If you’re not sure that you’ve ever dealt with a passive-aggressive person, one of these scenarios may sound familiar:
You: “Friend, can I borrow your car tomorrow morning?”
Friend: “Well, I kind of need it for myself, but I guess you can borrow it. Do you need me to fill the gas tank?”
Husband: (Returns home late from work and hasn’t texted wife all day) “Hi…why are you so quiet?”
Wife: (Rolls her eyes and huffs) “You know why!”
Husband: “No I don’t, what’s wrong?”
Wife: “Nothing! Just forget it.”
Contrary to popular belief, there are no passive-aggressive people, but there is passive-aggressive behavior. It is summed up as anger and resentment hidden behind a calm, neutral, or pleasant façade. Passive-aggressive behavior is a separation of what people say and do, which leads to people expressing their angry or negative feelings subtly through their actions but never addressing them directly. What might seem like harmless gestures to “remain the calm one” or “low-key” are harmful to relationships with family, friends, and co-workers. It leads to hostility, sarcasm, miscommunication, and resentment, and usually, a large blow-up or falling out.
Some people might believe that their passive-aggressive behavior is not transparent, but people are perceptive and easily notice when someone avoids confrontation. If you find yourself being passive-aggressive or know someone who is, read on to learn more about the causes, behavior patterns, and how to either correct or deal with it.
The term “passive-aggressive” was coined during WWII to describe soldiers wouldn’t follow officer’s orders, and a classic example is when someone resents or opposes the instructions of others but grudgingly does them. While the exact cause is unknown, researchers believe that passive-aggressive behavior begins in childhood and may be a result of:
- Family dynamics
- Parenting style
Some medical experts believe it is a result of underlying health conditions including depression, anxiety, and ADHD. The passive-aggressive person tends to feel:
And displays actions including:
- Minimal eye contact
- Responding in a low, flat voice
- Frequent forgetfulness
- Ignoring the specific person in a group setting
- Sabotaging or plotting revenge
Everyone displays passive-aggressive behavior from time to time, but for those who act in a consistent pattern, it is counter-productive and does not solve issues. Instead, it causes friction, uncomfortable interactions for both parties, and exposes the indirect person as being fearful, timid, or just plain angry.
Why are some people passive-aggressive? Speaking from my personal experience, there are several reasons, and it’s usually a fear of:
- Confrontation or conflict
- Coming across as difficult or unreasonable
- Coming across as too defensive, too impossible, or not flexible enough
I remember that whenever I would voice my opinion as a young girl, adults would remind me that proper young girls never talked back or acted disrespectfully. I would get scolded for defending my actions (which kids normally do), and that mindset continued with me up until my late 30’s. To “keep the peace” or “be the bigger person,” I wouldn’t tell others how I felt or my true opinion, out of fear of being scolded or told I was too defensive, impossible, etc. At age 46, I’m aware that I still fall back on being passive-aggressive and it’s a behavior that I continue to correct every day.
So how do you overcome being passive-aggressive? These steps may help:
- Recognize and understand your behavior patterns
- Express your needs
- Be more attentive and analytical
- Address a problem before it becomes bigger
- Always choose success
- Practice being assertive
- Understand the importance of conflicts and know it’s okay to disagree
If this seems like too many steps, you can always start by narrowing down to three basic steps:
- Ask a question: a solid and direct one is, “Is there a reason why ______…?”
- Share your perspective while acknowledging theirs: “I understand why you _______, however, it’s _______…”
- Use logic to make a firm request: it’s a delicate balance between a request and a demand, and it helps to use “since” and “please.”
What if a close family member, friend, or someone you work with is passive-aggressive?
- Stay in the present moment and don’t fall back on past interactions.
- Let the indirect person speak without interrupting them. Passive-aggressive people want to be heard and not corrected right away.
- Use “I” statements instead of “You.” Saying “I feel…” is more effective than “You always…”
- With a friend or family member, calmly state the facts (as if it were a science project).
- With a co-worker, also state facts and keep a written journal of interactions as solid evidence. Be aware that some passive-aggressive co-workers may even resort to sabotage or plotting revenge, such as with a work project.
- Offer a fair solution or solutions with specific details.
With cognitive behavior therapy, I learned that overcoming being passive-aggressive is all about listening to the other person without interrupting, acknowledging facts, and recognizing the other person’s rights and feelings without giving up my own. I still tend to see any situation in black or white, so I’m still learning how to be firm but flexible and saying if I feel good or not. It’s not easy, but whenever I find myself falling into my old behaviors, I’m not afraid to say so and to tell the other person that I’m more than willing to work things out.