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Passive-Aggressive, Why?

We all have a friend who sulks, can sometimes make sarcastic comments or replies ‘I’m fine’, when you ask them if they are ok. On the surface it may feel like these people are just being off and ‘moody’ but the likelihood is that they are displaying passive-aggressive behaviour traits and it helps to understand why.

How to recognise Passive-Aggressive behaviour?

Various actions involve acting indirectly aggressive rather than being directly aggressive. Passive-Aggressive people regularly exhibit resistance to requests or demands from family and other individuals often by procrastinating, sulking, or acting in a stubborn way, which is their way of punishing someone.


Passive-aggressive behaviour may manifest itself in a number of different ways. For example, a person might repeatedly avoid someone and make excuses not to spend time with someone, as a way of expressing their dislike or anger towards that person.

In cases where the passive-aggressive person is angry, they might repeatedly claim that they are not angry, or that they are fine – even when they are clearly not ok. Denying how they are truly feeling and refusing to be open with others, or shutting down further communication and refusing to discuss the issue are all signs of passive-aggressive behaviour.

Deliberately procrastinating can be another characteristic of passive-aggressive behaviour. When confronted with tasks that they do not want to do or appointments they do not wish to keep, the passive-aggressive individual will drag their feet to ‘punish’ people.


Passive-aggressive behaviours can have far reaching consequences in relationships between people in families, romances, and even in the workplace. Continued passive-aggressive behaviours can place enormous strains on relationships. So why is this often, destructive behaviour so common? There are a few things that can contribute to passive-aggressive behaviour patterns:

  • Upbringing: It could be learned behaviour learned from being raised in an environment where the direct expression of emotions was suppressed or not allowed. People may feel that they cannot express their real feelings more openly, so they may find other ways to passively channel their anger orfrustration.

  • Situational characteristics: The situation also has an influence on passive-aggressive behaviour. When you are in a situation where displays of aggression are not socially acceptable, for example, at work, you might be more inclined to respond in a covert way when someone makes you angry.

  • Taking the easy road: Being assertive and emotionally open is not always easy. When standing up for yourself is difficult or even scary, passive-aggression might seem like an easier way to deal with your emotions without having to confront the source of your anger.

How to Cope

It’s difficult to know how to react to passive-aggressive behaviour. Your first natural reaction may be anger but you may find that doesn’t always work. So, what can you do when confronted by passive-aggressive behaviour

The first step is to recognize the signs of such behaviour. Sulking, backhanded compliments, procrastination, withdrawal, and refusal to communicate are all signs of passive-aggression.

When the other person begins acting in such a way, try to keep your anger in check. Instead, point out the other person's feelings in a way that is non-judgmental yet factual.

Try to engage with the person in a non-judgemental way and use empathy wherever possible. Try to remember that the person who is behaving in a passive-aggressive way, is emotionally hurting and is going through emotional difficulties.

If you can, try to step back and give the person time to work through their feelings.

If you feel that passive-aggressive behaviour is damaging your relationships, there are steps you can take to change how you relate to others. Here are some ways to address your behaviour.

  • Improve your self-awareness - Passive-aggressive actions sometimes stem from not having a good understanding of why you are upset or what you are feeling. Start paying attention to what is going on as you react to different people and situations.

  • Give yourself time to make changes. Recognizing your own behaviours is a good first step toward change, but altering your patterns and reactions can take some time.

  • Practice expressing yourself – try to understand your emotions and how to express your feelings appropriately. Conflict is an unavoidable part of life, but knowing how to assert your feelings effectively can result in better resolutions.


Passive-aggressive behaviour can be destructive, but chances are that we all respond in this way at various times in our lives. By understanding what causes these actions and how to deal with them, you can not only address them with people in your life but also minimize the potential damage to your relationships. Passive-aggressive behaviour can be unlearned, it just takes practice and awareness over time.

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