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

Updated March 13, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Passive aggression is a form of communication that can be maladaptive and unhealthy; however, despite this, it is also extremely common. Passive-aggressive behavior typically appears to be normal or innocent on the surface but often disguises feelings of frustration, anger, and resentment beneath the surface. In this article, you will learn what passive-aggressive behavior entails so that you can identify and find ways to combat 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 Manage Passive-Aggressive Behaviors

Aggressive behavior, which typically involves openly expressing negative thoughts and emotions sometimes to the point of offending others, such as yelling, cursing, making demands, and using violence, among others, is usually easy to spot. In general, though, passive aggression tends to be much more indirect and subtle; this is where the “passive” part comes in.

Passive communication and behavior often come from people who feel unable to express their feelings. They may have a tendency 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 communicate negative emotions results in confusion rather than resolution. When offensive, hurtful, or upsetting sentiments are masked behind seemingly innocent or friendly language, you’re likely facing passive-aggressive behavior.

Even though it can be hard to spot sometimes, passive aggression can be just as hostile and resentful as aggressive behaviors. Here are some examples of passive-aggressive behavior in action:

  • 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 can be normal, passive aggression is typically not healthy. It can make it difficult or impossible to work through conflict, mend strained relationships, and promote the reflection and compromise that is often necessary to overcome obstacles. 

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 a parent who displayed passive-aggressive behavior, they could easily adopt this way of thinking, communicating, and dealing with negative emotions themselves.

On the other hand, those who often resort to passive aggression could also come from a place where they are discouraged from expressing the way that they feel. This can result in both passive and 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. For instance, someone might develop passive-aggressive behaviors to avoid conflict in the workplace or with an intimate partner.

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

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 can still be helpful to seek out the assistance of mental health professional for guidance and an opportunity to unpack why the behavior might be happening.

What To Do If You Are Being Passive-Aggressive

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

The main topic that you may need to address when attempting to make a change is how to manage and express negative feelings. It can be important to realize that it’s okay to be angry and upset but finding ways to healthily channel these emotions is far more effective than avoiding them. 

You may also want to take some time to consider why passive aggression has made its way into your communication style. Do you feel unsure about telling your true feelings with others? Are you afraid of what others might say or do if you do? Are you worried about whether your feelings are valid, or are you hoping that others will uncover your frustration themselves? 

Oftentimes doing a bit of digging can help us understand why we’re behaving a certain way and addressing the underlying root issue can be critical in terms of implementing changes that actually stick.

How To Help Someone Who Is Passive-Aggressive

If you can recognize the signs of passive aggression in people around you, whether they are a friend, family, romantic partner, or a coworker, confronting the situation can be challenging. You might fear backlash or worry about putting the other person on defense. If this happens, it’s crucial that you don’t react with hostility.

Expressing your frustration openly and patiently may give you the best chances at getting through to the person in question. Try your best to avoid accusations or statements that might incite guilt. Instead, focus on telling why this sort of behavior can be hurtful to you and why you’ve deemed it necessary to bring it up. 

Remember not to make assumptions about why someone is acting passive-aggressively, either; what may seem like an attempt to get attention or avoid responsibility may actually be rooted in self-doubt, fear, or confusion. It can be helpful to frame things as they affect you rather than the person you’re talking to, especially if you’re worried about coming off as aggressive yourself.

Statements like “Sometimes, I feel like you don’t actually tell me when you’re upset with me. When that happens, I feel confused and don’t know how to make things better,” are more likely to be well-received than things like “Why don’t you just say what you mean?”

Where To Get Help For Passive-Aggressive Behavior

If there is a willingness to change passive-aggressive behavior, many 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 with online therapy. Because you can get care from nearly anywhere with an internet connection, online therapy makes it simple to connect with professionals who understand your goals.

Learn How To Manage Passive-Aggressive Behaviors

On top of its accessibility, online therapy is both effective and affordable for most. One study examining the perks of online cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) noted that online options were more cost-effective for clients than traditional, in-person therapy. No matter what sort of care you hope to receive, online therapy may make it possible to find something that fits your needs and budget.


Because passive aggression is usually a learned behavior, it can also be unlearned. If you experience passive aggression, whether in regard to your own behavior or that of others, it can help to reach out to a mental health professional for support. Understanding what might cause passive-aggressive behavior and developing solutions to help can both be great ways to get started on a path toward healthier communication.

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