In my lifetime I’ve suffered from being on the receiving end of passive aggressive behavior; so, I’ve thought about it as I process the details of what has happened to me. And, at this stage of my life, I’m not just concerned about my own hurts; I am concerned for those who are stuck in this mode of being. As a person interested in fitness, I know that allowing negative feelings to fester inside creates harm beyond the emotions themselves. Internalizing frustration or anger reduces quality of life for all involved. I think it’s a good thing to increase everyone’s understanding of this dynamic because maybe then we all can better understand each other.


A passive aggressive person is someone who chooses to get their way by manipulation rather than by speaking directly about a situation. The manipulation looks agreeable on the outside but this just covers up the anger that festers inside. Outside indications all ring of friendliness, politeness, and being agreeable and well meaning. The passive aggressive person maintains their image of being the “good guy” while using their internal negative energy to define their manipulative actions. While “good guy” is the normal exterior presented, it isn’t uncommon for a passive aggressive person to explode emotionally when they feel pushed outside of their normal ways. This definition doesn’t mean to imply that every person who has acted in a passive aggressive way is ALWAYS doing all these things. It’s a continuum.

The person on the receiving end of this behavior usually is left feeling surprised, confused, duped, and powerless. They often are left searching for what they have done wrong because they know something is wrong but haven’t been told what it is. Another common feeling is loneliness since at some point they realize that the closeness that they assumed defined their relationship really didn’t exist as they understood it. Trust is broken.

Although most people engage in some of these behaviors some of the time, passive aggressive people use them more frequently or with more intensity. Chronic passive aggressiveness is nothing less than a form of emotional abuse.


  • Passive resistance is the method used by conscientious objectors when they disagree with something and want to demonstrate their position without being aggressive.
  • Covert aggression is a deliberate plan to hide their predetermined aggressive tactics.


  • We are all born with our own personality which provides us with tendencies towards different interpersonal styles. That doesn’t mean that we have no control over our behaviors because in fact, we are the only ones in control of what we do and how we relate. There are some tendencies and traits that lean towards being passive aggressive.
  • If during childhood, a person felt that it was not safe to express their frustration or discontent, they probably resorted to being passive aggressive. An unsafe environment for a child would be one where the child was mocked, ignored, ridiculed, or put-down. The childhood coping responses can become habits which unchallenged later become adult character traits.


  • Wikipedia tells of the book “Living with the Passive–Aggressive Man” which lists 11 observations that may help identify passive aggressive behavior. They also explain that a passive aggressive person may not display all these behaviors.
    • Ambiguity and cryptic speech: a means of creating a feeling of insecurity in others or of disguising one’s own insecurities;
      • Giving back-handed compliments is a common technique used by passive aggressive people. Being told that you did well for someone your age is more a statement about your age than how well you did something. Another example is: “You’ve had some wonderful work experiences for someone with your education.” and “Don’t worry women are more concerned about a man’s employability than his looks.” All these messages are delivered with a smile and with an appearance of being comforting.
      • Other common phrases used by passive aggressive people are: “I was just joking. Can’t you take a joke?” and, “Why are you getting so upset?”
    • Intentional inefficiency, e.g. being late or forgetting things, as a way to exert control or to punish;
      • Since a passive aggressive person agrees verbally but doesn’t really agree to do something, they often procrastinate. When they are asked about that, a common response is, “Oh, I didn’t know that you meant NOW.” This isn’t a minor point of misunderstanding. It is a skillfully maneuvered manipulation.
      • When someone smiles and says, “I’d be happy to do….” but then they deliberately and consciously do the opposite, that is a manipulation.
      • If a passive aggressive person does a task in an intentionally ineffective way, they make sure it is more trouble to the other person to ask for help than to do the task for themselves. So, they succeed at avoiding being asked in the future!
    • Convenient forgetfulness: to win any argument with a dishonest denial of actual events;
      • Person A: “It’s time to go to the library.”
      • Passive Aggressive Person B: “Ummm what do you mean? I thought that we were going shopping tonight.”
      • Person A: “No, we agreed that every Wednesday evening we’d spend some time together at the library.”
      • Passive Aggressive Person B: “Well, I suppose if YOU want to but now I have to call Friend C and disappoint her since she was looking forward to shopping.”
      • Person A: “Oh never mind. Go shopping.”
    • Cold shoulder response: withdrawing into long silences to avoid either confronting or connecting with others.
      • Person A sends emails or text message or phone message.
      • Passive Aggressive Person B refuses to respond.


