You decide to wear a dress instead of your regular attire of blue jeans and a T-shirt when you meet your family for dinner one night, and your sister gives you a compliment that doesn’t really seem flattering at all. She says she doesn’t usually like what you wear, but the outfit you have on tonight looks nice on you. As she smiles, you end up feeling bad and a little perplexed. What is actually happening here?

When people express anger in a manner that seems to be non-hostile, it’s called Passive Aggressive Behavior. As Andrea Brandt, Ph.D., a therapist and the author of “8 Keys to Eliminating Passive-Aggressiveness” says, “You’ve been caught in the crosshairs, but you don’t know you’ve been hit.”
Ken Braslow, M.D., a psychiatrist and founder of Luminello, says, “We all have moments when we respond sarcastically or say yes but really mean no. Both of these are hallmarks of passive-aggressive behavior, and that’s okay. It becomes an issue when the behavior is chronic—a crutch to bypass emotionally authentic conversation.”

What Causes Passive Aggressive Behavior?

People who have Passive Aggressive Behavior convey their negative feelings through actions and don’t deal with them directly. This subtle behavior causes a separation of what they actually say and what they do.

Most often, Passive Aggressive Behavior is the result of having a family that stays away from conflict. It’s also a behavior that’s reinforced by society, which gives us the message that anger isn’t healthy. People are often taught to be docile and not say things that will “rock the boat” or cause problems, because it may cause an argument.

There may be underlying health conditions that cause behaviors that are like those of Passive Aggressive Behavior, including:

  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
  • Stress
  • Conduct Disorder
  • Bipolar Disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • Anxiety Disorders
  • Depression
  • Schizotypal Personality Disorder
  • Oppositional Defiant Disorder
  • Alcohol Abuse
  • Cocaine Withdrawal

What are the Signs of a Person With Passive Aggressive Behavior?

Passive Aggressive Behavior may be a symptom of a variety of mental disorders. However, it’s not a recognized mental health condition. Individuals with Passive Aggressive Behavior may have difficulties in making friends and keeping healthy relationships. They may also have problems at work.

Some of the most common signs in people with Passive Aggressive Behavior are:

  • Having a negative or hostile attitude
  • Often complaining about feeling unappreciated or being betrayed
  • Sarcasm
  • Silent Treatment
  • Withholding intimacy
  • Withholding praise
  • Being critical
  • Sabotage
  • Running late
  • Not doing something, putting off or making errors in something that’s asked of them

How do You Deal With Somebody Who’s Passive Aggressive?

If you’re trying to deal with somebody in your life who’s Passive Aggressive –a coworker, a family member or a friend–it may be hard to relate to them. You sometimes may feel annoyed and even angry at them. The following are several suggestions on how to better cope with a Passive Aggressive relationship.

1) Identify the behavior early.
You may have overlooked some of the signs of Passive Aggressive Behavior when the relationship was just starting, and you may have wanted to give the person the benefit of the doubt. If they make a snide remark, don’t follow through on plans or stop talking to you (silent treatment), you may let the behavior go and just hope it doesn’t happen again. It may not be a one-time occasion, though, and part of a pattern. Does the person show Passive Aggressive Behavior toward you and other people, such as a boss, a family member or a coworker, at other times?

If you find that the person does have a pattern of Passive Aggressive Behavior, you may want to figure out what type of relationship to have with him or if you want one at all.

2) It’s important to find out about the person’s background. Just for your knowledge, it might be a good idea to know a little bit about the individual’s history, because it may give you an idea of his past and how it had an effect on why he’s Passive Aggressive. (You want to find out for your own information and not to act as the person’s counselor.)

An individual often tends to have Passive Aggressive Behavior, because he feels powerless or doesn’t have strength when he faces challenges. He may have had negative experiences in life that have caused him to be Passive Aggressive.

3) Set limits.
Make sure to let the individual know that you won’t allow yourself to be mistreated. When a person is always running late and it frustrates you, let him know that the next time he’s late you won’t wait.

4) Don’t use generalizations when talking.
When you confront a Passive Aggressive person, it’s important to be crystal clear about the issue. It’s too general to say, “You always do this!” Talk about a particular action. Whatever the problem is that frustrates you–running late or giving the silent treatment—make sure to explain that you consider it hostile.

5) Be assertive in communicating.
Communication that is assertive is ideal. This is when you are respectful, have confidence and show that you want to collaborate with him. In addition, it’s crucial to listen to the other person and not accuse or blame him. While you acknowledge the person and their feelings, it doesn’t mean that you are agreeing with him.

Is There Treatment for Passive Aggressive Behavior?

Perhaps, there’s an underlying condition that’s causing Passive Aggressive Behavior. That condition must be treated first, and the behaviors should show improvement.

A therapist can work with you to identify Passive Aggressive Behavior and teach you how to change it. The therapist can also help you to deal with anger, resentment or low self-esteem that may be adding to the behavior. In addition, the therapist may teach you how to cope with the behavior, including ways to view the situation objectively and how to solve problems in a way that’s healthy.
Assertiveness training can help you in managing Passive Aggressive Behavior. You will learn how to express your thoughts and concerns clearly and adequately.

Some of the things you can do every day to help reduce or remove the Passive Aggressive Behavior are:

  • Be aware of the behavior.
  • Find out the reasons for the behavior.
  • Think about a situation before acting on it.
  • Learn how to calm down prior to reacting to a situation that’s frustrating.
  • Stay positive.
  • Be honest with others.
  • Express feelings in a positive way.