Are We Overusing the Term Passive Aggressive?

Published By Justin Baksh, LMHC, MCAP
May 2, 2024

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The term “passive aggressive” is thrown around a lot these days. It is typically used to describe behavior that is indirectly hostile or resistant. Sometimes people might label behavior as passive aggressive when it is actually just indirect communication or avoidance of confrontation. Overusing the term can dilute its meaning and make it less effective in addressing genuinely passive aggressive behavior. It is important to accurately identify and address problematic behavior rather than resorting to labeling everything as passive aggressive.

What Do People Mean When They Say You are Being Passive Aggressive?

When people say that someone is being passive aggressive, they typically mean that the person is expressing negative feelings, resentment, or aggression in an indirect or underhanded way, rather than openly addressing issues or conflicts. This behavior pattern can manifest in various ways, each subtly conveying opposition or discontent without direct confrontation.

What is Passive Aggressive?

Passive-aggressive behavior involves indirectly and subtly expressing negative emotions, resentment, or hostility, avoiding direct confrontation. Rather than directly addressing issues, a person who is being passive-aggressive might use more subtle, understated, or covert ways to express displeasure or anger. This form of behavior can be confusing and frustrating to others, as it masks the individual’s true feelings and creates a facade of superficial politeness or agreement while hiding opposition.

Common Forms of Passive-Aggressive Behavior

Here are some common indicators and forms of passive aggressive behavior, with real-life examples.

6 Examples of Common Passive Aggressive Behavior

1. Sarcasm and Backhanded Compliments

Being sarcastic or delivering compliments that subtly convey a critical or derogatory message is passive aggressive. This allows the person to come off as though they are being polite or funny when they are actually expressing negativity.

REAL-LIFE EXAMPLE: At a family meal, someone says to the person who cooked, “This is good for a change.” They are implying that usually, the food isn’t good, but masking it as a compliment.

2. Silent Treatment

Deliberately ignoring or excluding someone as a means of expressing displeasure or punishing them, instead of communicating openly about the issue, is a passive aggressive maneuver.

REAL-LIFE EXAMPLE: After a disagreement over finances, Jenny stops talking to her partner, avoiding any conversation instead of discussing why she is upset.

3. Procrastination

Intentionally delaying or obstructing tasks, especially those important to others, as a form of resistance or expression of resentment.

REAL-LIFE EXAMPLE: Macy has asked her husband Carl to clean up the garage several times. He doesn’t want to do it, but instead of saying so, he keeps finding other things to do, always saying he’ll do it later.

4. Sullen or Withdrawn Behavior

Displaying moody, sulky, or resentful behavior to signal discontent without discussing the root causes are examples of passive aggression.

REAL-LIFE EXAMPLE: Barbara is upset because she felt excluded from planning her daughter-in-law’s baby shower. Instead of talking about her feelings, she spends the day quietly sitting in a corner, barely interacting with others and responding minimally when spoken to, clearly upset but not discussing why.

5. Subtle Sabotage

Undermining others’ efforts subtly, often in a way that can be denied as unintentional, to avoid direct blame while still causing disruption, is a form of passive aggression.

REAL-LIFE EXAMPLE: John is supposed to video their child’s play for relatives. Still annoyed from a morning argument with his mother-in-law, he “forgets” to charge the video camera, so it dies right before the play starts.

6. Feigned Ignorance

Pretending not to understand requests, questions, or tasks as a means of resisting authority or avoiding responsibility is a passive aggressive behavior.

REAL-LIFE EXAMPLE: When Julie’s father agreed to let her get a dog, he told her it was her responsibility to clean up behind him in the yard. When he confronts her a few days later about not doing it, she claims she didn’t know she needed to do it every day and thought it was “just a once a week” chore.

Is being passive aggressive a psychological disorder?

“[Passive-aggressive personality disorder] is a personality disorder of long standing in which ambivalence toward the self and others is expressed by such means as procrastination, dawdling, stubbornness, intentional inefficiency, ‘forgetting’ appointments, or misplacing important materials. These maneuvers are interpreted as passive expressions of underlying negativism. The pattern persists even when more adaptive behavior is clearly possible; it frequently interferes with occupational, domestic, and academic success.

