Causes, Signs, Tips to Respond, Getting Support

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  • Passive-aggressive communication can happen when you find it tough to express your emotions.
  • Chronic passive aggression can create problems in your personal and professional interactions.
  • Taking time to consider your feelings can help you communicate more assertively.
  • Visit Insider’s Health Reference library for more advice.

When someone has a hard time putting frustration, anger, annoyance, or dissatisfaction into words, they might resort to passive-aggressive behavior — an indirect way of expressing emotions through actions.

“Passive-aggressive behavior is often learned in childhood and can generally be traced back to passive-aggressive behaviors modeled by a parent or other caregiver,” says Carla Marie Manly, a clinical psychologist with a private practice.

Anyone can exhibit this behavior on occasion, but over time chronic passive-aggression can erode trust and often prompts a negative response from others.

For people who are regularly passive aggressive, learning to express feelings in a more productive way is an essential step toward building and cultivating healthy, lasting friendships and romantic relationships.

The first step to overcoming or dealing with this behavior is recognizing it. Here are seven examples of passive-aggression and how to handle someone who is being passive aggressive towards you.

1. Stonewalling

Stonewalling, which happens when someone stops communication altogether, is one of the most toxic forms of passive-aggressive behaviors, says Manly. It’s also a leading predictor of divorce.

Telling someone you need space to sort out your emotions is one thing, but refusing to engage without an explanation can show a certain carelessness that can be hurtful.

In fact, a 2014 review found that when one partner emotionally shuts down or withdraws in response to the other’s demands, that dynamic can cause physical and emotional damage — and it’s associated with anxiety, lower relationship satisfaction, less intimacy, and poorer communication.

Examples of stonewalling:

  • The silent treatment
  • Acting busy or distracted to avoid conversation
  • Suddenly leaving the room in the middle of the conversation

2. Sarcastic comments

Another example of passive-aggressive behavior is making sarcastic remarks. “I refer to most sarcasm as ‘veiled hostility’ given its often-antagonizing edge,” says Manly.

For example, rather than saying, “It really bothered me that you didn’t remember my birthday,” they might say, “Thanks a lot for my awesome birthday present.”

Passive-aggressive behavior is often rooted in a person’s lack of self-esteem and fear of conflict, confrontation, or rejection, says Joshua Klapow, PhD, a clinical psychologist in private practice and behavioral scientist.

Sarcasm allows a person to convey unresolved frustration, anger, or disappointment without confrontation.

3. Pretending to agree

When someone verbally agrees with an idea that actually bothers them and then later breaks said agreement for their own needs, that’s a form of passive-aggressiveness, Klapow and Manly agree.

Say a coworker proposes a change to a project. You say it’s fine when it really isn’t, then sulk about it later. That’s passive aggression.

Similar to sarcasm, pretending to agree is usually done to avoid conflict, Manly says.

4. Deflection

A tendency to deflect blame rather than take responsibility for mistakes is also a form of passive-aggressiveness, says Klapow.

Say you make an offhand comment about your partner’s frequent lateness. They respond by saying, “Well, if you didn’t leave the house such a mess, I’d be able to get out the door on time.”

People who communicate passive-aggressively often “play the victim,” says Manly, because it’s difficult for them to acknowledge their own faults.

They can also be unforgiving and self-righteous, holding grudges that can last for years.

5. Silent sabotage 

Actively working behind the scenes to destroy a person’s project, relationship, or reputation is another form of passive-aggressive behavior, says Klapow.

They might do this in a stealthy way to avoid appearing responsible — by spreading gossip or rumors, for example. The behavior itself typically stems from a deep sense of insecurity.

For example, in a 2013 study of undergraduates, researchers concluded that passive-aggressive behavior may relate to “an inner insecurity regarding one’s value or worth, particularly with respect to authority figures.”

6. Intentionally failing to follow through

Non-compliance is another passive-aggressive behavior.

