Passive Aggressive Behavior

Authored by Helen Parson

Edited by Alexander Bentley

Reviewed by Philippa Gold

Passive Aggressive Behavior

Accusations of Passive Aggressive behavior are commonplace. Most people will have been accused of it at some stage, and it’s unlikely anyone has never been Passive Aggressive at least once in their life. For the vast majority, Passive Aggressive behavior is an occasional aberration from their normal selves, perhaps an unintentional response to a difficult or uncomfortable situation or dynamic.1Hopwood, Christopher J., et al. “The Construct Validity of Passive-Aggressive Personality Disorder – PMC.” PubMed Central (PMC), Accessed 12 Oct. 2022.

Passive Aggressive behavior can be summarized as using actions to indirectly express negative feelings and emotions rather than addressing them openly. For some people, these behaviors are so common that they create problems for themselves as well as those around them.

Passive Aggressive behavior, by its nature, can be difficult to identify. The ways people exhibit it can be confused with ordinary behaviors, and ordinary actions can be misidentified as passive aggressive. In practice, it becomes an issue when the behavior patterns are consistent and sustained in regular interactions.

What is Passive Aggressive behavior?

It is impossible to comprehensively list Passive Aggressive behaviors. But they all share a common core of being a way to indirectly express some form of negativity, whether it’s disagreement with instructions in a workplace, or dissatisfaction with the behavior of someone close to them, a passive aggressive will tend to find a way to show discontent while not expressly stating it. But while a complete list is impossible, there are several common Passive Aggressive behaviors.

Hidden hostility

People might demonstrate veiled signs of hostility. This will be covered by an innocent action, but there will be an underlying criticism. These might be hidden behind compliments, for example praising a colleague before adding an unfavorable comparison with someone else, or pointedly completing a household chore in front of a family member.

Withdrawal or avoidance

The Passive Aggressive individual might emotionally withdraw from a group. Although physically present they might not participate in meetings or activities, avoiding eye contact or discussion, or even using their silence to make others uncomfortable. When forced to communicate they might limit their responses, for example giving closed answers that disrupt a normal conversational flow.

Poor performance

People might exhibit Passive Aggressive behaviors by performing badly at work or school. They may fail to complete tasks or need to be reminded of their responsibilities. Or take opportunities to show small signs of disrespect, like turning up a little late to every meeting or giving the impression of being unprepared. Even those who appear to be meeting their requirements might do so in a Passive Aggressive way, for example following instructions to the letter or always working to a deadline.

Stubbornness and pessimism

Passive Aggressive behavior is often accompanied by stubbornness or pessimism. They might drag their feet or object to targets unnecessarily. This will frequently be accompanied by complaints, for example about being underappreciated by others, or of management not understanding how things really work.

It should be noted that all these behaviors can be perfectly reasonable. Sometimes people are late to meetings for genuine reasons, or have to object to unreasonable expectations, and sometimes management do not understand the needs of their staff. The important factor in Passive Aggressive behavior is not the appearance, but the motivation.

Is passive aggressive behavior a mental health condition?

Regardless of how much Passive Aggressive behavior an individual exhibits it is not, of itself, a recognized mental health condition. However, Passive Aggressive behavior is recognized as a symptom of some conditions, the DSM5 identifies it as a “pervasive pattern of negativistic attitudes and passive resistance to the demands for adequate performance in social and occupational situations.”

Some conditions will also cause behaviors that can appear passive aggressive. Depression, for example, might result in people appearing sullen and withdrawn in social situations because they lack the energy or inclination for social interaction. Anxiety might cause procrastination and lateness because of concerns about whether work will be adequate or what a meeting might hold.

And, for some people, their personality might make them appear passive aggressive. Everyone expresses themselves differently. Someone who is consistently late might just be disorganized, and not expressing negative emotions about meetings. Or someone with a very dry sense of humor might frequently resort to sarcasm or cynicism without being passive aggressive.

It is not known exactly why some people demonstrate Passive Aggressive behavior. The most likely explanation is that it is a learned behavior, and it is more likely to be exhibited by those who have witnessed it as a way of coping in their early family life.

How should Passive Aggressive behavior be addressed?

Passive Aggressive behavior is incredibly difficult to deal with because it’s hard to accurately recognize and, when spotted, even harder to identify the underlying cause. A Passive Aggressive person behaves that way explicitly to avoid dealing with their emotions.

Passive Aggressive behavior from others

If you are experiencing Passive Aggressive behavior from others, there is, unfortunately, very little you can do about it. Ultimately, the behavior can only be addressed by the person exhibiting it. If possible, the best approach is avoidance. Passive Aggressive behavior can be emotionally draining, and it’s simpler to avoid it than try to deal with its effects.

In situations where you cannot avoid the individual, for example a work situation, then the ‘grey rock method’ may have some success. Used to deal with narcissism, it gets its name from not responding to undesired behavior, just like a rock will not react to the waves of the ocean. By not responding to the behavior, it removes any emotional satisfaction there may be, and eventually, any incentive for Passive Aggressive behavior.

Passive Aggressive behavior in the individual

The key to addressing Passive Aggressive behavior is awareness. The Passive Aggressive person should think about their behavior, considering the causes and reasons, thinking about what triggers Passive Aggressive displays and how they can break the behavior cycle.

Removing the need for Passive Aggressive behavior also helps. Staying optimistic and talking openly about their feelings can stop passive aggression developing.

Treatment for passive aggressive behavior

Because there is no specific mental health condition there isn’t a specific treatment available for passive aggression. However, because it can be linked to other conditions it is worth seeing a medical professional to explore the reasons and possible causes for the behavior.

This might result in a number of treatment options. However, if appropriate, CBT has proven itself effective. By helping the patient identify their feelings and behavioral triggers CBT can help address Passive Aggressive behavior and can also be used to treat many other conditions that might have contributed to the behavior.


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Next: 10 Most Common Personality Disorder Types You Will Meet

How to handle Passive Aggressive Behavior

  • 1
    Hopwood, Christopher J., et al. “The Construct Validity of Passive-Aggressive Personality Disorder – PMC.” PubMed Central (PMC), Accessed 12 Oct. 2022.
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