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What are the major signs of passive-aggressive behavior?

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Passive-aggressive behavior is something that most people have heard of – and almost everyone will have experienced it as well. Unknowingly many of us will have also displayed some form of this behavior.

It is characterized by passive hostility and the sidestepping of direct communication. Passive-aggressive behavior is where someone shows negative feelings indirectly through their actions.

This means there’s a difference between what they might say (or not say) and what they do. To be on the receiving end of this can be bewildering – and it can also be extremely damaging.

Due to this continual gap between what a passive-aggressive person is saying and what they’re doing, someone living or working with them may suffer from anxiety. It could also be behind some depression.

Passive-aggressive behavior was first defined during the Second World War by psychiatrist William Menninger (1899-1966). He saw that certain soldiers had negative or hostile feelings to what they were being told to do, but they showed this only in their actions.

They might not have shown it by appearing neutral or even pleasantly agreeable. But they would then find indirect ways to show their real feelings of frustration, anger or resentment, such as by being stubborn, using delaying tactics and/or being purposely inefficient at tasks.

Is passive-aggressive behavior a mental health illness?

It isn’t presently classified as a mental health illness. But some people with mental health problems will show passive-aggressive behavior.

The DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) – the diagnostic “guidebook” used by most mental health professionals in America – dropped it from the list of personality disorders in the 1990s. It stated it was too limited and insufficiently supported by scientific evidence.

It is now classified under “Other Specified Personality Disorder”. This means that although there is not enough criteria to name it as a specific personality disorder, there is ample evidence that it causes clinically significant distress or impairment.

However, earlier editions of the DSM in the 1960s termed it “passive-aggressive personality”. This was a behavior pattern characterized by aggressiveness expressed passively.

Signs of passive passive-aggressive behavior

Many behaviors associated with passive-aggressive behavior are used as an underhand or indirect way to manipulate, abuse or punish another person. They can be very subtle and extremely difficult to spot.

For example, a passive-aggressive person doesn’t like a work project. They don’t say anything against it though.

Instead they turn up late to meetings or find reasons why they have to leave early. They may also do things such as purposely miss deadlines or have a loud phone conversation next to someone they know needs to concentrate on a task for the project.

Major signs of passive-aggressive behavior include: 

  • Always arriving late.
  • Sulking.
  • Sullenness.
  • Procrastination.
  • Intentional inefficiency.
  • Stubbornness.
  • “Forgetting” to do something.
  • Avoiding people when they’re upset with them.
  • Stopping talking to people when they are resentful towards them.
  • Using sarcasm instead of having a meaningful conversation.
  • Continually complaining during a task.
  • Being critical towards other people.
  • Remaining silent when a response is expected.
  • Deliberate repeated failure to finish a requested task.
  • Avoiding direct and clear communication.
  • Purposely making mistakes.
  • Being disagreeable or argumentative.
  • Being cynical.
  • Blaming others.
  • Complaining about being undervalued.


What causes passive-aggressive behavior?

Frequently passive-aggressive behavior is something that was passed down during childhood. This is because unknowingly we imitate our parents.

Or when someone was a child, normal emotions such as frustration or disapproval might not have been directly expressed because it felt unsafe to do so. This could be if, for instance, a parent was prone to angry outbursts any time their rule by iron fist was challenged or not obeyed.

It can mean that a person has trouble dealing with negative emotions. They were never shown how to do this as they grew up – many households discourage any show of emotions.

Child abuse, severe punishments and/or neglect can also cause someone to use passive-aggressive behaviors. With low self-esteem caused by such as these it is difficult to be assertive as an adult.

Some people also learn passive-aggressive behavior as adults. They discover it is a manipulative way to get what they want, avoiding confrontation.

Some conditions that have been associated with passive-aggressive behavior include:

  • Drug and/or alcohol abuse.
  • ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder).
  • Stress.
  • Anxiety disorders.
  • Depression.
  • Bipolar disorder.


How to deal with passive-aggressive behavior

If you recognize someone is behaving in a passive-aggressive manner, using “I” statements can help. For instance, say something such as “When you make those loud phone calls next to me I cannot concentrate. In future I’d be grateful if you make them in the other room so that I can finish the project to meet the deadline.”

This might be a process that needs repeating. It can take a long time for someone to change passive-aggressive behavior, particularly if it was something they learned while growing up.

If the behavior doesn’t change, seeing a therapist can help with communication skills to improve the relationship with a passive-aggressive person. Or it might become clear it’s time to move away from that relationship.

Our professional team has decades of experience in treating all behaviors. We have proven treatments to give you or someone you love the most swift and long-lasting recovery.

We are nestled in the ideal natural setting to aid wellbeing. Our stunning house by a tranquil lake is blessed with year-round Florida sunshine.

Contact us today to find out how we can help.

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David Hurst

David Hurst has four books published on mental health recovery, including 12 Steps To 1 Hero, The Anxiety Conversation and Words To Change Your Life. He has written for national newspapers and magazines around the world for 30 years including The Guardian, Psychologies, GQ, Esquire, Marie Claire and The Times. He has been in successful continual recovery since January 2002.

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