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What does Passive-Aggressive Mean?

By Garry Crystal
Updated May 23, 2024
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Passive-aggressive means that a person finds ways to express himself indirectly so that he doesn’t have to admit how he really feels or thinks. Typically, the term is associated with feelings of bottled up anger, but more broadly, it refers to being untruthful about any emotion or desire (passivity) and retaliating against the frustrations arising from being unable to be honest (aggression). Professionals think that, for the most part, acting this way is a coping mechanism that an individual learns over time. With a lack of honesty potentially leading to problems such as relationship conflicts and insecurity, it is usually to a person’s benefit to try to stop the behavior in some way, such as by practicing “I” language.

Symptoms and Examples

What a person does when he is passive-aggressive can vary quite a bit, because the relationships involved determine to some degree what type of retaliation an individual feels will work best. Even so, some common symptoms psychologists and psychiatrists recognize are blaming others, being late a lot, avoiding or ignoring, procrastinating, failing to communicate and being ambiguous during speech or in writing. These signs indicate that an individual isn’t happy, even if he doesn’t come right out and admit it.

As an example, an employee might be assigned work he doesn’t want to do, or that he thinks is unfair. Rather than tell his boss he’d rather not do the assignment, he might agree to it enthusiastically to save face with the company. Afterward, he might fail to turn in paperwork by an assigned due date, show up late to project meetings or pretend he didn’t get messages.

In a more domestic setting, a partner who hates folding laundry might agree to do it if his significant other asks for help. He might wait until the clothes are cold and wrinkled to do so, however, or he might put them away in the wrong spots. Here, the partner doesn’t want to say no because he doesn’t want to cause tension in the relationship, but he’ll perform the task below standard so that he doesn’t get asked to do it again.

Consequences

When someone shows this type of behavior, the person he manipulates might end up feeling frustrated, angry, sad or betrayed. Tension often develops in the relationship, which can lead to conflicts. If the manipulated person says harsh words or ends the friendship, the passive-aggressive individual might feel that his fears about loss or having to hide his real heart are well founded, creating a cycle. The real problems behind the behavior might never be solved.

Origin and Causes

Psychiatrists, psychologists and others who study human behavior generally believe that the ability to assert oneself is somewhat innate. A baby, for example, cries by instinct to be held, changed or fed. Over time, though, people essentially can be trained not to express themselves truthfully. A child might learn not to ask for anything, for instance, if her parents routinely respond to her requests by saying she’s selfish. The problem is that this doesn’t stop a person from having particular needs or desires — it simply makes it hard to be honest.

Role as a Coping or Defense Mechanism

Although some experts claim that a passive-aggressive person truly enjoys frustrating other people, given how the behavior is thought to develop, other professionals say it is better to see this type of action as a basic defense mechanism. Under this view, an individual might act this way because he is honestly afraid of what will happen if he asserts himself the way he really wants to. He might not like being indirect, but he is anyway because he thinks he’ll lose something valuable — for example, a relationship — if he speaks his mind.

The behavior of soldiers during World War II supports the defense or coping mechanism theory. People in the armed forces shirked their duties, but they did so in ways that were not openly disobedient. In general, they saw what they were doing as a simple way to avoid being killed during combat, but leaders knew that safety depended on discipline and the trust that soldiers would follow their orders. They sent a bulletin to the soldiers to address their actions — it was in this document that the term “passive-aggressive” supposedly first appeared.

Inclusion as a Mental Disorder

The American Psychiatric Association does not formally recognize passive-aggressiveness as a personality disorder. In its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, APA identifies it instead as needing further study. It is not yet clear what environmental or genetic factors, if any, play a role in its development. With the exact cause still somewhat under debate as of 2013, professionals generally do not use medication to address the problem, although they sometimes prescribe substances for the symptoms it can cause, such as depression or anxiety.

Fixing the Problem

The view of many contemporary psychiatrists and psychologists is that, because passive-aggressive behavior might be a bad habit that is learned, a person also might be able to learn how to stop acting this way. This is not simple to do, however, because generally, strong emotions are motivating the dishonesty. To be expressive and start telling the truth typically requires that someone directly admit to and address whatever has led him to feel restricted. Doing this can be quite painful and time consuming for some people. In some instances, professional therapy helps overcome the underlying personal problems.

