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Passive-aggressive behaviors, traits and disorders: An overview

Updated on October 22, 2011
Beware of this person.
Beware of this person. | Source

Passive-aggression is an immature defence mechanism that describes obstructionist or resistant covert tendencies. Initially, the term was applied to concealed, non-compliant behaviours. However, the term was extended to describe traits and even a personality disorder.

The reason for passive-aggression is that negative emotions cannot always be expressed to the stimulus. For example, an employee who does not like a reasonable directive issued by the boss may delay performing the task as a sign of resistance. Then too, being sullen or otherwise subtly resistance may be the easy response to such a situation.

It is called an immature defence because it is common in children who cannot act out against figures of authority. However, in adults, the “mature” way to approach situations is to dialogue and seek helpful, sustainable solutions. Passive-aggression usually gets in the way of this.

The behaviour

As far as the behaviour goes, everyone has the potential to display passive-aggressive conduct at one point or another. For many persons, it is a contextual phenomenon which arises when goals or desires are obstructed, denied outright or invalidated. Persons who display this behaviour act out through frustration and when the source of it is perceived as too dominant. As a result, the passive-aggression is a direct result of the inability to effectively cope with anger or frustrations. It is merely a response to an external stimulus.

The trait or disorder

Passive-aggressive tendencies can be pathological or unwholesome. This is when it’s more than just behaviour, but a personality trait or disorder. To use attribution theory, it is unhealthy when it is in the person’s make-up as opposed to being conduct that is linked to an external stimulus. It can be pathological as well.

Take the example of someone who loses their temper and starts yelling at people. A person with a passive-aggressive disorder may smile at the source of their frustrations, let it build up over time, and probably shoot them eventually. Therefore, the behaviour is habitual and patterned, regardless of whether it is appropriate or not. It is compulsive and represents an inability to address negative emotions in a socially desirable manner.

Possible causes

It is evident that there are several root causes of passive-aggressive tendencies. For behaviour, it is merely a source of frustration that is too powerful or influential to deal with. However, as a trait or disorder, it is far more deep-rooted. In such cases, it may be tied to the person being socialized in an environment where it is difficult or unsafe to express negative emotions. Those persons may be feeling pure hate but may be acting normal.

Overcoming Passive-Aggression: How to Stop Hidden Anger from Spoiling Your Relationships, Career and Happiness
Overcoming Passive-Aggression: How to Stop Hidden Anger from Spoiling Your Relationships, Career and Happiness

Hidden anger that comes out indirectly—through inappropriate, unproductive action or even inaction—can undermine relationships with friends, family and colleagues at work. Murphy, a psychologist and member of Congress, and Oberlin (coauthors of The Angry Child) closely examine how this kind of anger, called passive-aggressive, can undermine sufferers and their relationships and make life generally miserable.


More on passive-aggression...

Passive-aggression as a trait may not necessarily be pathological, since it may stem from a person’s immaturity with regard to handling conflict or negativity. They may avoid it and express it through these subtle resistance behaviours.

This is different from displacement, which refers to acting out against a person or object that is not the cause of the negative emotion. Passive-aggression is repressed behaviour that is manifested in the subconscious mind. Often, the person displaying this conduct is unaware from it or may flatly deny exhibiting it.

This tendency, trait or disorder is defined by a high level of ambiguity between words and deeds, or one action and another. This is because passive-aggressive behaviour is neither genuine nor sincere. The result of this is having compliant words or actions co-existing with obstructionist behaviours.

This is where passive-aggressiveness may seem a bit spiteful, since there is the desire to strike back by transferring the negative emotion to another context against the source of the frustration. An example of this may be a wife not speaking to her husband because he stayed out late the night before.

Passive-aggression is usually an attempt to regain control of a situation in an understated manner. As an ego defence mechanism, it can protect one’s ego if it involves blaming others or being fearful of intimacy. Passive-aggression is usually exhibited by those who are not in control or do not feel in control of their situation or emotions.

