Also described as non-verbal aggression, passive-aggressive behaviour refers to when you are angry or upset with someone, but don’t or can’t tell them. Frustrating and upsetting for the person on the receiving end, this inability to express difficult feelings in a rational way can often make the problem at hand worse.
What is passive-aggressive behaviour?
Passive-aggressive behaviour can manifest in many different ways. Someone who is passive-aggressive may show resistance when asked to do something, through procrastination, disagreement or by being stubborn. They may refuse to be emotionally open - even if they are apparently angry or upset, they will insist they are fine, shutting down the conversation. They may even make excuses to avoid certain people.
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.
- CBT counsellor Andrea Harrn explains more in What is passive aggressive behaviour?
Passive aggression is often considered a destructive form of behaviour. As with many other forms of destructive behaviour, when things aren’t spoken about and moves toward change aren’t made, things can grow worse. Over time, it can lead to more negative behaviours, trust-breaking down between individuals, creating relationship problems and even leading to relationships breaking down.
Is passive aggression a disorder?
Passive aggression was previously considered a personality disorder. Since the release of the DSM-IV (often referred to as 'psychiatry's bible', which lists the names and criteria of mental health conditions and disorders), passive aggression is no longer listed as a personality disorder. It is instead considered by many to be a personality trait. It is not a mental illness. People with ill or good mental health alike may show signs of passive-aggressive behaviour.
Types of passive-aggressive behaviour
Passive-aggressive behaviour can vary in severity, frequency and intentionality.
When a person with a passive-aggressive personality is given a task that they do not agree with, they may appear positive and agreeable. But inside, they may be furious. Instead of making a fuss, they find other ways to vent their frustration.
CBT counsellor Andrea Harrn explains more about passive-aggressive behaviour, how this can be a problem in relationships, and how counselling could help.
Common types of passive-aggressive behaviour include:
Imagine you’re given a task by your boss that you sincerely disagree with. You’ve been backed into a corner and can see no way out without jeopardising your job or your working relationship, so you intentionally approach the task with laziness.
You may make subtle mistakes that are noticeable enough to aggravate your boss, but not so bad as to warrant punishment. This gives you a sense of power and satisfaction in an otherwise powerless situation and is an underhand way of expressing your lack of care or attention to the task.
Intentional delays and forgetfulness
If you’re a passive-aggressive person, you may believe that going head-to-head with a controlling person is a recipe for failure. If you lack confidence in your ability to communicate, persuade and gain the approval of others, it’s likely you’ve learnt other ways to enforce power. A common form of passive aggression is to exaggerate the characteristics you know they find frustrating. You may demand their attention by being intentionally messy, forgetful or unorganised.
For example, a friend invites you out for dinner but continues to remind you of the time, insisting on reminding you again and again. To express frustration, a passive-aggressive individual may purposely turn up late. While others may consider this disrespectful, a passive-aggressive individual will see this as a small victory.
Instead of putting up a fight or arguing, a passive-aggressive person may become sullen, cold and withdrawn. Imagine being out with your partner and noticing them looking briefly at someone else. Instead of confronting them, you become emotionally closed. They have no idea why you are being so unresponsive, which in turn causes them to feel tense. This kind of behaviour can very easily spiral into a long-term standoff, which can brew and fester, growing into something far more destructive than it should have been.
How to deal with passive-aggressive behaviour
Passive-aggressive behaviour in any situation can be upsetting. Whether it’s someone at work making your work life more uncomfortable, your partner, friend or family member’s behaviour negatively impacting your relationship, or someone else, passive aggression can negatively impact your overall sense of well-being and happiness.
While there is no single ‘best way’ of dealing with passive aggression, it can help to know how to deal with this behaviour in the moment, as well as to know what you can do to support the person showing these behaviours.
Being in a romantic relationship with a passive-aggressive person is not easy. Loving relationships and friendships require honesty, openness and trust in order to work in the long term. Unfortunately, these are characteristics that many passive-aggressive people find difficult, and so, the way they behave can put tension on the relationship.
In relationships, passive-aggressive personalities may appear cold, defensive, secretive, untrustworthy, easily aggravated, and frightened of rejection or abandonment.
While we know the behaviours are indicative of underlying insecurities and feelings that are difficult to express, dealing with this behaviour takes a lot of understanding and patience. If you recognise passive-aggressive behaviours in your partner, know that help is available and there are ways you can support them. However, it’s important you do your research prior to approaching them, to speak openly and without judgement.