This disorder was classified in an appendix of DSM–IV–TR for proposed diagnostic categories needing further study, and given an alternative name, negativistic personality disorder, in accordance with the theoretical proposals of Theodore Millon. It is included in DSM–5 and DSM-5-TR under the designation other specified personality disorder.”

Passive Aggressive Personality Disorder definition, American Psychological Association

While passive aggressive personality disorder is not considered an official mental health diagnosis, at one time it was. There is some evidence of it being a separate condition, distinguishable from others. Ultimately, however, it no longer appears in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM, latest edition DSM5-TR), as a diagnosable personality disorder.

Passive Aggressive Behaviors in Other Personality Disorders

Passive aggressive behaviors can be associated with several psychological disorders. Typically, these behaviors manifest in the context of broader personality patterns and emotional difficulties In some forms of personality and mood disorders, passive-aggressive behaviors might be observed, including:

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Avoidant Personality Disorder

Individuals with this disorder may use passive aggression as a way to avoid direct confrontations and to express anxiety about social interactions and feelings of inadequacy.

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Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)

Those with BPD may exhibit passive aggressive behaviors as part of their broader pattern of intense emotional responses and unstable relationships. They might use indirect ways to express anger and frustration stemming from their fear of abandonment.

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Narcissistic Personality Disorder

Passive aggressive behaviors can sometimes be used by individuals with narcissistic traits to covertly express displeasure or retaliate against perceived slights to their ego without exposing any vulnerability.

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Covert Passive-Aggressive Narcissism

Covert passive-aggressive narcissism is a subtype of narcissistic personality disorder characterized by subtler, less overt behaviors compared to the grandiose narcissism most are familiar with. People with this type of narcissism tend to exhibit a more introverted style, often feeling superior or entitled but expressing these traits through passive aggressive behaviors rather than overt dominance or arrogance.

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Depression

While not a typical feature, individuals suffering from depression might occasionally display passive aggressive behaviors as a manifestation of their irritability, sadness, or feelings of worthlessness, especially if they feel unable to express these emotions openly.

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Anxiety Disorders

People with general anxiety may employ passive aggression to avoid situations that trigger their anxiety, particularly social or performance situations where direct conflict or confrontation is possible.

Chronic stress or burnout can cause some people to exhibit passive aggressive behaviors as a maladaptive coping mechanism, especially if they feel powerless or unable to assert themselves in healthier ways.

If passive-aggressive behavior is persistent and significantly interferes with interpersonal relationships or daily functioning, it may indicate a deeper issue that could benefit from professional evaluation and therapy, where they can learn more effective communication skills and ways to express their feelings directly and constructively.

What Causes Passive Aggression?

“We learn to be passive aggressive as children when we are dealing with parents and siblings who are much more powerful than we are. If we are not permitted to be angry or to exercise independence, if those we are dealing with become too angry or scary, then we develop more underhanded approaches to expressing our anger or getting our own way.

If we have very strict harshly punishing parents who insist we chew our food slowly, then we can irritate them by chewing our food extremely slowly. ‘What? You asked me to chew slowly. I’m chewing slowly, just like you asked.’”

-Mark Williams, degree in sociology, Why Am I Passive Aggressive?, Quora.com

Passive-aggressive behavior often stems from a person’s inability to express anger or frustration directly. This might be due to upbringing, cultural norms, or personality traits. It can be a learned behavior used as a coping mechanism in environments where direct expression of emotion is discouraged or punished.

There are several theories on what causes passive aggression. What each one has in common is that it springs from a childhood which prevented proper learning of how to navigate hierarchical relationships. It causes sufferers to not be able to assert themselves effectively, resulting in negative thinking and mood.

Passive aggressive behavior can function as a coping mechanism for dealing with dysfunctional environments or situations. This typically happens when direct expression of feelings or desires is discouraged or punished, forcing people to find more indirect ways to express their dissatisfaction or opposition.

