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

Updated October 5, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

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? On the other hand, maybe your relationships seem one-sided and unsatisfying. If so, the problem might be passive behavior. It is important to know when you are behaving passively, as well as when you are engaging in passive-aggressive behavior. Only then can you make different choices. Here is how to recognize both passiveness and passive aggression in yourself and others and how to deal with it.

Recognize The Hallmarks Of Passive Behavior

Passive behaviors are behaviors that put the needs of someone else before your own needs. Of course, there may be times when you need to put someone else first. For example, if you are the parent of an infant, you need to make sure they are taken care of, even if you are exhausted. However, passive behavior is not noble. It is a weak or timid denial of your own needs.

Is It Hard For You To Express Your Desires And Needs?

When you are behaving passively, you might always let someone else choose the activities you do with him or her. You might avoid telling them how you feel if you are afraid it will start a conflict with them. Alternatively, you might step aside while someone else gets the recognition for something positive you did. Passive behavior is not always passive-aggressive, but it can be a precursor to passive aggression.

Is It A Passive Or Passive Aggressive Behavior?

Passivity can often lead to passive-aggressive behavior. When others do not give you what you want and need, you may begin to feel angry and hurt. However, because you are passive, you do not confront this situation directly. Instead, you find some passive-aggressive way to punish them or trick them into giving you what you want.

Examples Of Passive Behavior

Passive behavior is usually a behavior that is designed to avoid conflict or rejection. If you are behaving passively, you do not do anything to convince or coerce someone to give you what you want as you might if you were passive-aggressive. Instead, you live with your disappointment or need and feel worse and worse about it. Here are a few examples of passive behavior.

  • Staying quiet when someone criticizes you unjustly
  • Not speaking up when someone leaves you out of the conversation
  • Going along with someone else’s plans when you wish you were doing something else

Examples Of Passive Aggressive Behavior

There is one main difference between passive and passive-aggressive behavior. When someone is passive-aggressive, they are expressing their negative feelings indirectly. They might be trying to control the other person and their behavior. Passive aggression can show up in many interactions between you and other people. Here are a few examples to illustrate passive-aggressive behavior.

  • Someone suggests going to a specific movie. You go with them, but you spend the entire evening being passive-aggressive by complaining about the movie theater.
  • Someone ignores your email, so you send him or her multiple passive-aggressive follow-up emails asking if they got your first message.
  • Someone criticizes your work. Instead of finding out what you can do better, you start intentionally turning work in late.
  • You are angry with someone, so you choose passive aggression and stop talking to him or her.
  • Someone upset you, so you punish him or her in a passive-aggressive way by putting off his or her important requests.
  • You are envious of someone, so you undermine his or her success.
  • You are angry about failing a task, so you blame someone else.

These are just a few examples of passive aggression, but you might notice passive-aggressive behavior that is similar. Passive-aggressive behavior usually boils down to the passive-aggressive person punishing the other person because they did not get what they wanted.

Why Are Passiveness And Passive Aggression A Problem?

Pure passiveness without any intention to get back at someone else can still be a problem. If you are passive, you rarely get what you want and need. Also, you can find yourself in constant emotional turmoil because of it.

However, if you are passive-aggressive, your behaviors hurt both you and those around you. You probably will not get what you want by acting in passive-aggressive ways. In addition, whether you get what you want or not, your relationships both at work and at home can suffer tremendously because you were passive-aggressive too often.

Mental Health Issues Related To Passive And Passive Aggressive Behavior

Passive-aggressive behavior may be a sign of a passive-aggressive type of personality. Your passive-aggressive actions may also indicate underlying mental health issues such as:

  • Poor self-esteem
  • ADHD
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Conduct disorder
  • Oppositional defiant disorder
  • Alcohol or drug misuse
  • Stress

If you experience this behavior within a relationship, one or both of you might have a personality disorder. For example, one review of scientific studies of borderline personality disorder found that behaving passive-aggressively was common in the relationships of people with that disorder.

If you have any of these mental health issues related to passive aggression, talking to a counselor is a positive way to approach your problems. Rather than trying to get what you want by controlling someone else, you can learn to set your own goals and pursue them in healthy ways.

What Does It Mean To Have A Passive-Aggressive Personality?

