What To Do When You Recognize Passive Behavior In Yourself Or Others

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated April 24, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Passive behavior can be a common response when faced with difficult situations or uncomfortable emotions. At its core, passive behavior is generally a form of psychological defense that can lead to feelings of helplessness, low self-esteem, and even depression. To break free from the cycle of passive behavior, you might try to understand its deeper roots and underlying causes. With the proper support, it can be possible to rise above passive behavior and live life to its fullest potential. Online therapy is one way to get the professional support you deserve to overcome passive behavior.

What is the definition of passive behavior?

Passive behavior can be defined as any type of behavior characterized by complaisance, refusal, or a lack of assertiveness. Individuals may consequently allow others to control or dictate their behavior and decisions.

Passive behavior may manifest in the following ways:

  • Avoiding confrontation or conflict
  • Failing to set boundaries
  • Not speaking up for yourself
  • Not asserting yourself
  • Putting the needs of others first
  • Having difficulty making decisions
  • Feeling powerless or helpless in some situations

What are the root causes of passive behavior?

Passive behavior can have negative effects on your social life, economic situation, and relationships with family members and others. With these potential consequences, it can be helpful to understand the root cause of passive behavior and develop strategies to address it.

Getty/Xavier Lorenzo
Address the roots of passive behavior

Family upbringing

Some studies show that passive behavior may stem from being raised or growing up in an environment where guardians disallowed or discouraged the direct expression of emotions. In such an environment, you may find it hard to express your feelings openly, which may trigger frustration or anger.

Mental health status

Your mental status can determine how you react to situations or behavior. Studies have found a connection between passive behaviors and depression. It can be essential to get the necessary help when facing mental health problems to prevent passive behavior from taking a toll on your life.

Situational circumstances

Your situational awareness may be another root cause of passive behavior. You may encounter situations that seem to trigger passive behaviors. For instance, you might be more inclined to treat people differently or react differently when you're in a situation that's not socially acceptable. Also, when facing challenging circumstances, you may be more likely to take a passive approach.

Discomfort with confrontation

When faced with a situation that might require confrontation, you may opt for the passive approach to avoid potential conflict. It could also stem from being uncomfortable speaking up in front of others or addressing situations that might be uncomfortable.

Using your own opinion

In most relationships, anger doesn't bring out the reactions that satisfy both parties. When in a relationship or with other individuals, you may not want to outwardly express your anger, which may result in passive behavior. 


Strategies to help you rise above passive behavior

Do you sometimes wonder why you cannot seem to get what you want in life? Does it seem like others do not recognize your needs? Do others seem to have an advantage over you because you don't know how to stand up for yourself? Passive behavior can have these effects on your life, but with effective strategies, you may be able to rise above the tendency to respond to situations with passivity.

Trust your gut

Trusting your gut is generally a process that involves trusting your perceptions, emotions, and senses. While you may rely on other factors to make decisions, it can be good to trust your gut to avert passive behavior. You may use this strategy to develop an identity and achieve a healthy relationship with your colleagues.

Confront your issues

Unresolved issues can be a root cause of passive behavior. Having the courage to confront them may help you move forward and make decisions that suit you. Facing your problems head-on can also help you break away from toxic relationships and move on to healthier ones.

Picture the other individual in a vulnerable state

Viewing the other individual as vulnerable may help you with passive behavior. When you see others as vulnerable, you may be able to understand why they act a certain way and come up with an appropriate reaction or response.

Develop emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence can help you better understand your emotions and reactions to situations. With emotional intelligence, you may be able to understand other people's emotional responses and come up with appropriate solutions to problems.

Address the roots of passive behavior

Talk with friends and family

Talking to someone about your feelings can help you devise a solution for passive behavior. If a friend or family member is available, you may express how you feel about a particular situation and come up with solutions. This can also help you gain new perspectives on life in general.

Assert your expectations and needs 

You might be tempted to go the passive route when in a conflict. However, expressing your needs and expectations can help to resolve issues or disagreements without being too passive. It may also help you build better relationships, allowing others to better understand your needs and expectations.

Accept that you don't have to elicit a positive response to be effective

Sometimes, the goal of passive behavior can be to get a positive response from others. However, this doesn't always have to be the case. You can be effective and assertive without getting recognition from the other party.

Avoid relying on others to resolve your abandonment fears

Almost everybody has a primal existential fear of being abandoned. Nevertheless, you may feel more fearful than others if you have a tendency toward passive behavior. You may require the ability to tolerate your others’ emotional withdrawal and your abandonment fears to cope with passivity.

Overall, passive behavior can be a difficult pattern to break free from. It often takes a lot of self-awareness and understanding of its root causes to break free from this pattern and start living life more assertively. With the right support from family, friends, and professionals, it can be possible to become more assertive and live life to its fullest potential. 

The benefits of online therapy

The feeling that you don't have control over your passive behavior and the environment can be overwhelming. Online therapy can provide the necessary education and insight to help you overcome the issue. A therapist can help you identify the cause of your passive behavior and work with you to develop better coping strategies. For those that tend toward passive behavior, it may be more comfortable to attend therapy from the comfort of home than to visit a therapist’s office in person.

Effectiveness of online therapy

Many people question whether online therapy can be as effective as traditional face-to-face therapy in a therapist’s office. A growing body of evidence, including this study, suggests that there is generally no difference in efficacy between online and in-person therapy. No matter the option you prefer, please know that you may receive the professional help you deserve.


Passive behavior often arises when you feel powerless and lack a dominating voice in your surroundings. With this behavior, you might find life challenging and frequently experience negative outcomes due to not being able to voice your own needs and expectations. Understanding the root causes of passive behavior can be key to helping you identify effective strategies to rise above the psychological defense of passivity. Online therapy can empower you to do this with the help of a licensed mental health professional.

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