How Passive Aggressive Behavior Is Used as Coping Mechanism

4 Ways Passive Aggressive Behavior Helps People Cope

  • Avoidance of Direct Conflict: In environments where open confrontation is risky or frowned upon—such as in highly controlling family dynamics or workplaces—passive-aggressive allows individuals to express anger or dissent without direct confrontation. This can be a way to avoid immediate negative repercussions such as conflict or punishment.
  • Control and Manipulation: Passive-aggressive behavior can give individuals a sense of control in situations where they feel powerless. By subtly undermining others or not fulfilling responsibilities, they can exert influence or express resistance without overtly opposing authority.
  • Expression of Resentment: When feelings of anger, resentment, or frustration are not socially acceptable to express openly, passive-aggressive behavior provides a way to release these feelings indirectly. This can be seen as a protective measure to maintain one’s self-image while still addressing emotional needs.
  • Communication of Needs and Emotions: In some cases, individuals might not have learned how to communicate their needs and emotions effectively. Passive-aggressive behaviors then become a default method for signaling dissatisfaction or unmet needs, albeit in a way that is not constructive.

Is it Wrong to Behave in a Passive Aggressive Way?

“From my experience being married to someone who is PA, I have to say that the most toxic thing about it is that it robs you of resolutions and it takes away all sense of peace.

My husband is fundamentally a good, loving, kindhearted man. He’s afraid of conflict, and will avoid it all costs. So, if there’s a problem, big or small, I won’t get an answer. For example: I ask if he wants chicken or steak for supper. He answers, ‘Chicken is healthier.. But we haven’t had steak for a while.’ Which does he want? The thing is, he doesn’t know. So I assume. But it doesn’t matter. If we are having a good day, I picked right. If we are fighting, he will be hurt that I didn’t care what he wanted, I made whatever I wanted to make.

And that’s not the end of it. Because he never tells me that he’s hurt or upset. At least not until six months later when he needs ammo and throws it back in my face that I never care what he wants. All because he’s afraid to be wrong.

Now imagine trying to ask someone like this if we should try to have a baby. Apply this to all the issues in between where you might ask a question or seek to make a plan, and you’ll understand why someone might feel a little crazy. And all alone. That’s the toxic stuff that is the hardest. Why am I feeling all alone when I’m married to such a sweet and loving man? “What’s wrong with me,” was a constant echo in my mind. This is just the every day dealing with PA avoidance. He’s really creating discord and doubt because he’s protecting himself the way that worked when he was a child and never learned a better way.

-Ana Ryan, Why is Being Passive Aggressive So Toxic?, Quora.com

Labeling passive aggressive behavior as “wrong” oversimplifies the reasons behind the behavior. It can be part of a mental condition, a reaction to an unhealthy situation, or a coping mechanism, likely formed in childhood.

However, passive aggressive behavior can be problematic in relationships and situations where clear communication is important. Without direct honesty and responsibility, people can’t engage in healthy emotional expression and problem-solving, and this can lead to increased stress and decreased emotional satisfaction.

If passive aggression is causing problems at school, work, home or in social situations, mental health treatment can help. Therapy can help retrain the brain to think healthier thoughts and healthier ways of expression and behavior. Medication may help, also, as one study showed that fluoxetine can reduce passive-aggressive symptoms in people with depression, for example.

Remember, passive aggressive is behavior, not a person. No one label sums up the totality of being… in other words, you are so much more than how you behave. The aim of mental health care for all of us is to identify issues that may stand in our way, and take steps to resolve them. Keep moving forward!

  • APA Dictionary of Psychology. (n.d.). Dictionary.apa.org.
  • Fava M, Farabaugh AH, Sickinger AH, Wright E, Alpert JE, Sonawalla S, Nieren-berg AA, Worthington JJ. Personality disorders and depression. Psychological Medicine. 2002;32:1049–1057
  • Hopwood, C. J., Morey, L. C., Markowitz, J. C., Pinto, A., Skodol, A. E., Gunderson, J. G., Zanarini, M. C., Shea, M. T., Yen, S., McGlashan, T. H., Ansell, E. B., Grilo, C. M., & Sanislow, C. A. (2009). The Construct Validity of Passive-Aggressive Personality Disorder. Psychiatry: Interpersonal and Biological Processes72(3), 256–267. https://doi.org/10.1521/psyc.2009.72.3.256

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