In the past, people who regularly used passive-aggressive means to get what they wanted were often categorized as having a passive-aggressive type of personality. After this disorder was recognized, some psychologists questioned whether it was a valid diagnosis. However, a 2009 review found that the diagnosis of passive-aggressive personality disorder is indeed a valid concept.

So, what is this personality disorder?  It is a personality disorder, so it is a long-term pattern of thought and behavior. The passive-aggressive person may be resentful, sullen, or envious. They may often complain about bad things they have experienced or about not getting the good things in life. They might complain that no one understands them or cares about them. Passive-aggressive people may actively do what you want while indirectly doing the opposite. Also, if they have this personality disorder, they will act in passive-aggressive ways frequently over the long term.

Dealing With A Passive-Aggressive Person

If someone in your life were acting toward you in passive-aggressive ways, the best solution would be for them to get help from a mental health professional. You might bring up this possibility them. If you do, though, you can probably expect more passive aggression from them. However, they may realize that counseling would help them.

However, what if they aren’t interested in therapy, don’t believe they have a problem, or just will not discuss it with you? Then, there are several things you can do to improve the situation. It is good to have a game plan when you have to deal with someone who is passive-aggressive. Try the following techniques.

Notice Passive-Aggressive Patterns

Before you can think about how to interact with someone who is passive-aggressive, you need to know precisely what you are facing. Is their passive-aggressive action a one-time thing? Alternatively, is there a pattern of passive-aggressive actions? What types of behaviors do they engage in when they do not get what they want? Do they often seem angry or hurt, but don’t tell you why? Do they always give in to you but punish you afterward? Notice any passive-aggressive patterns that come up when you are with them.

Avoid The Passive-Aggressive Temptations

Passive-aggressive people do not usually have strong, healthy relationships. Even casual relationships can be strained when someone is passive-aggressive. If the passive-aggressive person is a close family or someone you have to interact with at work, you may not be able to avoid them. However, if they are not an essential part of your life, the best answer to passive aggression may simply be to stay away from them.

Challenge One Behavior At A Time

Every time you realize a behavior is passive-aggressive, you might be tempted to call them on it. However, if you do that, they may feel attacked. Then, since they so often choose passive-aggressive rather than assertive behavior, they may double down on their usual behavior.

Instead, bring up one instance in which they were passive-aggressive, preferably as soon as it happens. Let them know you noticed that they were indirectly trying to get what they wanted. If their behavior caused you any problems, let them know it was hurtful. Don’t go back and try to go over every behavior that has been passive-aggressive in your relationship. Stick to one that is recent and leave it at that for now.

Give Them Positive Reasons To Stop Being Passive Aggressive

If the reason you want someone to stop being passive-aggressive is a positive one, let them know what that reason is. For example, maybe you want passive aggression to stop so you can have a healthy relationship with them. This may help them feel better about listening to your requests and changing their behavior.

Encourage The Passive-Aggressive Person To Communicate Openly

The passive-aggressive style of communication is the opposite of openly saying what you want and need. Yet, the passive-aggressive person may not feel comfortable or safe communicating openly. Encourage them to speak up if they need anything. Let them know you are willing to listen. You might be surprised to hear them finally say what is on their mind.

Is It Hard For You To Express Your Desires And Needs?

Ask For Feedback

If someone is passive-aggressive at work, try asking them for feedback. For example, if your boss is passive-aggressive after you are late for work, they might punish you by criticizing your clothes or work habits. If you know this is a passive-aggressive way of dealing with their anger, you can ask them for feedback on the rest of your work behavior later. Allow them to let you know if there were anything they would like you to do differently around the office.

Avoid Creating A Power Struggle

Getting into a conflict with a person who is behaving in passive-aggressive ways rarely ends well. Usually, they only become angrier. Instead of ending their passive-aggressive behavior, the conflict can make that behavior much worse. In addition, they may find unhealthy satisfaction if you act out their anger for them. So, be open with them, and let them know where you stand, but do it in a neutral way that does not provoke their anger unduly.

Encourage Them To Stand Up For Themselves

If someone you know is being passive-aggressive about a situation outside your relationship, take that opportunity to encourage them. Suggest ways that they can stand up for themselves. Let them know you support them in finding solutions to their problems. As they learn to be more assertive with others, the positive effects may come back to benefit you, too.

