What is Passive Aggressive Behaviour?
Written by listed counsellor/psychotherapist: Andrea Harrn Psychotherapist and Author of The Mood Cards
Passive aggressive behaviour takes many forms but can generally be described as a non-verbal aggression that manifests in negative behavior. It is where you are angry with someone but do not or cannot tell them. Instead of communicating honestly when you feel upset, annoyed, irritated or disappointed you may instead bottle the feelings up, shut off verbally, give angry looks, make obvious changes in behaviour, be obstructive, sulky or put up a stone wall. It may also involve indirectly resisting requests from others by evading or creating confusion around the issue. Not going along with things. It can either be covert (concealed and hidden) or overt (blatant and obvious).
A passive aggressive might not always show that they are angry or resentful. They might appear in agreement, polite, friendly, down-to-earth, kind and well-meaning. However, underneath there may be manipulation going on - hence the term "Passive-Aggressive".
Passive aggression is a destructive pattern of behaviour that can be seen as a form of emotional abuse in relationships that bites away at trust between people. It is a creation of negative energy in the ether which is clear to those involved and can create immense hurt and pain to all parties.
It happens when negative emotions and feelings build up and are then held in on a self-imposed need for either acceptance by another, dependence on others or to avoid even further arguments or conflict.
If some of this is sounding familiar don’t worry – we all do some of the above from time to time. It doesn’t make us passive aggressive necessarily nor does it mean your partner is.
Passive aggression is when the behaviour is more persistent and repeats periodically, where there are ongoing patterns of negative attitudes and passive resistance in personal relationships or work situations.
Some examples of passive aggression might be:
Non-Communication when there is clearly something problematic to discuss
Avoiding/Ignoring when you are so angry that you feel you cannot speak calmly
Evading problems and issues, burying an angry head in the sand
Procrastinating intentionally putting off important tasks for less important ones
Obstructing deliberately stalling or preventing an event or process of change
Fear of Competition Avoiding situations where one party will be seen as better at something
Ambiguity Being cryptic, unclear, not fully engaging in conversations
Sulking Being silent, morose, sullen and resentful in order to get attention or sympathy.
Chronic Lateness A way to put you in control over others and their expectations
Chronic Forgetting Shows a blatant disrespect and disregard for others to punish in some way
Fear of Intimacy Often there can be trust issues with passive aggressive people and guarding against becoming too intimately involved or attached will be a way for them to feel in control of the relationship
Making Excuses Always coming up with reasons for not doing things
Victimisation Unable to look at their own part in a situation will turn the tables to become the victim and will behave like one
Self-Pity the poor me scenario
Blaming others for situations rather than being able to take responsibility for your own actions or being able to take an objective view of the situation as a whole.
Withholding usual behaviours or roles for example sex, cooking and cleaning or making cups of tea, running a bath etc. all to reinforce an already unclear message to the other party
Learned Helplessness where a person continually acts like they can’t help themselves – deliberately doing a poor job of something for which they are often explicitly responsible
Passive aggression might be seen as a defence mechanism that people use to protect themselves. It might be automatic and might stem from early experiences. What they are protecting themselves from will be unique and individual to each person; although might include underlying feelings of rejection, fear, mistrust, insecurity and/or low self-esteem.
Patterns of unassertive and passive behavior may have been learnt in childhood as a coping strategy possibly as a response to parents who may have been too controlling or not allowing their child to express their thoughts and feelings freely. To cope, a child might adopt a passive-aggressive behavior pattern.??For example if a child was ridiculed, put-down or punished for openly expressing their feelings or disagreeing with their parents the child would learn to substitute open expression for passive resistance - agreeing with what mum or dad said in order to be a “good child” or not speaking out honestly or at all. If there was a consistent pattern within the family of punishment or rejection for asserting themselves the child would learn to become highly skilled at passively rebelling. An example of a child rebelling might be around toilet training, withdrawing from family conversation, choosing subjects at school to please parents and then not working hard, around eating and mealtimes - all causing worry and upset to the parents who may have no idea their behaviour is a contributory cause to the problem.
Passive Aggression in the Workplace
In the workplace a passive-aggressive employee or employer may use these techniques as a form of control and/or intimidation. The worker might sulk, make faces, scowl inwardly when given jobs to do or may agree politely and then take ages to do them. By doing so, he they are showing annoyance in the hope they will not be asked to do those tasks again. Employers can also use passive aggression when confronted with employee problems, turning a blind eye, not facing facts or dealing with genuine cases of bullying and intimidation. This avoidant behaviour can be very damaging to individuals and teams of individuals within organisations.
Consequences of Passive Aggressive Behaviour
In being passive aggressive you are not giving yourself or others an opportunity to listen to what you think or feel
When on the receiving end of passive aggression, you can feel confused, upset, offended, guilty and frustrated. You may think you’ve done something wrong, but have no clear idea what it was
It avoids communication in a very negative way
It creates insecurity in all parties
It creates a bad atmosphere between people
It is a form of conflict where either both or one party cannot engage sensibly in the issues
It avoids the real issues
It creates negative feelings and resentments in an unassertive way
Tips to help you overcome the effects of passive aggressive behaviour
If you have got this far in the article then passive aggression is an area of interest to you and possibly a problem in your life or the life of someone close to you.
Five tips for overcoming your own passive-aggressive behaviours:
Become aware of the underlying feelings causing your behaviour
Become aware of the impacts of your behaviour and how your desire to defeat others, get back at them or annoy them creates yet further uncomfortable feelings for yourself
Take responsibility for your actions and reactions
Try to not feel attacked when faced with a problem but instead take an overall objective view of the situation
Learn to be assertive in expressing yourself. You have a right to your thoughts and feelings so communicate them with honesty and truth and strengthen your relationships
Five tips for coping with the passive-aggressive behaviour of others:
Become aware of how passive aggression operates and try to be understanding towards your partner
Explain to your partner how their behaviour towards you is affecting you. Communicate calmly without blaming – i.e. talk about how you feel and what you think without using language that will enflame the situation more. For example you might say “I feel upset by your behaviour” rather than “you’ve done this or that”.
Be aware of your responses to others and yourself– do not blame yourself for the behaviour and reaction of others
Be honest about your part in the situation
If the aggressive behaviour of others continues to affect you in a negative way, set clear boundaries around yourself – rules for what you will and won’t accept. Stay strong and focused and get on with your life in a positive way.
About the author
Andrea Harrn is a psychotherapist and author of The Mood Cards, a self-help card deck of 42 moods and emotions to explore for emotional intelligence and well-being.
Andrea works using an integrative model of therapy and has worked with hundreds of clients over 15 years, helping them find clarity, balance, peace and happiness.
Related articles from our experts
- Why are some people passive aggressive?
Virginia Sherborne MBACP (Accred.)March 15th, 2015
Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.