      • Person A explains that they would like to set up a time to talk through some concerns.
      • Passive Aggressive Person B makes it clear that these types of conversations aren’t welcome. So, they never happen.
    • Fear of competition;
    • Fear of dependency;
    • Fear of intimacy as a means to act out anger: the passive–aggressive often cannot trust; because of this, they guard themselves against becoming intimately attached to someone;
    • Making chaotic situations;
      • A passive aggressive person is known for verbally agreeing but having their behavior reflect the opposite of what they said. Obviously, this creates confusion and chaos.
    • Making excuses for non–performance;
      • If the passive aggressive person decides to not provide needed information, the other person struggles. Outcomes in these situations can obviously be less than ideal but this is the passive aggressive person’s goal. Then, after the troubles, they can say, “Oh. I thought you knew…..” In fact, they purposefully withhold needed information just to delight in their ability to control.
      • In spite of the fact that you know that the passive aggressive person is seething, they will say, “I’m not mad.” This sets you up as the person with the “problem” or the person who can’t handle things well.
      • Other common phrases used by passive aggressive people include: “Fine.” Or “Whatever.”
    • Victimization response: instead of recognizing one’s own weaknesses, tendency to blame others for own failures.
      • If the passive aggressive person does something that they felt forced to do, they will often do it poorly. For example, the spouse may cook dinner but they might cook something that the other person doesn’t like. Or, the child does their homework but it is incomplete or messy. When asked about these problems, they will often turn the blame by saying things like, “You are never satisfied unless something is done to perfection.”


  • Relationships and the love they hold are lost due to the refusal of the passive aggressive person to openly and honestly address an issue with a shared commitment to finding a solution that benefits both people in the relationship.
  • Both parties feel insecure because there is a lot of behind the scenes guessing about what is happening in the relationship.


  • Learn about passive aggressive patterns in order to better understand your situation and your partner’s situation and needs. Learn about assertiveness as the healthy way to handle differences.
  • Examine yourself for needs to change. Take ownership for whatever needs to change and do the work towards that change.
  • Learn to stay grounded in a calm emotional state so that you can respond to differences in a problem solving, relationship saving way.
  • Learn about healthy boundaries and be prepared to accept that you can’t control the other person’s response to their feelings; you only have control over yourself.
  • Let go of the relationship if it is unhealthy and harmful.


  • Learn to become more aware of your feelings and learn to describe these feelings. Without self-awareness and an ability to articulate your feelings, there is little hope for the intimacy that comes from processing the normal challenges in relationships.
  • Learn how your passive aggressiveness hurts yourself.
  • Decide about the value of the relationship to you. If it isn’t an important relationship, remove yourself from it. If it is one that you value, learn how to stay grounded in a calm emotional state so that you can respond to differences in a problem-solving, relationship saving way.
  • Take responsibility for your own feelings and desires. Learn how to assert yourself in a healthy way.

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  1. Anita says :

    Good information regarding passive aggressive behavior. People with borderline personality disorders also exhibit passive aggressive behavior in addition to other methods of control. Thank you, Lea.

  2. kaezone says :

    Very timely Lea! I just found out I am training next week with someone that is passive aggressive. I would like to stay centered and clear in this situation. (Not emotional or reactive) Any suggestions on how to deal with people that use passive aggressive behavior in the workplace?

    • leazengage says :

      Cool…. It sure is hard! (hence the post….) I’ll go and look for some materials I put together with more “how-to” re: being assertive. I think that’s the best defense = being prepared as you said to calmly stay grounded in what you know to be true and right. Anyway… I’ll look for it and post it here for you. 🙂

  3. Canuck57 says :

    Great article…the more attention we can draw toward passive aggressive behavior the better…most people have no idea what passive aggressive is.