One of the simplest yet strongest ways for an individual to stop being passive-aggressive is to practice using “I” language. He might say, “I feel that…” or “I think…” during his conversations, for example. This type of speech forces a person to own his thoughts and emotions, admitting and expressing them instead of keeping them inside.

Another technique that sometimes works is to ask friends and family to watch for the behavior and to say something when it shows up. Sometimes, the passive-aggressive person has to be very specific about what to look for, because he might manipulate differently in each relationship. Those who are pointing out instances of the problem generally should approach their task with tact, because the individual they’re helping still might be sensitive about his tendency to manipulate.

Other ways someone can address and change how he is acting include writing in a journal, being insistent in small ways such as wanting a menu alteration at a restaurant and role playing to practice conflict resolution and compromise. Individuals also might consider videotaping themselves or using digital voice recorders to become more conscious of their physical and verbal language. They can resolve to say only what they really mean and not use sarcasm, as well.

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Discussion Comments

By trm — On Oct 28, 2017

Some in here say PAD people do not change -- yes we do. I'm 71 now and the PAD was bad for me. I did not know about it till about two years ago. I was angry yes, ruined stuff day by day, drove my wife to tears way too many times. O.K. Enough of that. I had all the symptoms in the book. O.K., how did I change?

The answer is too easy. I watched a sermon online by Adrian Rogers about "anger." It was a wake up call. I then listed all the symptoms about PAD people and wrote them down on note cards and kept them on me and read them daily.

I read the book of James in the Bible, slowly and re-read it on how to act right and get rid of anger. It's all about that darn anger stuff and it will, the anger that is, ruins your health and you aren't noticing it. It, anger, will kill your marriage and your job fast.

Well, that's my story and it worked for me, my wife is also happier. I check on myself by asking her how I'm doing. So far so good, she says. She loves it.

O.K., it's not an overnight trip, but you will get through it. It won't be painless.

It won't be quick. But God will use this mess for good. Don't despair. With God's help, you will get through this. Ask God for grace every day. I did and still do. It will work for you.

By anon981848 — On Dec 15, 2014

I disagree with the few here who decided to throw away a relationship because you think a person is an incurable passive-aggressive. I think this behavior actually exists in varying degrees in everyone. The smart approach would be to find out how to deal with it. Beginning with honesty. I think lack of honesty is killer.

By anon955315 — On Jun 06, 2014

I am a recovering passive aggressive. I grew up thinking the ideal man was a John Wayne character and asking for things was not polite.

I have found a few things that have really helped me change: Marriage counseling with Imago therapy has been very helpful.

Reading about Borderline Personality Disorder (my wife has this) has really helped me understand my own issues. I think most people could use dialectical behavioural therapy (DBT).

Reading a book called "Change Anything and Crucial Conversations."

These three things have helped me become less passive-aggressive and much more open and honest. I feel like a cloud in my head has been removed and revealed to me what I was actually thinking.

By anon951099 — On May 14, 2014

My wife is passive aggressive. I know she's a good person at heart. However, she has all the traits: self pity (being victimised), ambiguity, always blames, never accepts blame (except as self pity) anger. I know of her childhood - overbearing parents, always being told she was bad, shouldn't get tanned etc., etc. She's a quivering wreck at times.

It's very clear this condition stems from childhood. There are some therapists who can tackle this - they are "spiritual regression therapists." They use regression techniques that go back to childhood and replay the damage received in childhood and re-enact in a positive way in order to remove the blockage. However, the problem there is that my wife refuses because she feels she is being blamed again when actually she has caught a serious "cold" from her childhood. I'm rather lost as how to tackle this.

By therapizer — On Mar 28, 2014

@anon935162- Awareness of our behaviors is a vital step in choosing a new path. The next step is not trying to force new behaviors upon yourself or using "willpower" since our behaviors are emotionally motivated, which simply means that our unconscious mind has already evaluated the situation, helped you put meaning to the event, assigned an emotion, and that emotion has informed you how to respond with a learned behavior. Clearly by this path you can see that behavioral control alone is like measuring only the part of the iceberg above the water. Like the Titanic, it would be a mistake to forget that the real problem lies beneath our conscious control.

Step one: Find a therapist and expose your deepest and truest emotions. The surface emotion is seldom the real one. For example, many clients find that anger is a simply cover for hurt, and the hurt is covering the feeling of rejection, and the rejection covers the deeper emotion some call worthlessness.

