Passive-aggression: Signs, causes, and treatments
Reviewed by therapist.com team
Written bytherapist.com team
Last updated: 10/13/2022
Passive-aggression is an indirect method of expressing anger. Instead of openly communicating their negative feelings, people who use a passive-aggressive approach prefer to make their feelings known through more subtle tactics, often relying on insinuation, tone of voice, and body language to get their point across.
People who use passive-aggression want to make their negative feelings known without having to deal with other people’s negative emotions in a direct conflict. By implying their meaning instead of stating it directly, passive-aggressive people give themselves the option to deny their feelings if the conversation veers too closely to an actual argument.
Anger is a normal, healthy emotion, but passive anger is not. Passive-aggression can be an intentional tactic used to harm others, or it can be an unintentional denial of your feelings to yourself. Some people truly believe they aren’t angry, even when they’re sulking or snapping at others. Repressing your emotions through passive-aggressive behavior can result in chronic stress, as well as more explosive outbursts later.
Mental health experts recommend expressing your negative feelings through assertive communication instead of passive-aggression. Assertiveness is a healthy, balanced way to express your point of view with confidence while still listening to others’ points of view. It prioritizes healing and justice instead of vindication or revenge.
People typically engage in passive-aggressive behaviors for three primary reasons: learned behaviors, situational factors, and personality.
People who are passive-aggressive may have had parents, family members, or other authority figures who modeled that behavior for them in childhood. For some people, passive-aggression may be the only way they know how to express their negative feelings.
Passive-aggression may also be a coping strategy or survival tactic learned in childhood in response to trauma. If a parent was aggressive or violent, for example, a child may overly rely on passive-aggression, believing it to be a healthier option than the abuse they may have experienced or witnessed.
Even if you learned healthy communication skills while growing up, there are certain situational factors that can make you more likely to express your frustrations in an unhealthy manner. Stress in particular can trigger you to do or say things that may not align with your values. Whether you’re hungry, overtired, anxious, or overwhelmed, situational factors can increase the likelihood that you will resort to more unhelpful behaviors, like passive-aggression, rather than the behaviors you desire from yourself, like healthy conflict resolution.
Passive-aggressive behaviors come more naturally to some personalities than others. If you struggle with low self-esteem, the idea of communicating your feelings directly, whether positive or negative, may feel like too big of a risk. Similarly, if your personality tends toward people-pleasing or peace-making, you may have to work extra hard to learn how to assert yourself in response to conflict.
Passive-aggression is not a mental illness. It is a way in which people express their negative emotions. However, passive-aggressive behavior may be symptomatic of or related to other mental health disorders and related conditions, such as:
Wondering if your behaviors or someone else’s are passive-aggressive? See if your actions align with these telltale signs:
- Being intentionally vague: Passive-aggressive people have trouble stating what they want, so they rely on indirect communication as a way to deny their true feelings (e.g., asking someone “Got any plans this weekend?” when they already know the other person has plans that don’t involve them).
- Ignoring or denying an obvious problem: People who are passive-aggressive will give out visible hints that they are angry all the while denying that they are upset. However, healthy conflict resolution depends on both parties’ ability to admit there is a problem.
- Giving backhanded compliments: Insults disguised as compliments (e.g., “You’re so brave for wearing that bikini!”) are a hallmark of passive-aggressive behavior.
- Procrastinating: A passive-aggressive person will delay certain actions or behaviors instead of admitting they don’t want to do them.
- Withholding information: At the core of passive-aggressive behavior is the withholding of information regarding your negative feelings. This can expand to withholding other sorts of information in order to increase your sense of power over the person with whom you’re angry.
- Causing problems through inaction: Intentionally procrastinating on unwanted tasks can progress to intentionally not completing them, causing other people to deal with the consequences.
- Exploiting loopholes: Like deniability, loopholes give passive-aggressive people the ability to justify taking actions that they know are not truly aligned with their values.
- Intending to be overheard: Instead of telling a person how they feel, passive-aggressive people may express their anger or wishes out loud to themselves or someone else, intending to be overheard by the person with whom they’re angry.
- Playing the victim: Passive-aggressive people struggle to accept responsibility for their actions, causing them to make excuses and blame others for their problems. This can feed into a victim complex.
Passive-aggressive behavior can occur anywhere and come from anyone. Whether it’s at home, school, or the workplace, passive-aggression can create an unhealthy environment, especially if it comes from leaders or authority figures.
- Leaving unfinished chores for your partner instead of talking about how to divide necessary chores in an equitable way
- Complaining about your partner’s behaviors to friends instead of having a direct conversation
- Overly relying on sex as a way to express emotions and avoid conflict
- Expecting constant expressions of gratitude from your child in response to basic care tasks that you provide for them, such as making meals, buying necessary clothes, doing laundry, celebrating birthdays, etc. (e.g., “Well, aren’t you going to say thank you?”)
- Attempting to control your child’s behavior through fear and implied negative consequences (e.g., “Well, 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 certain loving actions (affection, encouragement, support, etc.) to certain conditions (perfect grades, identifying as straight or cisgender, not causing conflict, etc.)
- Unclear performance review process
- Seemingly random firings, hirings, bonuses, layoffs, pay raises, etc.
- A culture of sarcasm, gossip, and silent treatment
Passive-aggressive behavior is learned, which means it can be unlearned and replaced with healthier expressions of anger. If you’re struggling with passive-aggression, here are some steps you can take to adopt healthier behaviors:
- Practice self-care: Self-care creates a foundation for your physical, mental, emotional, and even spiritual health. By practicing self-care, you’ll avoid scenarios in which situational factors (e.g., lack of sleep, hunger, stress) tempt you to resort to passive-aggression.
- Learn to self-regulate: Self-regulation is the ability to observe, manage, and adapt your emotions and behaviors to suit the situation. By learning how to self-regulate, you’ll improve your ability to respond to stressful situations in ways that are in line with your values.
- Practice assertive communication: Make a concerted effort to express your emotions directly while still keeping an open mind.
- 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 & commitment therapy (ACT), couples therapy , and internal family systems (IFS) therapy can all help you unlearn passive-aggression. Click here to find a therapist near you.
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