What is passive-aggressive behaviour?

Passive-aggressive behaviour takes many forms, but can generally be described as a non-verbal aggression that manifests in negative behaviour. Put simply, it's 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. Perhaps you 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, or not going along with things. It can either be covert (concealed and hidden) or overt (blatant and obvious).

Passive-aggressive behaviour

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 the trust between people.

It's a creation of negative energy 'in the ether' which is clear to those involved and can create immense hurt and pain for 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 necessarily make us passive-aggressive, 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.

Examples of passive aggression

  • 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: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/disregard for others as punishment.
  • Making excuses: always coming up with reasons for not doing things.
  • Self-pity:  the 'poor me' scenario.
  • Blaming: 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.
  • Victimisation: unable to look at their own part in a situation will turn the tables to become the victim and will behave like one.
  • Withholding: withholding usual behaviours or roles, e.g. sex, cooking and cleaning or making cups of tea, running a bath, all to reinforce an already unclear message.
  • Learned helplessness: where a person continually acts like they can’t help themselves, or is deliberately doing a poor job of something for which they are often explicitly responsible.
  • 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.

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.

What causes passive-aggressive behaviour?

Patterns of unassertive and passive behaviour 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 behaviour pattern.

For example, if a child were 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 the 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, 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's a form of conflict where both/one party cannot engage sensibly.
  • It avoids the real issues.
  • It creates negative feelings and resentments in an unassertive way.

How to overcome the effects of passive-aggressive behaviour

If you have got this far in the article, then it's likely that passive aggression is an area of interest to you, or possibly a problem in your life or the life of someone close to you. Here are my tips for overcoming the effects of passive aggression.

Five tips for overcoming your own passive-aggressive behaviours

  1. Become aware of the underlying feelings causing your behaviour.
  2. 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. 
  3. Take responsibility for your actions and reactions.
  4. Try to not feel attacked when faced with a problem but instead take an overall objective view of the situation.
  5. 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

  1. Become aware of how passive aggression operates and try to be understanding towards your partner.
  2. Explain to your partner how their behaviour towards you is affecting you. Communicate calmly without blaming, e.g. talk about how you feel and what you think without using language that will inflame the situation more. For example, you might say “I feel upset by your behaviour” rather than “you’ve done this or that”.
  3. Be aware of your responses to others and yourself– do not blame yourself for the behaviour and reaction of others.
  4. 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.
  5. Stay strong and focused and move on with your life in a positive way.

This article was written by Andrea Harrn - Psychotherapist and Creator of The Mood Cards.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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