Is Passive Aggressive Behavior Affecting Your Life?

Anger is a normal human emotion and stating your feelings appropriately can help you move forward and preserve important relationships. Some people, however, are unable to directly express anger. They develop patterns of indirectly expressing negative feelings, thus avoiding confrontation and short-term conflict. This is called passive aggressive behavior.

Signe Whitson, co-author of The Angry Smile: The Psychology of Passive Aggressive Behaviors in Families, Schools and Workplaces, writes, "Passive aggression is a deliberate and masked way of expressing covert feelings of anger. This 'sugar coated hostility' involves a variety of behaviors designed to get back at another person without the other recognizing the underlying anger."

Why Some People Can't Show Their Anger

According to New York University Langone Medical Center, childhood abuse or neglect and harsh punishment are risk factors for developing passive aggressive behaviors. You've probably been on the receiving end of one or more of these common signs of passive aggression:

  • Procrastination, resentment, opposition, and intentional mistakes in response to others' requests
  • Pretending not to hear, see, remember, or understand someone else
  • The silent treatment
  • Cynical, sullen or hostile attitude
  • Complaints about feeling underappreciated or cheated

It's easy to get caught unaware in someone else's cycle of passive aggressive behavior. Whitson says understanding it can help you disengage and choose a better way of responding. In fact, she says, one of the most powerful ways to confront it is to point it out directly in a non-judgmental way. Expect the person to deny the behavior, but it puts him on notice that you acknowledge his anger and that the behavior is not okay.

Psychologist LeslieBeth Wish, EdD, MSS, recommends a less direct approach. "Pointing out to a person that he or she is acting passive aggressively will get you no where. In fact, it will most likely make the person more defensive and accusatory," she explains. "To get past a passive-aggressive exchange, take the high road out of the arena of a communication gone wrong to a new arena of working as a team to problem-solve and develop a solution. For example, when someone is getting aggressive, the other person can say—in a calm and warm voice—something like: 'I don't think I'm helping this situation. Let's work together on a solution and not waste our time and love on you said/I said stuff.'"

If you recognize yourself in the description of the passive aggressive, counseling can help you learn to express your anger in a more appropriate manner.

LeslieBeth Wish, EdD, MSS, reviewed this article.



Daniel K. Hall-Flavin, MD, "What is passive-aggressive behavior? What are some of the signs?" Mayo Clinic, July 16, 2013, accessed 5 November 2013.

Signe Whitson, LSW, "ThePassive Aggressive Conflict Cycle: How unsuspecting adults get caught up in destructive passive aggressive dynamics," published 24 July 2013, accessed 5 November 2013.

LeslieBeth Wish, EdD, MSS, author of "Smart Relationships: How Successful Women Can Find True Love."

Signe Whitson, LSW, "How To Avoid Passive Aggressive Behavior In Your Relationship," Web., accessed November 5, 2013.

Diane A. Safer, PhD, "Passive Aggressive Behavior," NYU Langone Medial Center, reviewed August 2013, accessed 5 November 2013.