Named for the fact that it contains both passive and aggressive behavior, passive aggression is communication or behavior that seems neutral or even charitable but that has a subtle underpinning of aggression. When people display passive-aggressive behavior, they are often attempting to criticize, stop, or alter the behavior of another person without making either a direct request or an aggressive gesture.
What Is Passive Aggression?
The term “passive-aggressive” was first widely used by the United States War Department in 1945 at the end of World War II. It was used to describe soldiers who passively refused to obey orders by working inefficiently, procrastinating, and sulking.
Passive aggression can take many forms and crop up between partners, roommates, friends, and coworkers. It’s not always easy to tell if someone is being passive-aggressive, as the behavior can be subtle. Other times, however, a passive-aggressive behavior might be easy to recognize.
Some passive-aggressive traits include:
- Ambiguity in speech
- Forgetfulness and procrastination
- Intentionally cryptic or indirect speech
- Sulking or giving the silent treatment
- Portraying oneself as a victim or martyr
- Insisting there is not a problem when there obviously is one
- Overly critical of others
- Intentionally working slowly or producing poor quality work
Why Are People Passive-Aggressive?
Most people display passive-aggressive behavior at least occasionally. The behavior tends to increase when people feel dependent, unheard, or powerless. Passive aggression can be difficult to pinpoint because the entire purpose of the behavior is to avoid directness and obscure any aggressive intent. Many people learn to use passive-aggressive behavior from others around them.
In some cases, stress caused by life events or a mental health issue can cause people to act in passive-aggressive ways. Anxiety, depression, bipolar, and ADHD are a few common mental health issues that may cause passive aggression. When a mental health condition causes overwhelm or fatigue, behaving passive-aggressively may help some to feel heard or gain a sense of control in their life. Stressful life events such as unemployment, relocation, or the death of a loved one may also cause people to act out passive-aggressively.
While passive aggression can be used as a coping mechanism, it is not a healthy one. Others may react with hostility when confronted with someone who is passive-aggressive, and this reaction can compound issues and increase tension in a relationship.
Is Passive Aggression a Disorder?
For some people, passive-aggressive behavior is so common that it becomes an integral part of their personality. While passive aggression was listed as a personality disorder in the past, it is now conceptualized as a personality trait.
The DSM-III listed passive-aggressive personality disorder (also referred to as negativistic personality disorder) as an Axis II personality disorder. However, the diagnosis was controversial, and the DSM-IV moved the diagnosis to the appendix entitled “Criteria Sets and Axes Provided for Further Study.” The DSM-V now lists passive aggression as “Personality Disorder–Trait Specified.”
While passive aggression is no longer listed as a personality disorder, the criteria for passive aggression in the DSM once included the following traits:
- Passive resistance to meeting social, work, and family tasks
- Complaints of being underappreciated and misunderstood by others
- Critical of authority to an unreasonable degree
- Frequent envy and jealousy
- Exaggerated complaints of personal misfortune, unfairness, or injustice
- Alternation between overt defiance and passive acceptance of authority
Examples of Passive-Aggressive Behavior
Passive aggression takes many forms. A few examples of this behavior include:
- After being confronted by his partner, who feels she is not getting enough help around the house, a passive-aggressive husband might do an intentionally poor job on the next chore he helps with while claiming he “did the best he could.”
- An employee who feels underappreciated might refuse to complete tasks they feel have been taken for granted, saying they “forgot.”
- A roommate who is angry with a housemate for repeatedly eating their food might begin to tune out, ignore, or speak coldly toward that housemate while asserting “everything is fine” if confronted about the behavior.
- A passive-aggressive boss who is worried about their image within the company might take issue with minor details in an employee’s work that they had previously requested or approved.
- Feeling insecure about her own appearance, a mother might give her daughter unwanted books and clothes as gifts to encourage her to conform to a certain way of presenting herself.
While passive-aggressive behaviors are not constructive, the feelings behind them are most often valid. It can be helpful for those who lean on passive aggression due to fear of confrontation to face this fear and explore their feelings with a therapist who can help them find healthier outlets.
If passive-aggressive behavior is negatively impacting a relationship with a loved one, bringing the issue to couples or family therapy may be a helpful first step to confronting any root issues in a compassionate way.
How to Deal with Passive Aggression
Whether the person is a loved one or an acquaintance, even a little passive aggression can sour relations. After prolonged exposure, the very thought of a passive-aggressive person may be enough to cause stress. Here are some tips for dealing with someone who uses passive-aggressive tactics:
- Create a safe environment. If you need to confront passive-aggressive behavior, it may help to let the other person know it’s alright to say what’s really on their mind around you.
- Use empathy. Acknowledging the passive-aggressive individual’s concerns, however trivial, can help break down barriers that person may have put up.
- Don’t cave in. Passive-aggressive people may use these tactics because they increase feelings of security, stability, power, and control over a situation. If these tactics stop producing the intended result, it could help that individual realize they should adjust their approach.
- Use positive reinforcement. Expressing appreciation when someone with passive-aggressive habits makes an effort to be direct can encourage them to continue the good behavior.
Passive aggression isn’t always clear-cut, and although the behavior is often rooted in insecurity, it is not a healthy way to behave. Anyone who is worried they might be leaning on passive aggression to feel safe may find that therapy can help them address their fears and learn how to assert themselves constructively.
- American Psychological Association. APA concise dictionary of psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2009. Print.
- Colman, A. M. (2006). Oxford dictionary of psychology. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
- Hendriksen, E. (2018, October 10). 5 tricks to handle passive-aggressive people. Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/5-tricks-to-handle-passive-aggressive-people
- Lim, A. (2018, September 28). Understanding passive-aggressive personality disorder. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/passive-aggressive-personality-disorder-4173103
- Passive-aggressive personality. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/passive-aggressive-personality-disorder
- Rotenstein, O. H., McDermut, W., Bergman, A., Young, D., Zimmerman, M., & Chelminski, I. (2007). The validity of DSM-IV passive-aggressive (negativistic) personality disorder. Journal of Personality Disorders, 21(1), 28-41. doi: 10.1521/pedi.2007.21.1.28
Last Updated: 01-28-2019
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