How to stop Passive-Aggressive Behavior?

In this article, you will learn:

  1. Passive Aggressive Definition
  2. Passive Aggressive Personality Disorder
  3. Common Symptoms of Passive-Aggressive Personality Disorder
  4. Causes of Passive-Aggressive Personality Disorder
  5. Passive Aggressive Examples
  6. How To Deal With Passive-Aggressive People?
  7. Passive Aggressive Communication

Passive-Aggressive behavior comes forward in many forms. However, it is typically defined as non-verbal aggression expressed in the form of negative behavior.

It is like you are angry with someone, but are unable to tell them. So instead of telling them on their face honestly, you get irritated, upset, and keep feelings to yourself.

In other words, you prefer not communicating your feelings verbally but reveal the same through changes in your behavior. 

Such changes would include procrastinating, passively resisting the tasks given by people of authority, being sullen or argumentative, etc.

It is like you never showcase your explosive behaviors, but have a sarcastic smile on your face. You never lose self-control, scream at others, and seem highly pleasant or cooperative on the outside.

But, internally, you may personally decide not to follow a rule or a directive. Further, you may quietly, and systematically become oppositional.

You may be the one who may know the weak traits of other people and intentionally play on them. Such behavior may frustrate the people around you and stir up intense feelings in others.

In this article, we will discuss what passive-aggressive means, passive-aggressive personality disorder, and how to deal with passive-aggressive people.

Passive Aggressive Definition

To understand the passive-aggressive definition, it is important to clarify related terms and concepts. 

The following are some of the psychological definitions that will help you in warding off the uncertainty around the passive-aggressive meaning.

Passive aggression


Anger is a negative feeling commonly associated with bitter thoughts. It is marked by physiological arousal and maladaptive behaviors.

Typically, anger develops as a natural response to undesirable actions of the other person. Such other person is considered threatening, demeaning, and disrespectful. 

It’s a natural emotion that is real and powerful. Further, it is a temporary and an instantaneous feeling which comes and goes in our daily life. 

The physiological changes that one experiences when in the grip of anger are headaches, increased heart rate, and muscle tension.

As per APA research, 25% of the anger incidents include thoughts of revenge. For example, “I’ll spoil her work if she talks to me like that again.

Aggressive Definition, Define Aggressive, Aggressive Behavior

Aggression on the other hand is not a feeling or an emotion like anger. Instead, it is a behavior or action that is destructive or violent.

In other words, aggression is a way through which you express the feeling of anger. Also, it is an impulsive action that is spontaneous and unplanned.

Thus, aggressive behavior is devastating as it hurts or destroys people or objects on which it is expressed.

As mentioned, it is a natural action that is a result of an underlying pain or anxiety. Further, it is typically expressed in the form of threatening, cursing, hitting, or yelling at others.


As per APA, hate is a hostile emotion that includes strong feelings of anger, detestation, and mostly a desire to harm others. 

Thus, one can say that hate is a focused feeling of anger. This is because it has a target individual in mind.

Further, hate gets triggered when someone embarrasses you, is revengeful, or holds prejudice against you.

You can thus say that hate is a type of anger that always stays. Further, hate can also be carried forward from one generation to the other.

Therefore, hate can take many forms. For example, racial, personal, political, national, religious, or family hatred.


It is an observable expression of intense dislike or animosity in one’s actions, feelings, as well as attitude. Further, it is intentional or conscious behavior that is prompted by hatred. 

Hostile individual aims to cause damage, hurt, or destroy another person or an object. 

Thus, unlike aggression, it is not impulsive. It may take days, weeks, months, or even years to build up. Further, it is a personal dispute that is prompted by revenge. 


Rage is usually uncontrolled anger. Thus, unlike hostility, it does not mandatorily involve a damaging action. However, it is marked by excessive expression.

It is an out-of-control feeling of anger or hate. Further, rage usually comes when you are unable to cope with a given situation. Also, you are not left with any other way in which you can respond to a situation you consider threatening.


