Understanding Passive Aggression

What is Passive Aggression?

Passive aggression occurs when people express their hostile feelings and intense anger in indirect ways as opposed to directing their anger directly at the person or situation in question.

Conflict avoidance is the number one cause of passive aggression. People who avoid conflict or situations in which they think potential conflict could occur show displays of anger and resentment in passive ways such as making a sarcastic or critical remark on the side or with a person outside of the situation, hence the term passive aggressive.

Passive aggressive persons will not directly come out and say that they are mad and confront someone who upsets them directly. They are so conflict adverse that they will often deny their feelings when confronted, lie and pretend to be happy and just give you the silent treatment.

Behavioral Characteristics

There are a number of ways in which passive aggressive behavior is displayed:

  • Showing up late to important meetings
  • Making promises with no intention to follow through
  • Making grandiose plans without firm commitments such as detailing the when and where and how
  • Giving an inadequate performance
  • Failing to answer or return phone calls
  • Complaining about problems at work and home to others
  • Sabotaging a team project or family outing
  • Spreading rumors about others
  • Refusing to speak.

The list could go on and on.

Passive Aggressive Behaviors are Harmful

Chances are good that you know of or have someone in your daily life that displays all the characteristics of a passive aggressive personality. Having to constantly deal with a passive aggressive person can be very frustrating in both your professional and personal life. Passive aggressive people tend to by habit lie a lot. They go out of their way to make commitments and show enthusiasm for something, even though they have no intention of doing anything to support your effort. Lies are a way to avoid the conflict that can result from saying “no,” so they would rather pretend than be honest about what they really think about an idea or situation. They may see their lies as protecting you from hurt feelings. As a direct person, you don’t understand this behavior. You want the other person to be like you - open and honest with their feelings. Because you love this person, you continue to push and pled for openness and get nowhere.

You get nowhere because passive aggressiveness is a chronic behavioral pattern. Asking for explanations for their erratic and inconsistent behavior, as well as trying to attempt to have a direct conversation or address a point of conflict, leaves you trapped in an endless cycle of unhappiness with repeated “failures” to fix the problem. Passive aggressive people cannot so easily change their behavior. They are stuck in their ways and the more you push for a direct conversation the more they resist.

There are a lot of reasons why a particular individual may have developed passive aggressive behaviors. They may have low self-esteem and have an underlying feeling of inadequacy that causes them to fail to live up to people’s expectations. So, they criticize and make excuses to avoid having to face their fears of failure. Maybe they grew up in a home where emotion was frowned upon, and so they learned that putting on an agreeable smile and nodding and stuffing their real feelings inside was the way to be safe from punishment. Maybe passive aggressive people avoid conflict because they have a deep fear of abandonment and want to avoid pain at all costs, and this fear cause them to push away the very people they are trying to get close too.

Passive aggressive behavior is not yet classified as a personality disorder, so there are no established treatment programs or medication for this condition (http://www.med.nyu.edu/content?ChunkIID=96685). While such behavior can be indicative of other mental illness such as depression and anxiety that tend to reinforce negative thinking patterns, there are passive aggressive people who have no such illnesses and simply engage in these behavioral patterns. The lies and negativity you receive from a passive aggressive person seems very personal, and you often want to shake that person and say, “stop it.” People who are wrapped up in their passive aggressive cycle of behaviors may not even realize they are hurting you. They are too busy running away from their fears of conflict and failure, and are so shut off from their real feelings that they have a hard time dealing with any outward expressions of emotion and push you away. They don’t know how to healthily interact with others and their world. Getting passive aggressive persons to understand and recognize their own pathological behavioral is an important step towards getting them motivated to change their own behaviors. Passive aggression is a form of abuse. The hostility is still present even though it is not physically violent. Passive aggressive people and their associates are not happy in their relationships with one another and missing out on the true intimacy of open and honest relationships. Knowledge about the negative effects of passive aggression and treating the underlying causes of passive aggressive behavior are the keys to ending the cycle of passive aggression.

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Comments 7 comments

eyezsoblue profile image

eyezsoblue 4 years ago

I've lived with someone who was passive aggressive and know first hand the damage it causes, I left that relationship, it was so bad, I had a nervous breakdown. But there is hope after passive aggression. It takes time, be kind to yourself...healing is possible.

Thank you for your sincere post, it helps so many....


truthfornow profile image

truthfornow 4 years ago from New Orleans, LA Author

Thanks for your comments eyezsoblue. It does hurt and I am glad you were able to get out. I think until you know first hand the pain, it is hard to understand how far passive aggression can really go. I hope people follow your example.


eyezsoblue profile image

eyezsoblue 4 years ago

You are most welcome, in a perfect world all aggressions would be gone but putting a voice to it, allows healing to begin. Thank you for your kindness.


savingkathy profile image

savingkathy 4 years ago from Ontario, Canada

This was a very informative and well written article on passive aggressiveness. Thanks for sharing!


truthfornow profile image

truthfornow 4 years ago from New Orleans, LA Author

Thank you savingkathy for stopping by and reading my article.


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 3 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

This is the best analysis of the subject that I have run across. I don't recall the term coming up in my psychology courses, but it is probably a term that is newer than my courses were. I do recall a professor talking about some ppeople would tend to blame others for something that doesn't go right while other persons tend to blame themselves. Is this related to the subject?

voting up, useful and interesting. will share.


truthfornow profile image

truthfornow 3 years ago from New Orleans, LA Author

Thanks for the comments dahoglund. Passive Aggressive behavior's listing in the DSM as a "real" psychological disorder is under a bit of debate. They are arguing about what all constitutes passive aggressive and if it should be a separate disorder or a subset of other disorders because a lot of people who exhibit passive aggression have other symptoms of other conditions. Deflection can be a part of it, though passive aggressive people tend to be very indirect with their blames.

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