Passive-aggressive behavior is a type of aggression that is not direct and is expressed subtly in actions or words. People acting passive-aggressively often deny that their behavior is aggressive.
In some situations, you might find it difficult to open up about feelings of anger, frustration, or disappointment. You might say aloud, “Sure, whatever,” or “Yeah, that’s fine” — but internally, you feel quite the opposite.
Passive-aggressive behavior involves subtly expressing negative feelings through actions instead of handling them directly.
Here’s an example:
During a meeting, your supervisor announces that upper management has recommended some changes in the structure and flow of a typical workday to increase productivity. The new practices they describe sound annoying and unnecessary. Instead of bringing up your concerns, you quietly decide to just keep doing things as you always have.
Here’s another example:
A woman and her boyfriend are studying in the same room. She’s upset with him over something he said earlier, but instead of addressing the issue, she blasts music from her laptop to make it harder for him to study.
Most people communicate passive-aggressively from time to time. Since passive aggression is indirect, it offers a “soft” form of resistance. If someone challenges you, for example, you might deny it by saying, “No, that’s not what I meant at all.”
Passive-aggressive behavior isn’t always conscious or intentional, though it certainly can be.
Maybe you want to end your current relationship. The spark you once felt just isn’t there, and spending time with your partner no longer excites you.
Still, you don’t want to hurt their feelings, so instead of saying, “I want to break up,” you do everything you can to get them to break up with you:
- snapping at them for little things, like leaving dishes in the sink
- cancelling dates by saying you’re too busy, or showing up late
- pulling away when they try to kiss or hug you
- ignoring your phone when they call or text
In general, passive-aggressive behavior involves some disconnect between what you say and what you do. This can confuse and frustrate others who accept your words at face value.
Say your co-worker stops you in the hall and asks for your help with an urgent project. While you really don’t want to do it, you don’t feel as if you can say no.
“Sure, no problem,” you agree. They walk on, and you stalk back to your desk, sinking into your chair with a loud huff. As you start roughly shoving papers around to find the documents you need, you seethe under your breath about how you already have too much to do.
Passive aggression often involves:
- bitterness, hostility, or resentment when other people make requests
- intentionally delaying, making mistakes, or working less-than-efficiently when you don’t want to do something
- a cynical, disagreeable, or stubborn attitude
- a tendency to pout, sulk, or give people the silent treatment when things don’t happen as you planned
- a habit of blaming others for problems
- frequent complaints about feeling unappreciated, misunderstood, or deceived
- a tendency to procrastinate or forget about things you’d rather not do
- a habit of making vague criticisms that aren’t directed at anyone in particular
Another common example of passive-aggressive behavior? “Vaguebooking” (or “vaguetweeting,” if you will).
For example, someone in your life has really upset you. But instead of going to them directly, you make a long post on social media to air your anger and frustrations.
You keep your post free of any identifying details, but you add just enough context that plenty of people know what you’re talking about. Those who don’t know might reach out to ask what’s going on and whether you’re OK.
Early editions of the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM),” which provides diagnostic criteria for mental health conditions, included a diagnosis of passive-aggressive personality disorder (PAPD).
The condition was described as aggression and hostility shown passively, often in response to unfulfilling relationships and jobs.
- passive-aggressive behavior seemed more linked to specific circumstances than fixed traits
- the diagnosis medicalized having a negative attitude
By the 4th edition of the DSM, the condition was renamed negativistic personality disorder. Criteria for the new diagnosis focused more on persistent negative attitudes and emotions rather than specific behaviors.
The 5th edition of the DSM
- make it harder to express yourself
- affect your beliefs about how others perceive you
- make productive communication more complicated
As a result, you might find it more difficult to share painful feelings directly. If you spend a lot of time thinking about the injustice of what you’re experiencing but can’t share your distress, these feelings might reveal themselves more indirectly.
Some mental health conditions can also affect how you express yourself and relate to others, which can lead to behavior that seems passive-aggressive.
Experts generally consider passive aggression a learned behavior pattern that often begins in childhood, but they have yet to find a single specific cause.
Some factors that may contribute include:
Parenting style and family dynamics
If you weren’t allowed to question your caregivers or say “No,” you probably learned other ways to challenge rules or commands that you considered harsh, unfair, or unjust.
Passive-aggressive behavior, then, might have offered a way to obey while still resisting.
Fear of rejection
If you experienced abuse, neglect, or rejection from family members in childhood or romantic partners in adulthood, you may have quickly learned the importance of keeping people happy to protect yourself.
This can leave you with a habit of accommodating others by going along with whatever they suggest. Of course, when you disagree or prefer to do things another way, you might find yourself letting out some of this frustration indirectly.
A need to maintain control
Most people have to do things that they don’t want to do at some point in life. This can feel pretty frustrating, especially if your circumstances often put you in challenging or unpleasant situations.
When you can’t do anything to avoid certain unwanted tasks at work, school, or home, you might make an effort to regain control over the situation by acting out the feelings you don’t want to put into words.
Fear of conflict
Plenty of people have a hard time with tension and conflict in close personal relationships.
