How to Recognize & Respond to Passive-Aggressive Behavior
Through my work as a child and adolescent therapist and a school counselor, I have seen how destructive of a force anger can be—both when it is expressed in uncontrolled, aggressive ways, but also when it is acted out in highly controlled but hidden behaviors, such as passive-aggression. Passive aggressive behavior as a deliberate but covert way of expressing feelings of anger (Long, Long & Whitson, 2009) and is most often motivated by a person’s fear of expressing anger directly. The passive-aggressive person believes life will only get worse if other people know of his anger, so he expresses his feelings indirectly, using a variety of behaviors to subtly “get back” at another person. While anger itself is generally experienced as an uncomfortable emotion, the passive-aggressive person derives genuine pleasure out of frustrating others, hence our label of the behavior as “the angry smile.”
If your interactions with a child, a parent, a teacher, a student, a spouse, a co-worker, a boss, or even an online acquaintance leave you feeling like you have been on an emotional roller coaster, chances are good you may be dealing with a passive aggressive person. Some of the most common red flags of this behavior include things like:
- Withdrawing and sulking, rather than stating opinions or needs.
- Using words like “Fine” and “Whatever” to shut down a discussion.
- Procrastinating or carrying out tasks inefﬁciently
- Giving lip service to doing things differently in the future, while knowing they don’t plan to change their behavior.
The ultimate red flag is that passive-aggressive people cause others to eventually blow up and in a very real sense, act out the anger that the passive-aggressive person had been silently harboring.
There are many reasons why people choose to sugarcoat their anger but what most passive-aggressive people have in common is that they grew up with developmental conditions that made hidden expression of anger feel like their only tenable choice. For the purposes of this post, let me lay out two distinctions:
- First, we know that some young people are raised in families where they know they will be met with harsh physical punishment or retribution if they express dissatisfaction or unhappiness. Kids walk on eggshells around angry, aggressive, authoritarian adults, and learn quickly that their only safe option is to hide their true feelings.
- At a different extreme, there are kids who grow up in families in which appearances means everything. The normal, human emotion of anger must be subordinated to family facades. In this type of outwardly perfect family, kids are socialized to believe that anger = bad and that good kids never show anger.
In both type of upbringings, kids learn that open, honest, direct expression of anger would be unacceptable. And yet these feelings don’t just disappear. Rather, they tend to re-surface through patterned, but covert misbehaviors such as carrying out chores incorrectly or pretending not to hear their name when they are called—things that create minor but chronic frustration for the authority figures in their lives.
There are five distinct and increasingly pathological levels of passive aggressive behavior, ranging from the everyday to the truly troublesome. Learning to readily recognize the behavior at any level is your first step toward avoiding being drawn into a passive-aggressive conflict cycle—a power struggle with no winners.
To learn more about the 5 levels of passive aggressive behavior, please read the remainder of this post on its original site on Psychology Today: