Passive Aggressive Behavior: What It Looks Like And How To Stop It

Updated November 18, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Aggression of any kind can be often a frustrating thing to deal with. No matter whether you’re having a routine domestic disagreement with your spouse or witnessing a bar fight late at night, aggression can be part of daily life and something many people may deal with on a somewhat regular basis. But what about when it comes to passive aggression? This is a different kind of aggression that can be much less obvious and, often, a lot more insidious when it comes to personal relationships.

Our Therapists Can Help You Navigate Passive-Aggressive Behavior

Passive-aggressive behavior can exist in many facets of everyday life such as romantic relationships, friendships, and even at work. Identifying, managing, and working with it can be important for us all, whether it be in public situations or in more personal situations. Because passive aggression can be comparatively prevalent, it’s important to understand it and be able to successfully work with it. This article will explore what passive aggression is and how to work with it in order to stop it in its tracks.

What Is Passive Aggression?

Passive aggression is a behavior that people exhibit instead of being actively aggressive. While being aggressive is usually considered to be direct and easy to spot, such as when someone starts a physical fight or says something that’s plainly offensive, passive-aggressive behavior may be a bit more difficult to spot. Unfortunately for the people around the passive-aggressive person, this form of aggression can be very confusing and difficult to deal with. The behaviors and communication style attributed to passive aggression tend to be somewhat manipulative and designed to get the other person to feel or behave a particular way. Therefore, it can be complicated to identify and work with passive aggression.

Researchers have investigated why passive aggression happens, and although there’s no solid reason, there are a few suspects. 

Genetics, environmental factors, and family upbringing are all commonly cited reasons for passive aggression. Luckily though, there are some very specific signs of passive aggression that you can use to identify it in yourself and the people around you. There are also techniques to manage passive aggression, or to be able to handle passive-aggressive behaviors from others gracefully and calmly.

The Signs Of Passive Aggressive Behavior

The signs of passive-aggressive behavior tend to be more subtle than the signs of aggressive behavior, so you may have to look more closely to see it. In comparison to active aggression, passive aggression may be slight. You may have to pay attention if you want to catch it and not only be affected by it. Still, though, there may be some obvious signs of passive aggression that you can look for. Here are some of the most common signs:

Resistance To Suggestions, Orders, Or Requests From Other People

Resistance can be a defining feature of passive aggression. This resistance may take many forms, but it can most often manifest as irritability, subtle (or sometimes not-so-subtle) argumentation, or through jokes at the other person’s expense. 

Making elaborate excuses and/or procrastinating can be another form of resistance that is used commonly by people who exhibit passive aggression. Depending on the passive-aggressive person’s exact behaviors, resistance can be either comparatively easy to spot or extremely difficult to notice. Regardless, the target of the passive aggression may be likely to feel embarrassed, hurt, or otherwise uncomfortable with the person and their behavior, and it’s very possible that these uncomfortable emotions will initially appear to have no basis in what’s happening.

Backhanded Compliments

This can be an uncomfortable and frustrating sign of passive aggression. While an aggressive person might actively say something mean about another person, a passive-aggressive person will say something that sounds like a compliment, but that’s actually mean underneath the sheen of niceness. Often, these backhanded compliments can be phrased in a particular way and said with a particular intonation and only the specific word choice and way in which the compliment was said can set it apart from an authentic compliment.

The easiest way to notice a backhanded compliment is by tuning into yourself, rather than focusing so intently on what the other person is saying. If someone says something to you that sounds like a compliment, but you notice that you feel bad after talking to them or just plain uncomfortable and embarrassed for no apparent reason, there’s a possibility that you were paid a backhanded compliment. Spotting these “compliments” can be easier in retrospect.

Changes In Behavior For No Apparent Reason

People who behave in a passive-aggressive way tend to avoid or instigate conflict by patterns of avoidance or even semi-abandonment. When a passive-aggressive person gets into a fight with another person, they may choose to disrespect the other person by not speaking to them, avoiding them, or even ignoring them in a general way. For the most part, the other person probably doesn’t know what went wrong and may feel deeply hurt by this form of passive aggression.

Other Behaviors And Actions

Passive aggression is most notably a behavior that involves a fair amount of manipulation. But, unlike true manipulation, the person who demonstrates the passive-aggressive behavior may or may not be entirely aware of how their actions (or lack thereof) affect the people around them. Sulking or being “mopey” may be common when it comes to passive-aggressive behavior. There are many different behaviors or actions that passive-aggressive people demonstrate when they’re upset, and though there’s a theme, the exact behaviors vary.

How To Manage Passive Aggression

If you’re on the receiving end of passive aggression, it’s important to know how to handle it so that you can take care of yourself, but also so that you can be a source of support to the person who is behaving passive-aggressively. The main thing that you can do is to stay calm and recognize that the other person is experiencing a negative emotion. You can point it out to them and encourage a conversation, or, in some cases, it may be preferable to maintain a behavior of understanding and to give the person space (and initiate conversation later). Most often if you choose to bring up the situation, the person may deny that they’re feeling upset, at which point it’s best to give them the room they need to work through their feelings.

If you’ve been told that you are passive-aggressive or noticed these behaviors in yourself, there are a few things you can do:

  • Work on becoming more self-aware. When you make an effort to understand yourself better in a general way, you may be better equipped to notice your own passive-aggressive behaviors and to tune into them in a productive way. Becoming aware of your behaviors and then trying to understand why you might be upset is a good first step toward being able to communicate and interact with the people around you in a healthier way.

  • Forgive yourself and give yourself time. You may have expressed emotions in a passive-aggressive way for many years but it’s important to be forgiving and give yourself the time to make changes. Change doesn’t happen overnight, but rather in small steps over a period of time.

  • Learn to express yourself in different ways. Reading books and working to build a better emotional vocabulary may help you stop behaving in a passive-aggressive way because you may learn other ways to communicate with the people around you. Besides building vocabulary, practicing art, dance, or music as a way to sublimate emotions can also be a great help when it comes to tuning into yourself and making lasting, worthwhile behavioral changes.

If you’re someone who behaves passive-aggressively in response to a negative emotion, you may have some trouble readjusting and changing your behavior, especially if it’s been ingrained in your brain and patterns over some time. If this is your situation, it may be time to reach out for help from someone qualified to help.

Therapy For Passive-Aggressive Behavior

Our Therapists Can Help You Navigate Passive-Aggressive Behavior

Sometimes it’s necessary to seek help for resolving patterns of passive-aggressive behavior. If you or someone you know is exhibiting passive-aggressive behavior and it’s affecting your life in a negative way, it may be time to contact a therapist for assistance. There are many kinds of therapy available to help remedy passive-aggressive behavior including cognitive behavioral therapy, family therapy (where relevant), and hypnotherapy. 

If you find that passive-aggressive behavior is affecting your relationship, online couples counseling may be beneficial. One study shows that 95% of couples who engage in online couples counseling considers it “helpful” which may be an option for relationships where passive-aggressiveness is present. 

Online therapy has many perks. It’s accessible for participants since there’s no requirement to travel for an appointment and clients can feel more at ease when speaking to a therapist from the comforts of their home. 


Passive aggression can be uncomfortable and upsetting not only to the targets of the aggression but also to the person who exhibits the behaviors. There are a variety of ways to overcome this challenge. Connect with a licensed therapists at BetterHelp to start working toward a healthier and happier way of relating to the world and the people in it.

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