Passive-Aggressive Behavior

What It Is and How to Deal

Passive-aggressive behavior is a masked form of aggression. A person makes subtle moves to discourage another person without directly confronting the other person or explicitly stating how the other person has made them feel. These masked, hidden insults are intended to communicate resentment indirectly so that the source of the resentment isn’t clear to the target of the passive-aggressive behavior. If you recognize these behaviors in yourself or someone you know, read on for advice on dealing with this challenging personality trait.

What is Passive-Aggressive Behavior?

Passive aggressive behavior is non-direct communication that manifests as subtle, spiteful, and uncooperative behaviors. Unlike direct aggression, passive-aggressive behavior is intended to harm another person without the aggressor being direct or truthful about their feelings. Most people recognize passive-aggressive behavior when others use it against them. However, it’s important to recognize this behavior when it happens in order to prevent it from damaging relationships. 

Identifying passive-aggressive behavior can be difficult because the person engaging in it often has a very subtle and disguised way of communicating their resentment. Passive-aggressive people usually don’t address their issues directly and instead choose to communicate their feelings in a way that doesn’t allow the other person to respond to or defend themselves against those feelings.

When is Passive-Aggressive Behavior a Problem?

The subtle nature of passive-aggressive behavior can make it challenging to recognize when it happens and difficult to confront when it’s in progress. However, passive-aggressive behavior is problematic when it prevents people from being honest with themselves and others. A relationship with passive-aggressive behavior is a relationship that cannot be trusted. 

Passive-aggressive people don’t make commitments because they’re unsure if they will follow through. They don’t give compliments because they don’t want to be seen as sincere. They don’t apologize because they resent being put in a position to apologize. And they don’t follow through with their obligations because they resent being held accountable for their actions.

How to Recognize Passive-Aggressive Behavior

Here are a few signs that you or someone you know may be exhibiting passive-aggressive behavior: 

  • reluctance to make commitments;
  • reluctance to engage in conflict;
  • refusal to apologize;
  • a tendency to over-generalize or catastrophize;
  • a tendency to ignore facts and data;
  • a tendency to make unjustified comparisons;
  • a tendency to use sarcasm as a primary communication tool;
  • a tendency to make excuses.

Strategies for Dealing with Passive Aggression

When you’re in a relationship with a passive-aggressive person, it’s important to set boundaries. Early in the relationship, you should clarify that the person’s passive-aggressive behavior isn’t acceptable to you and that you will not tolerate it in the relationship. 

Here are a few strategies to help you deal:

  • Be direct. 
  • Don’t take it personally. Passive-aggressive people don’t communicate their feelings because they want to be honest. They communicate their feelings because they want to be vindictive without getting caught. 
  • Focus on the behavior, not the person. Even though passive-aggressive behavior is meant to harm you, the person engaging in this behavior isn’t always the wrong person.
  • Focus on your own behavior. You have control over your own behavior. You don’t have control over the other person’s behavior. Focus on the things you can change.
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