What Is Passive Aggressive Behavior And What Can I Do About It?

By BetterHelp Editorial Team|Updated August 17, 2022

Passive aggression is a form of communication and expression that can be maladaptive and unhealthy; however, despite this, it is also extremely common. In this article, you will learn what passive-aggressive behavior entails so that you can not only identify it in other people but yourself as well so that you can find ways to change it.

What Is Passive Aggression?

You may have heard of someone being called passive-aggressive, or perhaps you have been accused of it yourself, but what does the term mean, and how does it differ from regular aggressive behavior? What makes it passive?

Learn How To Deal With Passive-Aggressive Tendencies

Unlike aggressive behavior, which involves openly expressing negative thoughts and emotions sometimes to the point of offending others, such as yelling, cursing, making demands, and using violence, to name a few examples, in general, passive aggression tends to be much more indirect and subtle, and this is where the passive part comes in.

Passive communication and behavior refer to people who are unable to express their feelings and emotions and tend to bottle up or bury them and become out of touch with them. Passive people can be prone to an angry outburst, but typically, the way they handle negative emotions results in confusion rather than secretly being upset. [1] [2]

When you combine this inability to openly express themselves with being in touch with negative feelings such as anger and resentment, you get passive-aggression, and there are many signs of it.

Even though it can be hard to spot sometimes, and some forms of it can be deceptive, passive aggression can be just as hostile and resentful as aggressive behaviors. Here are some examples of it: [3] [4]

  • Avoiding and evading problems
  • Deliberately procrastinating or making mistakes on a task
  • Complaining and making excuses frequently
  • Criticizing and blaming others
  • Sarcastic, silent treatment, and argumentative communication
  • Pessimistic and cynical attitudes and outlook

Although anger, frustration, resentment, and other negative emotions are normal, passive-aggression is not healthy. Unfortunately, with people who demonstrate such behaviors, they can be deeply internalized, and expressing these emotions can become misplaced, and instead of communicating directly, it manifests as passive-aggression. [1]

Passive-aggression can also be learned behaviors, and in the next section, you will learn about some of the reasons why it happens.

What Causes Passive-Aggression?

Most of the time, behaviors and communication styles are learned and are often influenced by our environments, and passive-aggressive people are no exception.

For example, if a person had an upbringing where they had a parent who displayed passive-aggressive behavior, they could easily adopt this way of thinking, communicating, and dealing with negative emotions.

On the other hand, they could also grow up in a place where they are discouraged from expressing the way that they feel. This can result in both passive or passive-aggressive behavior. Depending on the individual, they might never learn how to express themselves; however, they might find their own way of doing so, and this can manifest as passive-aggression.

People can also learn passive-aggressiveness as adults, too, and some cases can occur in isolated situations, too, such as in the workplace or relationships. For instance, someone might develop passive-aggressive behaviors as a way to avoid conflict.

Passive aggression can also be caused by numerous mental health conditions as well, such as depression, anxiety, a personality disorder, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. Still, even ordinary stress and substance use can also cause people to become passive-aggressive. [3] [4]

If you or someone that you know is displaying passive aggression towards others, it’s not always indicative of a mental health disorder; however, it is recommended that you seek out the assistance of mental health professional so you can get to the root of why you are expressing yourself this way so that you can change them into healthier ways of coping with negative feelings and emotions instead.

What To Do If You Are Being Passive Aggressive

It’s not easy to realize that you are passive-aggressive, and sometimes the awareness comes when someone points out your behavior and how it’s affecting them or others.

Recognizing the problem is the first step to improving and correcting these behaviors. It’s a process that will take time – change won’t happen overnight, but people can certainly make excellent progress quickly if they are committed.

The main topic that will need to be addressed when attempting to make a change is learning how to cope with negative feelings such as anger. It’s important to realize that it’s okay to be angry and upset, but it should be expressed healthily. It should be direct and assertive, but not harmful to others.

However, getting to this point and learning how to accept negativity and cope with it may require the assistance of a mental health professional who can help guide you in the right direction by allowing you to uncover and talk about the things that make you upset and then learning valuable coping skills to deal with them.

How To Help Someone Who Is Passive Aggressive

If you can recognize the signs of passive aggression, and you’ve noticed this sort of behavior in people around you, whether they are a friend, family member, romantic partner, or a coworker, confronting a passive-aggressive person can be a very challenging task because there is always the potential for backlash. If this happens, it’s crucial that you don’t react with hostility.

They may even respond to your constructive criticism with more passive aggression; they might agree with what you have to say and say they’ll work on their behavior, but could contradict this later because they are upset with you now.

You should also expect the possibility of them going into denial about their passive aggression. This could be honest since many passive-aggressive people don’t realize that they are acting that way and taking their frustrations out on others.

In these situations, you can lend a helping hand and reassure them and try to let them know that it’s okay for them to express how they feel. If this doesn’t work right away, don’t worry, and you may find the opportunity to bring it up again.

Nonetheless, if passive aggression isn’t pointed out, the individual in question can’t make the necessary changes needed to correct the behavior. Always try to be non-confrontational and understanding in regards to how you communicate, since aggressive language can make them feel like they are being put on the spot and criticized. You are more likely to see positive results by being calm and offering your ear and listening to what they have to say.

Where To Get Help For Passive Aggressive Behavior?

If there is a willingness to change passive-aggressive behavior, people can greatly benefit from the assistance of a mental health professional such as a counselor or therapist.

One of the easiest ways to find help for passive aggression is through the use of online therapy, and at BetterHelp, licensed and professional counselors are just a click away. They can provide you with the skills you need to cope and be more open with your thoughts, emotions, and feelings more healthily and productively.

Learn How To Deal With Passive-Aggressive Tendencies

Online therapy has many benefits, and some of the most notable perks are that it’s convenient, and it’s more affordable than traditional in-person therapy sessions. It eliminates the need to travel to a set location, and scheduling is very flexible, and because of these things, online therapy aims to be stress-free.

It is also fully-featured, and aside from being able to communicate with your therapist via text, calls, or email, you can also interact with them through video chat. This allows you to have the same face-to-face interaction that you’d receive with a therapist in-person, and it’s just as effective.

Online services from BetterHelp make it easier than ever to connect to a qualified therapist, and whether you are struggling with stress or you are dealing with a mental health condition such as depression and anxiety, help is available, and you can overcome them and change your behavior for the better.


As mentioned before, passive aggression is learned behavior, and therefore, it can be unlearned. Passive-aggressive people can change and make a significant difference in how they respond to negative emotions, and this can have a positive impact on their overall outlook on life. If you struggle with passive aggression, don’t hesitate to reach out to a mental health professional who can help sort out all of your thoughts and make the process less confusing. You’re not alone, and by believing you can change, you will, and you can improve your relationships with others and have a happier and healthier life.


  1. Wasserman, M. (2017, July 28). What’s the Difference Between “Passive” and “Passive Aggressive”? Retrieved from https://betterandbetterer.com/whats-the-difference-between-passive-and-passive-aggressive/
  2. UK Violence Intervention and Prevention Center. (n.d.). The Four Basic Styles of Communication. Retrieved from https://www.uky.edu/hr/sites/www.uky.edu.hr/files/wellness/images/Conf14_FourCommStyles.pdf
  3. Hall-Flavin, D. K., MD. (2019, July 20). How to spot passive-aggressive behavior. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/adult-health/expert-answers/passive-aggressive-behavior/faq-20057901
  4. Bhargava, H. D. (2020, July 28). Passive-Aggressive Behavior: Signs, Causes,& How to Manage. Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/passive-aggressive-behavior-overview
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