Violence is an expression of rage and hostility with an underlying intent to damage or destroy people or objects by applying physical force.

Basically, it is a destructive behavior through which you express anger. Unlike hate, it does not have a target individual in mind.

In fact, violence destroys everything that comes in its way.


Passive Definition

A passivity is a form of maladaptation. In this, a person assumes the pattern of dependence, submissiveness, and goes into inaction.

Passive personality

A passive personality is an individual who expresses his or her feelings or needs indirectly through passive behaviors. 

For example, if such an individual is abused or teased, he or she does not come out with the issue assertively.

In fact, on being asked, a passive personality says he or she does not have an issue. Further, such an individual does good to the teaser or the abuser clearly indicating that he or she will not take a stand for himself or herself.

This is usually done to gain the abuser’s acceptance. Such individuals let their basic rights be taken away. It is because they consider the needs of other people as important.

Counter Aggression

Counter Aggressive behavior is nothing but situations when the feelings of anger become contagious. In other words, it’s like the feelings of a hostile or aggressive person getting passed to a non-aggressive person.

Basically, the non-aggressive person mirrors the behavior of a person who is angry.


It’s a way of communication in which people take a stand for their needs as well as their feelings. While at the same time, they respect the needs of others.

In other words, assertive individuals express their needs and feelings directly. However, they do so in a non-blaming way. 

In this, one clearly sets the boundaries of what the person can do and cannot do. It does not involve any kind of harm or injury to the other person.

However, a lack of assertiveness can result in anxiety and depression. In some cases, the bad approaches to assertiveness may include aggression.

Passive Aggression

Passive-Aggressive Definition

Passive-Aggressive behavior is a type of personality disorder in which the simultaneous existence of feelings of passivity and aggressiveness exists.

Such ambivalence towards oneself, as well as others, is expressed in a number of ways. These include procrastination, forgetting appointments, intentional inefficiency, stubbornness, wasting time, and misplacing important documents.

These manipulations are understood as passive expressions of the underlying negativism. Such behavior interferes with day-to-day functioning such as domestic, occupational, and academic success.

Thus, one can say that passive aggression is a type of candy-coated defiance. In this, one cooperates but with the underlying hostility.

Passive-aggressive is an oxymoron made of two contradictory terms. Thus, a passive-aggressive person does not switch between passive and aggressive behavior.

However, such an individual simultaneously combines both the behaviors into one. Such behavior frustrates other people around you. 

It is an intentional and hidden way of expressing one’s inner feelings of anger. Further, passive-aggressive behavior involves a number of behaviors portrayed to frustrate the other person without the other person identifying the underlying anger.

One must remember that passive aggression is even more devastating for interpersonal relationships than aggression.

Further, one gets encouraged for passive-aggressive behavior by the underlying fear of expressing anger directly. Such a person is of the view that things would go bad if people get to know of his anger.

Thus, such an individual prefers to express anger indirectly. For example, a daughter may conceal her anger by smiling and saying, “Hey Mom! I will wear the dress that you want me to wear for the event.” However, the daughter makes sure that her mother doesn’t find that dress until the next day when the event has already happened.

It is important to note that passive-aggressive people get pleasure when they frustrate others. 

Counter – Passive Aggression

Counter-Passive Aggression comes when a person reacts to a passive-aggressive individual. In other words, people responding to passive-aggressive personalities often end up mirroring the maladaptive behavior and get caught in the endless cycle of passive-aggressive conflict.

It’s very much like counter-hostility where individuals reacting to aggressive people behave in a counter-aggressive way. That is, they mirror the aggression much like the aggressive individual.

Passive Aggressive Personality Disorder

Passive-Aggressive Personality Disorder was classified in the Appendix of DSM-IV-TR. It was given an alternate name ‘Negativistic Personality Disorder’ as suggested by Theodore Millon.

Thus, Passive-Aggressive Personality Disorder is a personality disorder in which one expresses resistance to the demands of adequate performance in both occupational and social functioning.