Everyone was/ is guilty of passive-aggressive conduct at some point in their lives. However, more powerful or dominant personalities do not use this strategy much since they tend to make their true feelings felt and are unafraid of, or invulnerable to, consequences. As a trait or disorder, it is more disturbing than it is as behaviour.


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  • WD Curry 111 profile image

    WD Curry 111 6 years ago from Space Coast

    Good job of describing this behavior. I have never liked the term passive/aggressive since it is self contradictory. Maybe it should be sneaky/aggressive. Anyway, you nailed it!

  • I Am Rosa profile image

    Rosa Marchisella 6 years ago from Canada

    Sweet! Thanks :-)

  • SpiffyD profile image

    SpiffyD 6 years ago from The Caribbean

    No I don't mind at all IAR. Thanks for the read and the comments.

  • I Am Rosa profile image

    Rosa Marchisella 6 years ago from Canada

    Awesome article! I was hoping to find something well-written like this regarding passive-aggressive behaviour!! Hope you don't mind if I link to in my Tips for Men article you commented on earlier ...?

  • SpiffyD profile image

    SpiffyD 6 years ago from The Caribbean

    Thanks for the comment hungrymouse.

    @Frank: I always liked psychology and did Social Psychology as a module for my degree. I didn't read the encyclopedia by the APA, but I'll be sure to check it out. Thanks

  • profile image

    Frank Sanello 6 years ago

    As the victim of several passive-aggressive people, I found your Hub absorbing...and disturbing!

    When I recognize passive-aggressive behavior that isn't pathological, I work around the individual. I usually ask him to give me his honest opinion without fear of criticism.

    Have you noticed that bipolar patients and people with Attention Deficit Disorder often display signs of passive-aggressive behavior as well.

    I see we are both students of psychology. The DSM-IV is my favorite bedtime reading. :)

    Do you read the encyclopedia of mental disorders compiled by the American Psychiatric Association?

    Great Hub, Spiffy!


    Frank Sanello

  • hungrymouse profile image

    hungrymouse 6 years ago from North America

    Excellent breakdown of a very complex topic with a description of authority.

  • SpiffyD profile image

    SpiffyD 6 years ago from The Caribbean

    @Stump. There are many terms in Psychology that deal with various defence mechanisms. Many stem from the lack of ability or willingness to deal with certain negative events or persons. I would not describe that as passive-aggression though. Thanks for the comment.

    @Jason. The term is bandied about a lot, even popping up in a few comedies. I remember the movie "Anger Management" where Jack Nicholson's character described Adam Sandler's character as being dangerously passive aggressive. I enjoyed that movie. I'm glad that you found my article easier to read.

    @ubanichi. Thanks for the read and comment!

  • ubanichijioke profile image

    Alexander Thandi Ubani 6 years ago from Lagos

    Thanks for this great hub. It is informative, detailed, well explained and thorough. I thank you for your time

  • Jason Oleinik profile image

    Gleb Oleinik 6 years ago from Richmond, BC, Canada

    Nice hub, I actually never understood what passive-aggressive behavior was. I tried to read about it on wikipedia but couldn't quite understand the concept. Now I do!

  • Stump Parrish profile image

    Stump Parrish 6 years ago from Don't have a clue, I'm lost.

    That was an interesting read and it brought up a question. Would the class clown form of defense be a possible indication of this sort of behavior. I am wondering about my almost involuntary use of comedy to hide my feeling from those around me. This was a lot more common in my younger days but I still catch myself doing it. I have been on a voyage of self discovery lately and I am amazed that I survived with anything close to sanity.

    For years I was unable to confront anyone nor was I able to deal with what was going on in my life and in my head. I have taught myslelf to try and deal with thing that make me uncomfortable as they happen, I still have a ways to go but I do try to acknowledge to myself that I am making progress. Interesting hub and I look forward to learning a little more about what I am and the reasons for it, Voted up, useful and interesting, Thanks.