How to deal with a passive-aggressive partner
- Create a safe environment where you can both feel comfortable. If you need to confront their behaviour, let them know it’s safe and alright for them to open up with you and tell you what’s on their mind.
- Try not to feel like their behaviour is a personal attack on you. Remember that this behaviour may be a sign of deeper issues, such as fear of rejection. They may love you dearly but remain distant due to the fear that you will leave them.
- Be patient with them. If they feel attacked, they may get defensive and close off further.
- Don’t be overbearing. Remember that passive-aggressive people are often resentful of authority. Instead, show them that you respect their opinions and ideas.
- Talk to each other. If something has upset either of you, be open and be blunt in talking about it. Instead of leaving it to build, discuss it there and then. Passive-aggressive people struggle to express how they are feeling, so they may find your approach refreshing.
- Don’t give in. Your partner may use passive-aggressive tactics to feel like they are in control or secure. Giving in to these tactics can reinforce these behaviours, as they are seeing their desired results. Staying firm can help encourage them to readjust their approach, and tackle things from a new angle.
- Look after yourself. Living and loving a passive-aggressive person can be very difficult and sometimes, it’s best to walk away. Your health comes first and while they may have their own reasons for behaving this way, it’s down to them to deal with them.
Passive aggression in the workplace can be extremely destructive to not only productivity but general company morale. Managing an individual with passive-aggressive tendencies can be a massive undertaking, providing an often frustrating challenge for any team leader or manager.
For people exhibiting these behaviours, it may be that they were suppressed or put down a lot as children. As they grow up, they have come to dislike authority. This sense of resentment can be difficult to shake, so can make working with them a challenge.
Common signs of a passive-aggressive employee include feeling under-appreciated, lack of accountability, blaming others, procrastination or poor time management, appearing irritable without reason, and commonly using notes or emails to communicate in difficult situations rather than speaking face to face.
How to deal with a passive-aggressive employee
- Reward good work. Positive reinforcement can help encourage the kind of behaviour you hope to see in the future.
- Show appreciation for what they do and let them know they are valued in the team.
- Be clear with expectations and boundaries from the beginning. Passive-aggressive behaviours can often stem from seeking to increase feelings of security, stability, and control over a situation. By being clear from the outset, you may be able to help them feel more empowered, comfortable, and secure.
- Where possible, give them an element of choice and control in the work they do.
- Have regular meetings to check-in, and speak about any concerns they have.
- Don’t cave into passive-aggressive behaviours. Doing so can encourage them to keep doing said behaviours, as they have seen their desired results from this behaviour in the past.
How to spot signs of passive-aggressive behaviour
There can be several red flags that can indicate someone may be exhibiting passive-aggressive behaviours. These can include:
- Showing signs of resentment or opposing requests from others (especially from figures of authority, such as toward their line manager).
- Procrastinating, showing reluctance to cooperate, intentionally making mistakes or working slowly when faced with completing demands or requests for others.
- Having a cynical, hostile, sulky, or sullen attitude, or frequently complaining about things (eg. feeling underappreciated).
- Denying that anything is wrong (eg. feelings of anger or frustration) to avoid direct confrontation or addressing uncomfortable feelings.
- Communicates in an indirect way (eg. hinting or alluding to, instead of directly stating what they need, want, or a complaint that they have).
- Outwardly agreeing to be cooperative but deliberately doing things that contradict this agreement or may slow down progress.
What triggers passive-aggressive behaviour?
While there is no single known trigger, there are some common triggers that researchers believe can lead to people exhibiting passive-aggressive behaviour. These can include:
- low self-esteem
- a history of child abuse or child neglect
- anxiety disorders
- substance abuse
- upbringing (eg. raised in an environment where positive methods of expressing emotions were discouraged, not allowed, or not taught)
Passive-aggressive behaviour can also be a learned behaviour.
Am I being passive-aggressive?
Passive-aggressive behaviour is often triggered by a desire to please people. Reasons why you may show passive aggression include:
- wanting to keep the peace
- attempting to avoid mistakes
- trying to appear more confident and authoritative
- being afraid of rejection or criticism
Typically, passive-aggressive people are unwilling to expose their true feelings. This can mean that you could be unintentionally seen by others as rude, stubborn, careless, lazy, bitter, manipulative, or close-minded.