“Instead of voicing their desire not to do something, the person simply doesn’t do it,” Klapow says.

For example, your roommate asks you to start taking out the trash. You don’t outright say no, but you also don’t start doing it, either.

Deliberately procrastinating on a task or commitment can also suggest passive aggression.

7. Making excuses

Say your friend asks you to help them move. You don’t really want to, but instead of being honest with them, you tell them you have to work — which is untrue.

When your friend asks if you might be able to come by the following day instead, you make up a family obligation or other commitment.

This excuse-driven behavior is passive-aggressive because you’re avoiding voicing your needs or wishes, Klapow says.

How to handle passive aggression

It’s important to learn how to handle passive aggression because it’s a very common behavior — a 2017 study surveyed Israeli nurses and doctors who reported about 700 incidents of passive aggression at work over a six-month period.

You can handle passive-aggressive behavior in a few different ways:

  • Don’t engage: Sometimes the best way to respond is to ignore the behavior, says Manly. If someone wants a reaction, you can avoid reinforcing the behavior by not giving it any attention at all.
  • Point out inconsistencies in their behavior: When someone says one thing and does another, try sharing your observations in a non-judgemental way to get some clarity, says Klapow. For instance: “You said you agreed with me, and then I noticed you sent a memo going against what I was trying to achieve. Can you help me understand why that happened?”
  • Call them out calmly and respectfully: If the passive-aggressive behavior is ongoing and destructive — such as chronic, belittling sarcasm — Manly recommends sharing what you’ve observed and then explaining how it affects you, and what you’d prefer instead. For example, you might say, “That comment felt very sarcastic, which hurt my feelings. I’d much prefer kind, straightforward conversation.” 

These tactics may frustrate the person at first, since your response will likely lead to them not getting their way.

“Passive-aggressive people will often become inflamed or retaliatory when healthy strategies are put into play,” says Manly. “A passive-aggressive person who is working on self-development may, however, be able to respond in healthy ways.”

It’s important to remember that people who communicate passive-aggressively may not be intentionally trying to hurt you. They may simply be operating out of a place of fear, or a lack of communication skills, Klapow says.

How to avoid being passive-aggressive

People who exhibit passive-aggressive behavior can experience significant inner shame and self-loathing. That’s why “if you’re a passive-aggressive communicator, it’s important to slow down to observe yourself,” in order to gain clarity for self-reflection and improvement, says Manly.

Here are a few expert-recommended tips for overcoming this behavior:

  • Remind yourself of the consequences: Remember that whatever you’re avoiding will likely get worse with passive-aggressive responses, says Klapow.
  • Get curious rather than defensive: If a partner, friend, or family member points out that you’re being passive-aggressive, Manly says to ask for constructive feedback on how you might communicate more effectively.
  • Try experimenting with assertive communication: Assertive communication is the opposite of passive-aggressive communication. According to Mayo Clinic, it can boost self-esteem and help with stress management, and also establish mutual respect. Start by pausing to consider your feelings about something before responding. Then, try expressing your general feelings about a situation ( “I’m not sure that I totally agree with that.”) This small adjustment can help you feel safe enough to communicate directly.
  • Seek professional help when needed: It can sometimes be difficult to break out of these passive-aggressive habits when they’re hardwired after years of use, says Manly. But working with a licensed counselor can help. A therapist can help you understand why you communicate in this way and work with you on being more assertive, says Klapow.

Insider’s takeaway

Passive-aggressive behavior can stem from a fear of confrontation or rejection, low self-esteem, and poor coping skills. While it can be highly damaging to relationships, it is possible to learn more assertive communication strategies.

One effective way to handle passive-aggressive behavior in another person involves addressing it head-on in a curious way: Make observations about inconsistencies and ask questions about the behavior.

Passive-aggressive communicators, on the other hand, may find it helpful to take time and space to consider requests and process their emotional responses to issues. Support from a therapist can also make a big difference when learning to replace passive-aggressive behaviors with healthier alternatives.

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