What Is Passive-Aggressive Behavior?

People with passive-aggressive behavior express their negative feelings subtly through their actions instead of handling them directly. This creates a separation between what they say and what they do.

For example, say someone proposes a plan at work. A person with passive-aggressive behavior may oppose the plan, but instead of voicing their opinion, they say that they agree with it. Since they’re actually against the plan, however, they resist following it. They may purposely miss deadlines, turn up late to meetings, and undermine the plan in other ways.

Here’s another example: A woman is studying with her boyfriend in the same room. She is upset with him, but instead of telling him that she is mad at him, she blasts the music on their laptop to bother him.

Some common signs of passive-aggressive behavior include:

  • bitterness and hostility toward other peoples’ requests
  • intentionally delaying or making mistakes when dealing with other peoples’ requests
  • having a cynical, pessimistic, or aggressive demeanor
  • frequently complaining about feeling underappreciated or deceived

Passive-aggressive behavior can be a symptom of several mental disorders, but it’s not considered to be a distinct mental health condition. This type of behavior can affect a person’s ability to create and maintain healthy relationships, and can cause problems at work. However, there are ways to manage passive-aggressive behavior so that it doesn’t have a negative impact on someone’s quality of life.

There is usually some disconnect between what a person with passive-aggressive behavior says and what they do. Their behavior often angers family members, friends, and co-workers. However, the person may not be aware of their passive-aggressive behavior.

Signs of this type of behavior include:

  • frequently criticizing or protesting
  • being disagreeable or irritable
  • procrastinating or being forgetful
  • performing tasks inefficiently
  • acting hostile or cynical
  • acting stubborn
  • blaming others
  • complaining about being unappreciated
  • displaying resentment over the demands of others

The exact cause of passive-aggressive behavior isn’t known. However, both biological and environmental factors may contribute to the development of passive-aggressive behavior.

Researchers believe people who exhibit passive-aggressive behaviors begin doing so in childhood. Parenting style, family dynamics, and other childhood influences may be contributing factors. Child abuse, neglect, and harsh punishment can also cause a person to develop passive-aggressive behaviors. Substance abuse and low self-esteem are also thought to lead to this type of behavior.

Underlying health conditions may result in behaviors that appear similar to passive-aggressive behavior. Some conditions associated with passive-aggressive behavior include:

  • attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • stress
  • anxiety disorders
  • depression
  • conduct disorder
  • oppositional defiant disorder
  • bipolar disorder
  • schizotypal personality disorder
  • schizophrenia
  • alcohol abuse
  • cocaine withdrawal

Passive-aggressive behavior isn’t a medical disorder, so a doctor can’t diagnose it. However, a trained mental health professional can help you identify a behavioral problem that requires treatment. They will ask questions about your symptoms and behaviors, including when they began and the effects they have on your life, work, and relationships.

If you suspect that you may be exhibiting passive-aggressive behavior, you should schedule an appointment with a psychologist. The psychologist will ask you to complete several questionnaires about your symptoms, thoughts, and personal history. The psychologist will also ask you questions about your childhood and the experiences that evoke symptoms. Once they identify possible environmental triggers for your passive-aggressive behaviors, they can help you work through them.

However, if the psychologist doesn’t find any potential environmental triggers for your passive-aggressive behavior, they may refer you to a doctor. The behavior may be the result of an underlying health problem. A doctor will perform a physical examination and may order neurological tests to determine whether a medical condition is contributing to your passive-aggressive behavior. Diagnostic testing may consist of blood tests, a neurological examination, and imaging tests.

If you notice passive-aggressive behavior in a spouse or family member, you may want to suggest that they see a psychologist. It can be difficult to be in a relationship with a person who acts passive aggressively, so it’s important to address any behavioral issues that arise.

If an underlying health condition is causing your passive-aggressive behavior, then that condition will be treated first. Your behaviors should improve with treatment.

You may also be referred to a therapist or other mental health professional for counseling. A therapist can help you identify passive-aggressive behavior and teach you how to change your behavior. They can also help you work through anger, resentment, or low self-esteem issues that may be contributing to your passive-aggressive behavior. They may even teach you effective coping strategies, including how to look at a situation objectively and how to solve problems in a healthy way.

Assertiveness training can also help you manage passive-aggressive behavior. These courses teach you how to express your thoughts and concerns effectively. This can help to reduce negative behaviors caused by underlying anger and frustration.

There are also some easy things you can do every day to eliminate your passive-aggressive behavior. These include:

  • being aware of your behavior
  • identifying possible reasons for your passive-aggressive behavior
  • thinking clearly before you act
  • calming yourself down before reacting to situations that make you upset
  • staying optimistic
  • being honest with others and expressing your feelings in a healthy way instead of acting passive-aggressively

While it can be challenging to eliminate passive-aggressive behavior, especially if you developed the behaviors in childhood, you can work through it. Seeing a therapist for counseling can be very helpful, as can changing the way you think every day. Remember that you are in charge of your behavior and you can change it at any time.


How can I deal with someone who frequently displays passive-aggressive behavior?

Anonymous patient


There are several things you can do, depending on how the passive-aggressive behavior is demonstrated to you. For instance, if you are dealing with someone who is sabotaging you at work, you should keep a log or journal of each behavior that they did (or failed to do), along with a description of how their behavior(s) are sabotaging a plan or project. Be specific and include dates and times in your documentation. Confronting the individual (with your supervisor present) will demonstrate to the passive-aggressive person that you will not tolerate their behaviors, and will most likely result in their targeting someone else.

Timothy J. Legg, PhD, PMHNP-BCAnswers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.