Further, such resistance is expressed indirectly rather than directly. As mentioned earlier, Passive-Aggressive is a behavioral pattern that is marked by both passivity and aggressiveness.

Thus, one expresses aggressiveness passively or covertly in various forms such as stubbornness, intentional inefficiency, procrastination, etc.

Typically, such behavior reflects hostility which the individual fears to express openly. People with  Passive-Aggressive Personality Disorder oppose demands habitually so as to increase or maintain their normal way of functioning.

Further, you will typically find people behaving in a Passive-Aggressive way at workplaces. However, it is also apparent in social setups.

One adopts a number of manipulative behaviors to express resistance indirectly. Therefore, in order to identify and deal with people having Passive-Aggressive Personality Disorder, it is important to recognize their pattern of behavior.

The following are the diagnostic criteria for determining people with Passive-Aggressive Personality Disorder.

Diagnostic Criteria To Determine Passive-Aggressive Personality Disorder

The following are the characteristics that are common among passive-aggressive personality types. These characteristics help us in diagnosing the Passive-Aggressive Personality Disorder in individuals.

This is the DSM-IV criteria for Passive-Aggressive Personality Disorder (Negativistic Personality Disorder).

I. Expressing Negative Feelings Indirectly

Passive-Aggressive behavior is a pattern in which individuals fear to openly express feelings of anger. Thus, he expresses the negative feelings in an indirect manner.

II. Pervasive Pattern and Passive Resistance

Passive-Aggressive Personality Disorder is marked by a prevalent pattern of negativistic attitudes and passive resistance to demands for adequate performance.

Such behavior begins by early adulthood and is present in a number of contexts. Thus, a Passive-Aggressive Personality must showcase such behavior in four or more ways as indicated below.

  • Passively resisting fulfillment of demand in routine, social, and occupational tasks
  • Complaining about being misunderstood and unappreciated by others
  • Sullen and argumentative
  • Procrastinating
  • Irrationally criticizing and dismissing authority
  • Expressing resentment and envy towards those who are apparently more fortunate
  • Coming up with exaggerated and continuous complaints of personal misfortune
  • Switching between hostile defiance and remorse
  • Does not occur exclusively during major depressive episodes. Further, it is not accounted for by Dysthymic Disorder.
  • Different from the previous versions included in the DSM. As per the DSM-IV description of Passive-Aggressive Personality Disorder, importance is given to sullen, irritable moods, and negativistic attitude.

III. Associated Features

  • As per Murray and Jefferson, 2004, Passive-Aggressive Personality Disorder is a long-term condition and involves the person complying with the desires and needs of others actively. But, in reality, such an individual resists them passively. This makes the individual excessively hostile and angry.
  • People with such behavior are overtly unsure, switching indecisively from one course of action to its opposite.
  • They may adopt an unpredictable course. This leads to limitless tension with other individuals and disappointment for themselves.
  • Such individuals experience a strong conflict between dependence on others and a willingness for self-assertion.
  • They possess poor self-confidence despite portraying a fictitious boldness.
  • Passive-Aggressive people typically anticipate only the worst outcomes of a situation even if all is going well.
  • Such people always see themselves as being defeated. This can prompt negative and hostile responses from others who typically receive the complaints of these passive-aggressive people.
  • Passive-aggressive people will never face others directly if they have a problem. Instead, they will always try to weaken their confidence or their success. They typically do this through actions and comments that do not place the blame on them.
  • Such behavior typically occurs in people with personality disorders like borderline, histrionic, paranoid, anti-social, avoidant, and dependent disorders.
  • Further, this type of behavior often presents itself in the following forms:
  • Procrastination
  • Stubbornness
  • Sullenness
  • Resentment
  • Dawdling
  • Intentional inefficiency
  • Pretended forgetfulness
  • Intentional failure of doing the tasks demanded
  • Unreasonable criticizing people in authority
  • It is often observed in individuals who see themselves as peaceful. This is because expressing negative feelings like anger covertly is more morally appropriate than confronting face-to-face.