Set Boundaries

You need to let someone know what your limits are concerning their passive aggression. If they cancel meetings with you whenever they are angry with you, let them know you recognize their passive-aggressive response. Then, tell them what the consequences of another canceled meeting will be for them. If they pout whenever you suggest where to go for dinner, you might say to them that if it happens again, you will go without them. Remember that you are not setting the boundaries to be cruel or to get back at them for being passive-aggressive. You just need to stop the dysfunction before it goes any further.

Don’t Blame Yourself For Their Behavior

A part of the passive-aggressive style is laying guilt trips on other people. In addition, if they do not stand up for themselves in a direct way, you might feel like it is your fault they are doing it in a passive-aggressive fashion. However, no one has to be passive-aggressive. There is always another choice. So, do not blame yourself or take on their responsibility. Help them in healthy ways if you can, but remember that they are in charge of their behavior.

How To Change Your Own Passive Or Passive Aggressive Behavior

Sometimes, people are passive-aggressive for so long that they do not realize there is a problem with their behavior. They might not even know what healthy behavior looks like for much of their lives. Alternatively, they might slip into passive aggression without realizing it. If any of these scenarios apply to you, you do not have to live with them any longer. You can stop being passive-aggressive, adopt healthier behaviors, and create more satisfying situations and relationships in your life.

Learn To Behave Assertively

You might choose passive-aggressive behavior simply because you do not know how to behave assertively. Assertive behavior is something you can learn and practice until it becomes second nature to you. Here are some tips for communicating in assertive ways without falling back on passive-aggressive behavior.

  • State your needs clearly and directly.
  • Express your feelings in inappropriate ways.
  • Show respect for other people.
  • Use “I” statements.
  • Listen to others without interrupting them.
  • Speak calmly and clearly.
  • Let people know when they hurt you.
  • Say what you want.
  • Stand up for yourself.
  • Stop allowing others to manipulate or harm you.
  • Accept that others are free to make their own choices.

Learning to let go of passive aggression and choose assertive behaviors takes time and dedication to that goal. It is often helpful to go to an assertiveness training group or start therapy to get the support and feedback you need to make these changes and stop being passive-aggressive.

Build Your Self-Esteem

If you realize that you have been a passive-aggressive person, it is essential to consider the state of your self-esteem. You might not feel strong enough or capable of defending your own opinions or expressing uncomfortable emotions. There are many things you can do to improve your self-esteem. One thing you can do is get involved with a hobby you can be successful in doing. Another is to write a list of your positive traits. You can also talk to a therapist for support and suggestions on how to increase your self-esteem to avoid being passive-aggressive.

Accept Responsibility For Your Happiness

Your passive-aggressive actions may be a sign that you are leaving your needs and desires entirely in the hands of other people. When you choose to be passive-aggressive, you are not taking responsibility for your wellbeing and happiness. So, rather than being passive-aggressive, find out what you can do to meet your physical, emotional, and psychological needs. Then, take the actions you need to take to get what is important to you. Leave passive-aggressive actions behind and accept that it is your job to achieve your success, satisfaction, and happiness in life.

Apologize For Being Passive Aggressive

When you realize you have engaged in passive aggression, do not hesitate to apologize for your behavior. Even after you begin to learn how to be less passive-aggressive, there will probably be times when you slip back into passive-aggressive patterns. In addition, it is natural to be discouraged when that happens. Give yourself credit for any progress you have made. At the same time, let the other person know you realize your passive aggression was harmful.

Therapy For Passive Aggression

Passive aggression is not easy to overcome. If someone in your life is passive-aggressive often, it may cause you distress or damage your relationship with them. A counselor can help you deal with the feelings that come up for you when someone is passive-aggressive. They can also help you create a plan for dealing with someone else being passive-aggressive to you.

However, suppose you are a passive-aggressive person. How can a therapist help you change your passive-aggressive tendencies and choose more helpful behaviors? First, they can help you identify specific instances of passive aggression. They can instruct you in all the facets of assertive communication, so you have another option besides being passive-aggressive. Finally, they can assist you as you repair the emotional and relationship damage that has come up due to your passive aggression.


If you realize you are passive-aggressive very often, the best thing to do is to seek help. You can talk to a counselor for therapy in your local area or go to a community mental health clinic for assertiveness training. Alternatively, you can discuss your problems with passive-aggressive communications and situations with a licensed counselor at BetterHelp. There, you can receive therapy online at the time and place that is most convenient for you. Your therapist’s goal is always to help you. Then, you can stop being passive-aggressive and make better choices to have the life you want most.

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