The term “passive-aggressive” has been thrown around so casually for so long that, like many other mental health terms such as OCD and ADD, it has become diluted and come to take on a new meaning. In fact, many people around the world are probably misusing the term as you read this article to refer to any of a number of various kinds of irritating or unpleasant behavior.
The reality is that many of us can be passive-aggressive every so often as it is frequently used in place of healthier, more direct methods of communication. But passive-aggression has significant downsides, so if you can identify that you indulge in it from time to time and commit to replacing it with other, more effective ways to handle conflict, you and the people around you will all benefit as a result.
In this article, we’ll define passive-aggressive behavior with concrete examples, explain where it comes from and why it’s important to understand it, and help you discover alternative ways of problem-solving.
Examples of Passive-Aggressive Behavior
Passive-aggressive behavior is, essentially, what it sounds like: behaviors that are aggressive in a passive rather than an active way. The important thing to understand is that these behaviors are nonetheless aggressive although they may not come off overtly as such which can, in fact, be even more insidious as it creates the opportunity for the person exhibiting the behaviors to deny that they are being aggressive at all.
Perhaps one of the best ways to illustrate what passive-aggressive behavior is is to offer examples, many of which you’ll probably recognize from your personal life as behaviors that you’ve seen from others or even indulged in yourself.
Several examples of various passive-aggressive behaviors include:
⦁ Leaving your roommate a series of notes on the fridge asking them to stop being noisy or to tidy up after themselves instead of discussing it with them in person
⦁ Avoiding somebody or cancelling plans at the last minute in order to not have to address unresolved issues
⦁ Claiming to be fine and not angry even when you are, indeed, angry
⦁ Saying yes to doing a favor you don’t want to do and then resenting the other person for asking
⦁ Giving backhanded compliments such as, “I wish I was confident enough to wear an outfit so out there”
⦁ Playing the victim
⦁ Excluding somebody socially as a form of punishment or as a response to conflict
⦁ Holding grudges and keeping score of past mistakes
⦁ Being sullen, sulking, sarcastic, and/or complaining
⦁ Giving the silent treatment
Causes of Passive-Aggressive Behavior
It’s easy to agree that passive-aggressive behavior is rarely pleasant to witness, yet most of us indulge in it every once in a while and some of us even do so compulsively, most often without realizing it. So why is that the case? What is so attractive about behaving in this unsavory manner?
How We’re Raised
So much of our communication patterns and behaviors are modeled after the people who raised us. As such, if we’ve been treated passive-aggressively by our parents, role models, and guardians throughout our formative years, we’re much more likely to repeat these patterns ourselves in our adulthood.
Fear of Confrontation
Especially in Western culture, many of us have been raised to fear dealing with conflict and confrontation head-on. It can be uncomfortable for us to stand up for ourselves and directly address problems so, instead, we find a “safer” way to make it known that we’re unhappy that is, ultimately, no less aggressive than just talking about things in an open manner.
Similarly, it can often be very difficult for people to openly express their emotions in a productive manner, especially when those emotions are negative ones like anger. So instead of just feeling and processing our feelings, we turn to other outlets, such as passive-aggression, which is a roundabout way to let out our feelings.
Even people who are great at confrontation and expressing their emotions can find themselves in situations in which it is less appropriate to do so such as certain family gatherings or work meetings. When this happens, it’s much more likely that you’ll end up expressing your feelings in a passive-aggressive way, as the alternative is not seen as socially acceptable.
Finally, it’s worth mentioning one more reason why people might behave passive-aggressively: it’s easier. Call it a “cop-out” or “taking the easy road,” but either way, leaving a note on somebody’s door is emotionally and socially easier than having to have an open conversation about how their behavior bothers you. When the idea of truly talking things out seems hard and scary, passive-aggressive behavior can become an appealing alternative.
Why Passive-Aggressive Behavior Matters
So why does all of this matter? Who does passive-aggressive behavior hurt and why should we bother changing it?
Well, because it is an indirect and incomplete form of communication, passive-aggressive behavior is not actually a productive way to solve problems. It leaves things unsaid, issues unaddressed, upsets other people, and can even escalate the problem and make it worse.
Think about how you feel when somebody is passive-aggressive toward you. Imagine that you are telling a friend how excited you are about having recently gotten into jogging and how much better it’s making you feel physically. What if their response is to say to you, “Oh, that’s great for you. I wish I had the time for things like that but I’m too busy taking care of my family and working hard to pay my mortgage to have hobbies.”
How would you feel? In all likelihood, it won’t be too pleasant – and that’s a relatively mild example of passive-aggression.
Now imagine an even more problematic scenario. Let’s say your partner is upset with you because you’ve been forgetting to ask them about how their day went when they get home from work. Instead of telling you, they sulk and hold it in, but claim that everything is fine every time you ask if something is wrong.
As you can imagine, the longer your partner goes engaging in this passive-aggressive behavior without telling you how they feel, the worse the issue will get, with growing resentment and you not having an opportunity to adjust your own behavior and meet your partner’s needs.
This is why it’s so important to address things head on and cut off passive-aggressive behavior at the bud, both when it’s coming from you and when somebody else in your life is the source.
How to Change Passive-Aggressive Behavior
So here is the important part: how can you address and change passive-aggressive behavior before it spirals out of control?
First, it’s critical to learn how to identify when you’re behaving passive aggressively. When you’re angry or feeling slighted, observe how you respond.
Do you bring it up with the person immediately? Do you openly explain how you feel and what you’d like to see change? Do you behave in an honest manner? Do you direct the conversation toward solutions?
Or, on the other hand, do you find yourself trying to ignore how you feel and pretend everything is okay? Do you sulk and avoid people? Do you stop talking to people that you’re angry with or use sarcasm as a way to not have to talk about your real feelings?
If you do, you should know that you are by no means the only one. All of us have the tendency to behave this way from time to time. But the more you practice, the better you’ll be at identifying your own passive-aggressive behaviors and correcting them, choosing instead to be open about your feelings and address things head-on.
Additionally, becoming better at identifying passive-aggressive behavior will also make it easier for you to be able to tell when somebody is acting that way toward you. Then, you can try one of the following strategies:
⦁ Pointing out how it seems that the passive-aggressive person may be feeling
⦁ Being non-judgmental but open and factual
⦁ Modeling openly expressing your feelings as a way to make the other person safe doing the same
⦁ Giving people space as an opportunity to work through their feelings
At the end of the day, addressing passive-aggressive behavior is like any other social skill: it takes practice, especially if you weren’t taught how to do it in your younger years. But the more you do your best to handle conflict in a healthy and open manner, the easier it will become over time and the better your relationships will be as a result.