Common Symptoms of Passive-Aggressive Personality Disorder

As already discussed, common symptoms of Passive-Aggressive Personality Disorder include:

  • Acting stubbornly
  • Putting things off
  • Pretending to forget things asked by others
  • Hating people of authority or the ones having a bad attitude towards them
  • Feeling unappreciated
  • Complaining frequently
  • Working inappropriately or slowly and that too intentionally
  • Blaming others for problems
  • Arguing frequently
  • Being irritable
  • Not liking the ideas of other people even when such ideas are good

Causes of Passive-Aggressive Personality Disorder

The exact cause of PAPD is unknown as there is not much research available. Yet, some of the researchers have claimed that PAPD, like other personality disorders, comes from a combination of genetic and environmental factors. 

As per a study, individuals who had more controlling parents were more likely to become withdrawn, closed-off, and cold in their adult relationships.

The study included 56 couples who were together for at least two months. Further, the researchers asked questions to each individual regarding their childhood.

For example, the following questions were asked to each of them:

  • How often they got into trouble for carelessness?
  • How frequently they broke their parents’ rules?
  • The degree to which they were sensitive to rejection, failure, and embarrassment.

In this, the researchers analyzed the answers given by each individual to identify the more cautious participants.

As a part of the study, the couples were then told to maintain a diary to write any arguments, relationship issues, moods, thoughts, and actions.

Upon scrutinizing, researchers concluded that the more cautious participants were more likely to deal with relationship problems by closing off, withdrawing from the problem, and giving the silent treatment.

In other words, cautious participants were in every way, passive-aggressive people. Accordingly, some of the causes of passive-aggressive behavior include:

I. Controlling Parents

Typically, children can be demanding, inquisitive, and excited about things. But, for parents who are highly stressed, busy, or distracted, facing curious or an emotional child can be very tiring.

Thus, it becomes very easy and obvious to ignore the consistent demands and questions of the child for such parents. Also, it becomes all the easier to yell at them to be quiet or to ask them to go to their room.

Such parents are of the view that forcing strict rules helps in the development of the child and creates a more disciplined person out of him.

But, if you see from the child’s perspective, these external anxieties, stresses, and parenting rules do not matter. This is because the child has no clue what financial or work pressure a father or a mother is going through.

For the child, the anger of parents is personal and suggests some kind of failure or disappointment. You must remember that the children yearn for the approval of their parents.

For them, parents or their care providers are figures who know everything and can see everything. They are the start and the end of their life.

So, when such figures of authority shout or ignore children continuously, it turns out to be a traumatic experience for such children.

II. Repression Over Expression

Over time, children start believing that whatever they will say would be unreasonable and worthless. As a result, they stop saying it altogether.

When the emotions of children come face-to-face with the anger of their parents, they learn to conceal their emotions. As children become adults, such schemas or lessons go along with them. 

For example, they are fearful of being rejected or condemned for their views. So such children hold themselves back from speaking out their opinions.

Furthermore, over a period of time, such children become repressive instead of being expressive about their feelings. This is something which is imposed by their parents unintentionally on them.

Thus, the passive-aggressive behavior comes from a child trying hard but failing in the eyes of his parents to please them.  

III. Covert Behavior

You must remember that hiding your desires and being secretive about your opinions would not make them go away. Rather, you will obviously learn new non-verbal and indirect ways of expressing how you truly feel about things.

Such repression is devastating and typically creates an introverted, secretive character. Accordingly, such a character has more probability to manipulate people, be dishonest, and act out the person they should be. In other words, being pretentious.

For example, a teenager who was not allowed to indulge in any activity apart from studies would take up activities of his interest. However, he would immediately pick up his school book to show his parents that he was studying when they were out for work.

IV. Resentful Feelings

The above-mentioned dishonesty and covertness make the child feel guilty. This is because we should not forget that the child still needs to be good in the eyes of his parents.

Further, the child has simply learned that the easiest way to make parents happy is to become adjusting and appear weak.

However, the child at the same time has found out secretive ways of expressing his desires and emotions. 

