Passive Aggression

Mother and daughter sit back-to-back sulkingNamed 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.

Some characteristic elements of passive aggression include:

  • Ambiguity in speech
  • Forgetfulness and procrastination
  • Intentionally cryptic or indirect speech
  • Sulking
  • Portraying oneself as a victim or martyr
  • Insisting that there is not a problem when there obviously is one

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 aggressive behavior 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.

Is Passive Aggression a Disorder?

For some people, passive-aggressive behavior is so common that it becomes an integral part of their personality. 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 criteria for the disorder listed in this appendix include the following traits:

  • Passive resistance to meeting social, work, and family tasks
  • Complaints of being underappreciated and misunderstood by others
  • Argumentative
  • 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


  1. American Psychological Association. APA concise dictionary of psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2009. Print.
  2. Colman, A. M. (2006). Oxford dictionary of psychology. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  3. 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: 08-17-2015

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