When you get help diving into the levels of emotion to find the deepest core, you will look for the first time (an event) you can remember feeling it. (It may not be the first time you ever felt it, but rather the first time you can remember at the time.) That event, the one you remember feeling that deepest emotion in, will present to you a new challenge: What meaning did you put on that event? Is that the objective truth of the event, or only an opinion that you or someone else created in that moment and then you accepted? What is the truth of that event?

Most often, we find our negative behaviors tied to negative emotions which are in turn tied to meanings and beliefs we never realized we have actually been living by. These beliefs are patently false but may appear trustworthy at first appraisal.

Here are just a few random beliefs or meanings of events that reek havoc on our emotional and spiritual health, along with our relational success:

I am not valuable/ I don't matter. I am powerless. I am not safe. The world is scary. I am unlovable.

These five beliefs (all greatly unknown to clients until they really look deeply) are the basis of 90 percent of the emotional conflict and chaos I help resolve in my office

The bottom line (sorry for the long post) is that once you resolve the underlying negative emotion, new behaviors will present themselves, sometimes automatically. When these powerful hidden beliefs are changed, you will change, and for the better.

This is not a long term problem, but you have to stop managing the symptoms (the passive aggressive behavior) and deal with the deeper root issue. Then you just need the steps to solve it. Find a therapist who deals with resolving "unresolved negative emotions" and watch yourself grow.

Good luck.

By anon935162 — On Feb 24, 2014

I have passive aggressive behaviors which is why I came to this site. It is incredibly painful and I am constantly doing what I don't want to do and self destructing because the anger goes inward. I am trying to find spiritual answers to this problem because I can't seem to change this behavior myself.

By anon925706 — On Jan 13, 2014

Wow, lots of really scary comments here. Glad for the ones who are not controlling, judgmental, arrogant, condescending or PA. Apparently there are a lot more people who could do with some counseling so their comments don't read like dialogue from a character on daytime soaps. Is this comment PA? (Are you sure?)

By anon258188 — On Mar 30, 2012

@anon7604: I want to thank you for your candor by admitting you may have set the scene for your son's PA. I pray that you're are blessed with all the help and solutions that are needed to restore your son, and your relationship with him, back to emotional health and wholeness. I'm convinced, given your honesty,you will both get there.

My mum was and still is extremely PA, and the funny thing is I turned out very controlling! Me being honest about it was first step to overcoming my "unhelpful" relationship style. Don't forget: you can pray.

By anon203257 — On Aug 04, 2011

I used to work with a really passive aggressive dude. He would make violent threats about people but in a roundabout way. It wasn't fun being around him for long.

By anon168008 — On Apr 15, 2011

There is no such thing as "undoing" passive-aggressive behavior. Children react to control in various ways. Some will comply with an OCD perfection. Some will be PA.

Some of the posts here are well informed and have learned correctly how to deal with this. Aome are shockingly uninformed. I recommend doing some research, as the posters here who appear to have done so are clearly more adjusted, although understandably not necessarily happier about the situation. Personally, PA people just are not worth my time, so once identified, I avoid them like the plague. Only narcissists are worse.

By anon160634 — On Mar 16, 2011

There is no way to "undo" passive aggressive behaviors in someone. I tried to change my ex-husband for years. It's a true blessing from god that I was finally given an answer as to what was so "different" about him. One day his mother slipped and said, "you know he's passive-aggressive".

Until that day, I had never heard that term before. I read books,did research, went to therapists so I could change him. Best thing I did was give up and ignore his games. Now he's another woman's problem. I truly worry about his new wife. She has no idea what she's dealing with!

By anon159223 — On Mar 10, 2011

This so called "passive-aggressive personality" is only a sad misinterpretation about people suffering from ADHD symptoms. These described "passive-aggressive" features such as procrastination and forgetfulness are typical ADHD symptoms. Treat these "passive aggressive" people with ADHD medication.

By anon127973 — On Nov 18, 2010

I agree with anon 26251. I have a 27 year old who was assessed with ADHD at 18. He was very hard work and I went through hell with him. He has just come back from overseas with his partner, a beautiful girl who now thinks she's mental.