Over a period of time, the child begins to feel resentful about being secretive. Such feelings of resentment stay with the child throughout adulthood.

In addition to this, it presents itself in the form of resentment for people in authority. This is because such a child only associates this authority figure with always criticizing or ignoring his desires, opinions, ideas, and jokes.

Passive Aggressive Examples

I. Temporary Compliance

Rodger is a fifth-grader who loves sports but simply dislikes the routine classroom lessons. 

When his teacher asks the class to wrap up the play and head towards their classroom for their science class, Rodger accepts what the teacher says with a nod. 

However, he continues to dodge the ball. All his classmates are now standing in a queue and all set to head for their science class. But, Rodger is still dribbling the ball and finding it difficult to place the same back in the sports room.

Further, he wastes time here and there on being insisted by his teacher multiple times to wrap up the play and stand in the queue.

In fact, he says that he will join the queue multiple times and to an extent that his classmates begin to chuckle. 

Finally, the teacher loses her cool and shouts at him in front of the whole class. On this, Rodger thinks to himself that this is how he exactly feels when he is asked to wrap up the play. 

II. Disguised Hostile Humor – Sarcasm

Jennifer and Mark are married since 10 years now. One day, their washroom sink gets clogged. Seeing this, Mark tells Jennifer that “Hey don’t not worry about this as I will take care of it.” On this Jennifer replies sarcastically, “Oh I know how much you help me with the household chores… Just kidding.” 

III.  Hostility Towards Authority

Chloe and Sara is junior to Sara and works in a law firm. Chloe is always does the work she is asked to day, seems eager to help, never raises a concern, and never complains.

But, somehow the important part of the project given to her never gets done. She always has some or the other excuse. That is, she tells the manager that she either forgot, got late due to traffic, or put everything on Sara saying that she never asked her to do it.

Sara as the manager accepts the dilly dallying and the excuses twice. However, for the third time, she lost her temper. Sara is desperate to take some strict action guaranteeing that such a thing would not happen again.

But when she sits down to understand what exactly went wrong, she is unable to point a finger at Chloe. This is because Chloe is always found helping others, never complains, never raises her voice, and complies with what she is asked to do.

Sara thinks that maybe she’s not able to communicate instructions to Chloe. Or maybe she’s not a good motivator. 

Since Sara cannot find anything wrong with Chloe, so she blames herself and the problem never gets resolved.

How To Deal With Passive-Aggressive People?

You may have passive-aggressive people in your life. Or, you may have identified yourself to be a passive-aggressive individual.

In both cases, you must have thought of how to deal with such passive-aggressive behavior. You must understand that there is no ideal way of dealing with passive-aggressive individuals.

This is because the techniques are subjective and vary both as per individuals as well as situations. Accordingly, the following is just a general suggestion of coping with passive-aggressive behaviors or individuals.

Therefore, you must always seek professional help for diagnosing and dealing with passive-aggressive behaviors.

I. Dealing With Passive-Aggressive Partners

It is quite challenging to be in a relationship with a passive-aggressive individual. 

When it comes to intimate relationships, one must be open, honest, and trustworthy for the relationship to go a long way.

However, these are the traits that most passive-aggressive people do not possess. Hence, they struggle. Thus, in love relationships, passive-aggressive partners are typically:

  • Secretive and keep things to themselves
  • Cold, defensive, and unresponsive
  • Stay irritated, on the edge, and get easily stimulated
  • Are irrationally scared of abandonment and rejection
  • Are suspicious and mistrustful

If you see carefully, the above-mentioned behaviors signify the underlying fears that cannot be expressed openly. 

Therefore, coping with such behaviors can be extremely tiring and require patience and understanding on the part of a romantic partner. 

Therefore, the first step would be to identify the passive-aggressive behavior in your partner based on the criteria mentioned above.

This is because it will help you to understand why your partner is behaving in such a difficult way. Further, it will help you to cope with such behavior better.