    In your article though you state, “An unsafe environment for a child would be one where the child was mocked, ignored, ridiculed, or put-down.” I totally agree that this could be the cause to perpetuate passive aggressive behavior, but it is not a given. I experienced a very abusive upbringing…my mother was a major passive aggressive person, always striving to hurt her kids, put them down, and preventing them from not only succeeding, but also from achieving their fullest potential. In short, she would ensure that her own kids would not succeed where she had failed. I think the part about her behavior that hurt us kids the most was her telling us that we were smart and could achieve anything, but then tell her friends (where we could all hear) how stupid we were. It doesn’t take the proverbial rocket scientist to understand why all of her friends eventually stopped visiting her.

    However, although I experienced being mocked, ignored, ridiculed and put down, as well as some physical abuse, I most certainly did not turn into a passive aggressive person…just the opposite in fact [I had other issues to overcome :-), but I feel strongly that I have been able to do that]. I always fought my mother on every level because I could see, even at a young age, that what she was doing was wrong. I didn’t know how to explain her behavior until much later, but I did recognize her actions as abuse as early as 10 years old. I became her favorite target because of my stance too…I always loathed bullies and would never back down from one…even if it was a parent. After leaving home I eventually just stopped calling my mother, leaving that responsibility to her. She had never called me after I left home, and still hasn’t. Her loss…but the door is always open to her should she ever change her mind.

    But this was my experience…I cannot speak for my two brothers. I do know for sure though that my younger brother is the most passive aggressive person I have ever known since my experiences with my mother. It’s a real shame to see though because he’s actually a very smart guy…but he feels he has to follow in my mother’s footsteps and try to hurt those around him…behind their backs of course. He has no idea that he is actually hurting himself more than those around him…this, I’m sure, he will take to the grave with him.

    It is my opinion that he behaves like this because this is what he has learned from our mother…he simply does not want to see others (particularly family members) succeed where he failed. I do know that many who have gone through a similar horrible upbringing like that chose to take a higher path in life and avoided replicating what they had learned at home when young. My younger brother, unfortunately, is not one of them. Like the typical passive aggressive person he is always right, everyone else is wrong; hence, he will probably never learn….I guess we can all hope though :-).

    • leazengage says :

      Thanks so much for sharing your story and your perspective. I too chose a completely different path than the one of my childhood. So, I do understand your point. Sorry to hear of your brother. We all have choices and sadly he went that direction. Best wishes coming your way!

  4. SimplyReal says :

    Wonderful article. Thank you. My wife and I recently divorced and this has at least given me answers where I had none. We have a child (8) that remains with her and I am concerned about the affects and ways to help her. Do you have any suggested reading? Thank you.

    • leazengage says :

      Thanks for the comment. I am so sorry to hear about your divorce. No matter the circumstances those are difficult times. Sorry, but I really don’t have any specific suggestions for reading. I can tell you that this is my most popular post. So, I know there is a lot of interest in passive aggressive behavior! Best wishes to you!

  5. Frances Lindsey Dow says :

    Thank-you. This article has helped me get some clarity regarding someone I’m currently dealing with. Some of the things I’ve done so far are to restrict the amount of personal information I give to this person given their propensity to twist my words or be critical. I also do that because she gossips, not just about me but others(mostly women, she never gossips about her sons or men just the other women, she’s also very critical of them). I’ve given up calling her out on her behavior because she twists my words and gossips–in that, the gossiping and twisting, she tends to garner a lot of sympathy and has sabotaged a few of my relationships with her gossip. She also seems to have a real problem with compulsive lying. What else should I do to mitigate the damage that she’s caused and prevent future damage since I can’t completely get away from this person right now?

    • leazengage says :

      I’m glad that you found this post helpful. It sounds like you’re making some good choices about how to deal with the woman you’re referring to. Your question is a tricky one. At this stage in my life I know that the only person we can control or change is ourselves. So, I think you are on the right track. Limit contact as much as possible and continue being your best self! All the best to you!

    • leazengage says :

      The best advice I have is to make sure you are skilled at being assertive; staying grounded in the most positive and effective way to respond. Good idea to limit the information you share. Keeping very clear boundaries will help. Do the best you can to avoid slipping or sliding into her negativity. Good luck!

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