He's been living with me until his house comes up in a month. He has just ranted at me for the past hour telling me I am abusive, a disgusting mother, all his problems are because of me. I didn't react (cry, argue) but agreed with him and stayed calm. His ranting got worse and worse and more and more cruel.

I feel good that I didn't crumble but I know my son hates me, and that's so sad. I also know it's his problem and the fact that I have two beautiful daughters is what I hang on to.

By anon115102 — On Sep 30, 2010

Or you could just enjoy the mischief and self-will of a normal, healthy, happy child instead of trying to strangle any life out of them and turn them into over-analyzed, drone-like, drugged-up American idiots like you grew up to become. Just a thought.

By anon113040 — On Sep 22, 2010

If you suspect you're involved with a passive aggressive person, get out! They don't change and you will go crazy staying in it!

By anon102846 — On Aug 09, 2010

People, look at the positives also. Procrastinator could well mean a person with patience, not always PA. Human personality is too complex for a website like this one to fathom. Do not fall for it.

By anon96148 — On Jul 14, 2010

He has not been diagnosed, but I fully believe the man I was living with for 11 years is passive aggressive. He has every quality and trait of a PA. He always "forgets", he always procrastinates, he always says he will do something, then not do it then get royally POed because the person keeps calling/asking. He answers every single question with "Why?" (I believe that is because if he doesn't know why, he doesn't have any "leverage" in the conversation).

Another good read: "Living With The Passive Aggressive Man" by Scott Wetzler.

By anon81147 — On Apr 30, 2010

This is also a widespread cultural trait among at least 50 percent of the population of Sweden. Swedes are variously (unflatteringly) referred to as "the Japanese of Europe with a sprinkle of British sarcasm".

By anon57693 — On Dec 26, 2009

I think people need to leave it up to the professionals on what is a variation in personality trait or something of more serious nature. People need to stop thinking maybe that they can fairly analyze family members. Anybody can have annoying habits but only a professional should correctly identify.

By anon43466 — On Aug 29, 2009

How about you let kids be passive-aggressive, challenging and strong willed? Why do you want them to be mindless drones that do everything they are told and don't question it? I think most parents that say their kids have issues are just being self-centered. All kids are crazy and hard to control so just deal with it like an adult, instead of doping them up so you can watch sex in the city and eat bon bons in peace.

By anon41385 — On Aug 14, 2009

I can almost explain the origins of my PA tendencies by virtue of the fact that I was almost never (I'd say never, but I'm sure my family would dispute that) the center of attention when I was a child. I don't remember coming close to being the center of attention the way my siblings were. I didn't demand it apparently the way they do. I wasn't ADHD/ADD, but I was a huge procrastinator and still am in my 40s. So there are things about me that I wouldn't give back that are directly related to the way I was treated in my family and at school (no COA there either). This is a giant subject for me the more I read about it!

By anon26251 — On Feb 10, 2009

I have grown children who had severe ADD or ADHD. The one with ADHD was extremely strong willed. I think ADD almost inevitably sets parents up for passive aggressive behavior in their child or at least anger/dependence.

As an ADD parent, you are always "catching" them screwing up (losing things, being late, being totally disorganized, etc.). I feel I worked hard for years to raise them only to have adult children now that resent me. It's painful. The only "cure" now for my pain and for their anger is for me to remove myself physically from them (move away).

If I had to parent again, one thing I wouldn't do is come to their rescue all the time (go to their school to help them find the innumerable lost articles, etc.). It just seems to breed dependence, not gratitude. Mothering kids with problems is a real bummer.

By anon24995 — On Jan 21, 2009

Check out The Angry Smile: The Psychology of Passive Aggressive Behavior in Families, Schools, and Workplaces, 2nd edition. It's a great resource for parents, professionals, co-workers, family members and anyone living or working with a passive aggressive person. It gives step-by-step skills for responding to passive aggressive behavior and an 8-step process for confronting it.

By my3kids — On Feb 14, 2008

I would love to know the same thing. I believe my child is showing passive-aggressive traits, just like her father. I do not want her to grow-up being this kind of person.

By anon7604 — On Jan 30, 2008

I have an extremely passive aggressive child who was probably created by me being controlling because he has always been challenging and strong willed. He's 5 now and his passive aggressiveness causes problems a lot. I would love any ideas on how you "undo" passive aggressiveness in a child.

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