Some of the general suggestions that can help you cope with such behavior include:

  • Being patient
  • Not taking the passive-aggressive behavior as a personal attack
  • Not exercising the controlling behavior yourself
  • Being open about such behavior to your passive-aggressive partner 

II. Coping With Passive-Aggressive Colleagues

Much like intimate relationships, passive-aggressive behavior at the workplace can interfere with your performance as well as your self-confidence.

It can be extremely challenging and frustrating for the manager to deal with the passive-aggressive personalities at work.

This is because passive-aggressive persons have the tendency to resent authority. 

As mentioned earlier, the very reason why many people become passive-aggressive is that they were suppressed as kids.

So, this resentment goes along with them into adulthood. This is because they are not able to change the schema about the association of authority with feelings of worthlessness.

Much like passive-aggressive people in social events, such individuals at the workplace exhibit the same symptoms. 

Accordingly, some of the general ways in which you can deal with a passive-aggressive colleague include:

  • Understanding that such colleagues have learned to feel inferior about themselves since childhood
  • Becoming aware that they are scared of conflict
  • Clarifying your expectations and boundaries from the beginning as a manager. This is to help the passive-aggressive colleagues understand their role as a junior in the team is not an attack but something that their profession demands.
  • Rewarding them for good work
  • Acknowledging their effort and letting them know that they are worthy
  • Giving them choice and control in the work that they do in the company
  • Organizing regular meetings to give them an opportunity to speak up about things that they have been keeping a secret.

Passive Aggressive Communication

There are basically four styles of communication. These are as follows.

I. Passive Communication

This is a communication style where an individual avoids expressing his opinions or feelings. Further, such an individual neither safeguards his rights nor meets his needs. 

As a result, passive communicators do not respond to situations that induce anger. In fact, they allow such frustrations to mount up without realizing that they are allowing such a build-up of grievances.

However, such individuals typically outburst when they reach their threshold. Such an outburst is not at all in proportion to the incident that takes place. Once they take out their feelings, they then go into a state of remorse.

Therefore, passive communicators are not assertive, allow others to violate their rights, are apologetic and speak softly, have poor eye contact, and have subsided body posture.

The result of such communication involves feeling anxious, depressed, resentful, confused, and are not able to mature. This is because their issues never get resolved.

II. Aggressive Communication

This is a style of communication in which people express their feelings and emotions, but in a way that infringes the rights of others.

Therefore, these individuals are both verbally and physically abusive. Aggressive communicators will always attempt to dominate others, use humiliation for control, play the blame game, and have a low tolerance for frustration.

Further, they are very impulsive, speak in a loud, demanding way, act rudely, never listen properly, and interrupt others when they speak.

Such individuals have intimidating posture, become aloof from others, stay away from others, and generate fear in others. They never own up to their issues.

III. Passive-Aggressive Communication

It is a style of communication in which the people are passive on the outside but are actually expressing their anger in a very subtle indirect way.

These individuals feel resentful and powerless. That is, they are never able to directly face their resentments. Further, they express their anger by weakening the object of their resentment.

Also, the passive-aggressive communicators will always talk to themselves instead of facing the issue. They find difficulty in accepting their anger and use facial expressions that do not match their real feelings.

For example, they heartily agree to things on their face but in reality, do not want to do such things, Further, they use sarcasm, appear cooperative. However, they purposefully do things that frustrate others.

As a result, such communicators become aloof from others and remain stuck in the position of powerlessness. They showcase resentment due to which the real issues never get resolved.

IV. Assertive Communication

It is a style of communication in which individuals clearly put forward their feelings and viewpoints. Further, they promote their rights and needs but without infringing the rights of others.

These individuals value themselves in terms of their time, emotional, spiritual, and physical needs. Further, such communicators clearly state what they want in a respectful way.

Also, they listen to others without interrupting, maintain good eye contact, feel in control of themselves, and speak in a calm tone of voice.

They have a relaxed body posture and do not allow others to manipulate them. As a result, these individuals feel connected to others, in control of their lives, and are able to resolve issues and problems as they come.

Advanced Psychology