You might worry that expressing your true feelings will damage friendships and relationships or affect a co-worker or supervisor’s opinion of you. To avoid criticism and conflict, then, you end up keeping your opinions to yourself.
Difficulty expressing emotions
Not everyone has an easy time expressing (or even recognizing) emotions, especially the unpleasant, unwanted ones.
You might push back your feelings if identifying and sharing them doesn’t come easily, or you believe they might affect how others perceive you.
But even if you avoid expressing anger and irritation directly, they could still show up in your mood and behavior.
How emotions fuel passive-aggressive behavior
At a party, your best friend pulls you into the kitchen and calls out a comment you made to another friend. “That wasn’t very nice, and I really think you should apologize.”
You disagree. “If that bothered them, they’re just too sensitive.”
Your friend insists that you need to apologize, so you give in. Afterward, you start grabbing dirty cups and plates, take them to the kitchen, and slam the door behind you. For the rest of the party, you wash dishes noisily, ignoring everyone else.
At the root of your response lies the fact that you know your friend was right: You did need to apologize. A jumble of other feelings also feed your mood:
- embarrassment about being called out
- frustration with yourself for saying something rude in the first place
- fear that your friends are now upset
You probably don’t need to worry about an occasional passive-aggressive remark or vague complaint. Most people respond this way on occasion, particularly when circumstances make it tough to offer a direct opinion.
An ongoing pattern of passive-aggressive behavior, however, can create a lot of tension in a relationship — and ignoring it often won’t improve the situation.
A few tips to try instead:
- Avoid making assumptions. It can be tempting to say, “You seem upset,” or “I get the feeling you’re disappointed.” But these attempts to empathize can sometimes backfire, leaving the other person feeling attacked instead of understood.
- Ask questions, politely. Consideration and respect can help soothe hurt feelings and keep a situation calm. Asking things like, “How do you feel about what I suggested?” or “Can I ask what’s on your mind?” can open the door to more productive communication.
- Remind them that it’s OK to share feelings. Some people don’t feel safe disagreeing or offering opinions. If that’s the case, reminding them that it’s fine to disagree and talk things through can help. You might say, “I know you said my idea was fine, but I’d love to hear any thoughts you have.”
- Let them know that you’re willing to explore solutions together. In a similar vein, it never hurts to jump right into collaboration. “What do you think? Do you have any alternate ideas?” Maybe those ideas won’t work out, but they might feel better simply knowing you welcomed and considered them.
- Offer patience and compassion. Keep in mind this behavior can relate to harsh parenting tactics or conflict and tension in previous relationships. Having patience as you try the steps above can make a big difference.
- Give them space. Sometimes, people just need a little time to work through their feelings. Once you’ve talked things through, it may help to let matters rest so they can come to terms with their disappointment or frustration.
It’s not always easy to recognize passive-aggressive behavior in yourself, especially when you’ve relied on this response to cope with difficult feelings for most of your life.
Asking yourself a few questions can help you identify a habit of passive-aggressiveness:
- Do I go along with what others suggest but feel annoyed and irritated later?
- When I feel upset and angry, do I talk about those feelings or push them down?
- Do I tend to avoid or ignore people when annoyed with them?
- Do I believe people often treat me unfairly?
- Do I worry people will be angry if I tell them how I really feel?
- When I don’t want to do something, do I put it off as long as possible or do it poorly?
You may not always realize how your behavior comes across, but some people pick up on body language and mood fairly easily.
Eventually, passive aggression can begin to affect your everyday interactions and relationships. These strategies can help you learn to manage this response:
- Reconsider your approach to conflict. Avoiding conflict entirely might seem like a good goal, but conflict can actually be healthy — when you go about it the right way, that is. Our guide to managing conflict can help.
- Try assertive communication. If you grew up learning to not ask for what you want or express your thoughts, it’s only natural you’d fall into a habit of passive-aggressive communication. Getting familiar with assertive communication can make a big difference.
- Practice getting in touch with your feelings. If you have a hard time naming your emotions, you probably won’t find it easy to express them, either. Get more tips on owning and managing emotions.
- Learn to recognize your relationship needs. Passive aggression can also happen when you aren’t sure what you want. You know something isn’t quite right, but you can’t identify why you feel dissatisfied. Spending a little time exploring what you need for yourself can help you determine what’s missing — and ask for it.
- Communicate boundaries clearly. It’s never too late to express or redefine your boundaries in any relationship. Still, stating them openly upfront can help reduce awkwardness when you worry it’s too late to say something makes you uncomfortable. Plus, you’re less likely to express that tension passively later.
If breaking a habit of passive-aggressiveness on your own proves challenging, a therapist can always offer guidance and support. Therapy offers a safe space to:
- explore causes of passive aggression
- practice naming and sharing your emotions
- learn new methods of communication
- build a toolbox of problem-solving and conflict resolution strategies
It’s absolutely OK to disagree with others, feel frustrated when things don’t go your way, and get angry when people treat you unfairly. But venting these feelings passively usually won’t help, and it could make matters worse.
Communicating your feelings assertively, on the other hand, can go a long way toward improving your interactions and relationships, along with your overall emotional health.