooperative behaviors (e.g. agreeing to something while doing the opposite of what was agreed)
  • Denial of problems
  • Difficulty with expressing negative feelings and with confrontation
  • Muttering to self instead of directly communicating to others
  • Positive facial expressions despite negative feelings
  • Sarcasm
  • Verbalizing concerns of being ignored or not appreciated

Passive-Aggressive Examples

Passive-aggressive behavior can be present in a variety of different situations and relationship interactions. This includes the workplace, romantic relationships, parenting, social settings, athletics, and the educational environment.

Examples of passive-aggressive behavior include:

  • Avoiding conversations that may involve expressing negative thoughts or feelings
  • Ignoring others or pretending not to hear them
  • Insults that seem like compliments or neutral comments
  • Not following orders from superiors
  • Procrastination
  • Providing unwanted advice
  • Resisting the opinions of others
  • Sarcasm
  • Talking about others behind their backs
  • Tardiness
  • Using excuses to make up for problematic behavior
  • Withdrawal from interactions with others

Contributing Factors to Passive-Aggressive Behavior

It is not entirely clear what causes passive-aggressive behavior. This is something that has not been researched as much as active-aggressive behavior.

Even so, some things have been identified as contributing factors. More specifically, passive-aggressive behavior is considered to be a way to self-protect against emotional challenges without the person being aware of it. For example, a person with low self-esteem may unknowingly deny their problems because facing them or thinking about them leads to stress and anxiety.

Potential contributors to passive-aggressive behavior include:

  • Abuse
  • Childhood neglect
  • Childhood trauma
  • Emotional disturbances such as fear
  • External conflict (e.g. a person feeling threatened by someone or something outside their control)
  • Internal conflict (e.g. difficulty making a decision between right and wrong or resisting an urge)
  • Low self-esteem
  • Mental health challenges
  • Negative thoughts, feelings, emotions, or attitude
  • Parents or caregivers modeling passive-aggressive behaviors
  • Stress
  • Substance misuse

Coping Through Therapy

Passive-aggressive behavior is a challenge, but there are ways to cope. Psychotherapy, or talk therapy, is used as a way to help people overcome and cope with passive-aggressive behavior and the contributing factors. Interpersonal reconstructive therapy, which involves recognizing patterns and why they continue, is a type of talk therapy that is used.

Being Self-Aware

With passive-aggressive behavior, the negative thoughts, feelings, or emotions are unconscious. This means the person behaving passive-aggressively is not aware of it. Instead, it is an immature defense mechanism or unconscious process that protects the ego from fear, active aggression, and other responses to conflict.

This is why one of the goals of therapy for passive-aggressive behavior is to bring awareness to the patterns of negative thoughts, feelings, or attitudes contributing to unintentional behaviors. After developing awareness, the person exhibiting this behavior can work on consciously changing it.

If You're On the Receiving End

Passive-aggressive behavior isn't only a challenge for those experiencing it; it's also difficult for those around them, including those on the receiving end. Since this pattern is unconscious, the person acting passive-aggressively is not aware of it, and it's not intentional. It's important to understand that the behavior is the result of a deeper issue that may not have anything to do with the person on the receiving end.

Dealing With Someone Who Is Passive Aggressive

If you're interacting with a passive-aggressive person, following these steps may help ease the tension and make you feel more comfortable:

  • Make sure the situation is safe, and seek help if needed.
  • Remember that it is not intentionally harmful behavior.
  • Try to be compassionate and offer support.
  • Invite an open conversation without pushing it.
  • Accept that the behavior of others cannot be controlled.

Summary

Passive-aggressive behavior is made up of unconscious actions and communication methods that are harmful. This type of behavior usually comes from negativity, but may seem accidental or neutral. These patterns can be behavioral, such as routinely being late, or they can be part of communication, such as sarcasm.

Contributing factors of passive-aggressive behavior include a history of childhood neglect or trauma, low self-esteem, and stress. It's possible to cope with passive-aggressive behavior with talk therapy to bring awareness to the patterns of behavior.

A Word From Verywell

Dealing with passive-aggressive behavior can be a challenge for the person behaving passive-aggressively, for the person at the receiving end of it, and for those around them. If you or someone you know is experiencing passive-aggressive behavior, it is not your fault, and help is available. Reach out to a health professional, such as a primary care practitioner or a psychologist, for support.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Does passive aggression lead to aggressive behavior?

    Passive-aggressive behavior does not necessarily lead to aggressive behavior. However, it's a sign of distress, and people can react unpredictably to distress. Seek help and safety if you think you or someone else may be in danger.

  • How do you tell someone they’re passive-aggressive?

    It's important to remember that people are unaware of their passive-aggressive behaviors, and it's unintentional. When telling someone they're passive-aggressive, it can be helpful to show compassion and understanding, and offer to talk openly.

  • When does passive-aggressive behavior turn toxic?

    Passive-aggressive behavior becomes toxic when the pattern regularly interferes with work, school, relationships, or other areas of life.

  • Do therapists specialize in passive-aggressive behavior?

    While some therapists and other mental health professionals are generalists, others specialize in one or a specific few areas, including passive-aggressive behavior.

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6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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