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Passive aggression: What it is and how to stop

Reviewed by Stephanie Steinman, PhD, CSAC

A woman sits across from her date and raises an eyebrow sarcastically

What is passive aggression?

Passive aggression is an indirect way of expressing anger, resentment, or other negative feelings. Passive-aggressive behavior often involves subtext-heavy means of communicating, such as using sarcasm or changing your tone of voice or body language.

People are often passive-aggressive because it allows them to express negative feelings without having to deal with direct conflict. Implying meaning instead of stating it directly gives people the option of denying their feelings if the conversation veers too close to an actual argument.

Is passive-aggressive behavior healthy?

Negative emotions are normal, but expressing them through passive-aggressive behavior isn’t healthy. Passive aggression can both harm others and cause you to unintentionally deny your feelings to yourself. Some of us truly believe we aren’t angry, even when we’re sulking or snapping at others. Repressing our emotions through passive-aggressive behavior can result in chronic stress, as well as more explosive outbursts later.

Experts recommend expressing negative feelings through assertive communication instead of passive aggression.1 Assertiveness lets you express your feelings with confidence and begin helpful conversations. It also prioritizes mutual respect instead of spitefulness.

Is passive aggression a mental illness?

Passive aggression is not a mental illness. At one point, passive-aggressive personality disorder was a diagnosable condition included in the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” (DSM) published by the American Psychiatric Association, but it’s no longer listed.2, 3

Passive aggression is a common way for people to express negative emotions. However, this behavior can cause problems in relationships with friends, family, or coworkers. It’s also harmful because having a strong support system is so important for treating many mental health conditions, including:

Why are people passive-aggressive?

People can engage in passive-aggressive behaviors for a number of reasons, such as learned behaviors, external factors, and personality traits.

Learned behaviors

Some people learn passive-aggressive behaviors from family members or authority figures during childhood. It may be the only way some people know how to express negative feelings.

Passive aggression may also be a coping strategy or survival tactic learned in response to childhood trauma. If someone’s parent was aggressive or violent, for example, they may have learned to rely on passive aggression, finding it safer than directly expressing their feelings.

External factors

Even if someone learned healthy communication skills while growing up, certain factors may make them more likely to express frustration in an unhealthy way. Stress, in particular, may cause people to speak or act in a way that doesn’t align with their values.

When a person is hungry, tired, lonely, anxious, or overwhelmed, it’s more likely that they’ll resort to unhelpful behaviors like passive aggression, rather than engage in healthy conflict styles.

Personality traits

Passive-aggressive behaviors come more naturally to some people than to others. Having low self-esteem, for example, can make the idea of communicating feelings directly seem dangerous. Similarly, if you tend toward people-pleasing or peacemaking, you may find it difficult to assert yourself in response to conflict.

Signs of passive aggression

If you’re wondering whether your behavior or someone else’s is passive-aggressive, look for these common signs.

  • Being intentionally vague: It’s passive-aggressive to communicate indirectly in order to avoid saying what you want or admitting your true feelings. (For example, when you ask a friend, “Do you have any plans this weekend?,” even though you already know they have plans that don’t include you).
  • Ignoring or denying an obvious problem: Hinting that you’re angry while denying you’re upset is passive-aggressive behavior. Healthy conflict resolution depends on everyone involved being able to admit there’s a problem.
  • Giving backhanded compliments: Insults disguised as compliments (“You’re so brave for wearing that bikini!”) are a hallmark of passive-aggressive behavior.
  • Procrastinating: Delaying certain tasks instead of admitting you don’t want to do them is a passive-aggressive behavior.
  • Withholding information: Beyond refusing to admit your negative feelings, passive-aggressive behavior can look like withholding other sorts of information in order to increase your sense of power over the person you’re upset with
  • Intending to be overheard: It’s passive-aggressive to express anger out loud to yourself or someone else while intending to be overheard by the person you’re actually upset with, instead of telling them directly how you feel.
  • Playing the victim: If you’re struggling to accept responsibility for your actions, it can cause you to make excuses and blame others for your problems.

Examples of passive-aggressive behavior

Whether it happens at home, at school, or at work, passive aggression creates an unhealthy environment, especially if it comes from leaders or authority figures.

Passive-aggressive behavior in a couple can look like:

  • Leaving unfinished chores for your partner instead of talking about how to divide them in an equitable way
  • Complaining about your partner’s behaviors to friends instead of having a direct conversation

Passive-aggressive parenting can look like:

  • Demanding expressions of gratitude from your child for the basic care you provide, such as making meals, buying necessities, doing laundry, or celebrating birthdays (“Well, aren’t you going to say thank you?”)
  • Attempting to control your child’s behavior through fear and implied negative consequences (“I guess we’ll just have to see what happens if you don’t get an A on that test.”)
  • Saying your love is unconditional but tying affection, encouragement, or support to certain conditions (like getting perfect grades, identifying as straight or cisgender, or not causing conflict)

Workplace passive aggression can include:

  • Unclear performance review processes
  • Seemingly random firings, hirings, bonuses, layoffs, or pay raises
  • A culture of sarcasm, gossip, and silence

How to respond to passive-aggressive behavior

If you notice any of these behaviors in someone in your life, here’s an approach that can help.

  • The first step is to recognize and name the behavior.
  • Next you should aim to be direct in your communication, even if the passive-aggressive person isn’t being direct with you. For example, you might say something like: “You’re telling me you’re not upset, but I’m noticing eye rolls and sarcasm. Can we please talk about it?”
  • The person may respond with anger or defensiveness, but it’s important to stay neutral. Leave the door open for a conversation, and they may be more willing to talk later on.

This pattern may need to be repeated over time. If direct communication isn’t working, you might need to disengage or spend less time with this person in order to take care of yourself. Remember that you can control only your own behavior, so keep acting in line with your values.

How to stop being passive-aggressive

Passive-aggressive behavior is learned, which means it can be unlearned and replaced with healthier expressions. If you’re struggling with passive aggression, here are some steps you can take to adopt healthier behaviors.

Practice self-care: If you strengthen your physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health, fewer external forces (like exhaustion and stress) will drive you to resort to passive aggression.

Learn to self-regulate: Observing, managing, and adapting your emotions and behaviors in the moment will help you respond to stressful situations in healthier ways.

Practice direct communication: Work on expressing your emotions directly instead of shying away from conflict.

Challenge and change your behavior through therapy: It can be difficult to change your behavior on your own. Therapy can help you identify the root causes of your behaviors, commit to healthier actions, and work toward better outcomes. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), couples therapy, and Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy can all help you unlearn passive aggression.

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