If you recognise signs of passive aggression in your own behaviour, or you are worried about someone you know, help is available. We all show these behaviours from time to time, but if it’s negatively affecting your own or someone else’s well-being, support may be needed.
Managing passive-aggressive behaviour
As mentioned above, many of us will display passive aggression at some point. Most people don’t like conflict and will avoid it where possible, and passive aggression is one of the ways we learn to deal with these situations. And in some situations, it is appropriate to keep emotions to yourself until you’re in a safe, private space.
If you recognise passive-aggressive personality traits in yourself or someone you know, it is recommended you seek professional support. There are so many reasons why you or someone you know is behaving a certain way, and it may be that they need support.
The thing to remember is to be aware of your behaviour. When you think you’ve behaved in a passive-aggressive way, consider what happened and why. Once you understand what is bothering you, you can begin to form a reasonable answer in your head. When you have an idea of the things that cause upset or anger, you can begin to explore the different ways you can address the situation in future.
For example: Imagine a problem. Perhaps you’ve noticed your partner spending more time than usual on their phone, and you suspect they are talking to a past love interest - you need to consider your options. While tempted to ignore them for the next few days or take their phone and send a message in retaliation, this kind of behaviour will only cause more problems.
The way to understand what’s going on is to talk about it.
- Be casual and try not to sound accusing.
- Be honest and tell them you’re worried. This lack of trust needs to be addressed, whether it’s your own doubt or something more serious.
- If what you suspect is true, ask them why and explain why you think it is unacceptable behaviour.
Forcing yourself to be frank, honest, sympathetic and tactful is always going to reap healthier rewards than being cold, defensive and vindictive. Often, other people will have no idea why you are upset about something. Instead, you may appear difficult and people will find it hard to warm up to you. This can be upsetting for everyone involved and often, the person showing passive-aggressive behaviour becomes isolated.
Learning to express how you feel in a positive, constructive way can help deepen your relationships with people. Talking about how you feel and expressing yourself when someone has upset you isn’t easy, but confronting the issue without conflict is possible.
Effective communication is the glue that binds two people and if communication is poor, vulnerabilities will emerge. Regular communication helps clear the air and press the reset button. Communicate directly, clearly and openly using assertive communication rather than indirect passive-aggressive behaviour. Over time, passive-aggressive behaviour will erode goodwill in the relationship.
- Counsellor Mandy Kloppers explains more in How to improve communication in relationships
Changing such deeply embedded behaviours takes time. If your behaviour is affecting relationships, work life or your mental health, seeking professional help from a qualified counsellor or therapist can help. Speaking in a safe, confidential space can allow you to not only understand your behaviours and what caused them, but take the steps to rebuild your trust, and learn how to express feelings in an honest, healthy way.
Can counselling help with passive-aggressive behaviour?
Counselling for passive-aggressive behaviour can often be an extremely delicate process. This is because people who display this form of behaviour do not react well to being ordered to think in a certain way or reveal certain specific details about themselves. Remember, passive-aggressive people often spend their whole lives denying or repressing their true feelings and opinions, so opening up will take time. Often, they will go out of their way to expose the source of authority as ineffective or incompetent.
Some counsellors and psychotherapists believe that in order to tackle our behaviours, we must revisit our childhood. We must learn how we became the people we are today and identify the events that triggered certain insecurities, fears and anxieties.
Once you understand potential triggers and the reasons behind your behaviour, together with your therapist, you can learn how to manage these feelings and express them in a healthy way.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a popular therapy used to help clients understand their thoughts and behaviours, and learn how to change them. CBT combines two different approaches for practical and solution-focused therapy. The therapy is very active by nature, so you may be expected to take a proactive role in your treatment. This may include completing tasks at home.
The idea behind CBT is that our thoughts and behaviours will influence each other. The premise is that, by changing the way we think or behave in a situation, we can change the way we feel about life. The therapy examines learnt behaviours, habits and negative thought patterns with the view of adapting and turning them into a positive.
Finding a therapist
Currently, there are no official rules or regulations stipulating what level of training a counsellor dealing with passive-aggressive behaviour needs. There are, however, several accredited courses, qualifications and workshops available to counsellors to improve their knowledge of a particular area.
Do your research and learn as much as possible about their qualifications, experience and the way they work before booking sessions. Once you have found a therapist you resonate with, simply call them or send them an email. You may not find the right therapist for you straight away, so take your time. It’s important you find the right person to help you.
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