Passive Aggression: Signs, Causes, And Treatment

Reviewed by Lauren Guilbeault

Published 06/27/2022

Passive aggression is when someone shows negative feelings subtly instead of explicitly talking about the issues or tackling the source of discomfort. It is often hurtful to tackle difficult emotions like anger, disappointment, and sadness. It gets even more difficult to deal with those emotions in relationships with other people, especially when their behaviors are simultaneously hostile and confusing.

A person who uses passive aggression may be angry, frustrated, or resentful, but they pretend to act like they are okay, neutral, or sometimes cheerful. They find indirect ways to show their actual feelings, creating a gap between their words and their actions.

You maybe asking yourself, “what is passive-aggressive behavior?” Passive aggression is not a mental disorder. However, people with mental health conditions may behave that way. The issue is that individuals with passive-aggressive behavior often find it challenging to express negative feelings openly. Although passive-aggressive behavior may feel pleasant or maybe even righteous, it can end up destroying personal and professional relationships, removing the chance of ever resolving the underlying issue. This article will teach you about the signs, causes, and possible solutions to passive aggression.

Signs Of Passive Aggression

The actions of someone with passive-aggressive behavior often negatewhat they are saying. This behavior usually infuriates friends, coworkers, and family members. However, the person may not even notice the passive aggression.

For instance, when someone suggests a plan at work, some with a passive-aggressive disposition may disagree with the plan, but they say they are fine with it instead of stating their opinion. However, since they actually oppose the plan, they refuse to follow it and may deliberately sabotage the plan by missing deadlines, coming to meetings late, and undermining the plan.

Another example of passive-aggressive behavior could be a woman whose boyfriend is studying in the same room. She is annoyed with him, but instead of simply telling him know she is mad at him, she intentionally plays loud music to bother him.

This type of behavior indicates that the actions are often hard to decipher. In some cases, the person’s actions may not be deliberate. What you should look out for are recurrent and consistent behavioral patterns. Occasional negative behaviors are a normal part of human life. However, if the thought patterns become recurrent, they could be signs of an undiagnosed mental health condition. Regular demonstration of passive-aggressive personality disorder may indicate a condition like depression post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The following are a few of the common signs that are connected to this behavior:

  • Indirect insults: being hostile and cynical
  • Silent treatment: refusing to comment or contribute, acting stubborn
  • Sabotaging tasks and projects: performing tasks inefficiently, procrastination or forgetfulness
  • Sarcastic or snide comments: blaming others, regularly criticizing or protesting, being pessimistic
  • Brooding or gloomy attitude: being disagreeable or irritable, complaints about unappreciation

For interpersonal relationships, the actions may be somewhat different. Still, the signs may include delaying or being arbitrarily hostile to someone’s request, deliberately making errors or quitting to cause frustration, and sometimes showing negative behaviors and complaining.

Passive aggression is a method people use to express their angry emotions in an outwardly non-combative way, free of consequences. When you are genuinely afraid of conflict, passive aggression is a method of dealing with anger while staying away from direct confrontation and anger. This means, instead of telling your partner that they did something wrong or failed to meet your needs, you give them the cold shoulder instead. And when you do not express yourself and tell them what you need, you run the risk of not getting it. Passive aggression is a wall that blocks emotional intimacy.

The Consequences Of Passive Aggression

The damaging actions and thoughts of passive aggression can jeopardize people’s ability to build healthy relationships at their workplace. They can also restrict the person’s ability to form loving and caring relationships in their personal lives. The show of negative emotion and actions exerts higher control and authority over situations in their life. Yet, human emotions are so convoluted that it may be hard to trace the origin of passive-aggressive behavior.

This person may be experiencing internal fears and anxiety. They may possibly be using this behavior as a coping mechanism. If they could learn better techniques to manage anxiety, they would probably depend less on defensive and negative actions and thought patterns.

Causes Of Passive Aggression

You might be wondering why passive-aggressive behavior is so common, despite having so many grave consequences on families, romantic relationships, and even at work. The precise cause of passive-aggressive behavior is unidentifiable. However, biological and environmental factors may contribute to passive-aggressive behavior. Some of the things that experts believe can cause passive aggression in people include:


Some experts suggest that passive-aggressive behavior may come from growing up in an environment where openly expressing oneself was not allowed or encouraged. When people feel that they cannot talk about their actual feelings more openly, they may try to develop methods to let out their frustration or anger passively. People who lived with passive-aggressive parents may think it is a normal and effective way to communicate.

Researchers believe people who show traits of passive aggression start during childhood. Parenting methods, family dynamics, and other childhood situations may also contribute to the issue. Child abuse, harsh punishment, and neglect can drive someone to form passive-aggressive behaviors.

If you are facing or witnessing abuse of any kind, theNational Domestic Violence Hotline is available for you. Call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or Text “START” to 88788. You can also use theonline chat.

Situational Cases

Someone’s situation also influences passive-aggressive behavior. When you are in a position where expression of aggression is not socially allowed, such as at a family gathering or business meeting, you might be drawn into reacting in a subtle way when someone annoys you. For instance, fear of loss—some people are bothered that telling someone how they actually feel will cause rejection. For instance, for fear of judgment or rejection, a husband may not want to tell his partner about feelings of jealousy.

The Convenient Path

It is not always a walk in the park to be assertive or emotionally expressive. When standing up for yourself is hard and maybe even terrifying, passive-aggressive behavior might appear to be a convenient way to deal with how you feel without necessarily having to face the source of your anger. An example is fear of authority—a child, employee, or someone in a subordinate position may be scared that openly expressing their worries will attract punishment.

Sometimes, people resort to passive aggression when previous attempts to initiate direct communication ended badly. Passive aggression may be a way to avoid conflict from escalating uncontrollably in a troubled relationship.

Some people may also feel ashamed of negative emotions, especially anger. Passive aggression enables them to articulate their feelings without admitting them. Low self-esteem and substance use disorder are also believed to contribute to this behavior.

Underlying Health Conditions

Some health conditions can cause traits that look like passive-aggressive behavior. Some of those conditions include:

  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Stress
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Conduct disorder
  • Oppositional defiant disorder
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Depression
  • Schizophrenia
  • Alcohol use disorder
  • Schizotypal personality disorder
  • Cocaine withdrawal

Diagnosing Passive-Aggressive Behavior

Passive-aggressive behavior is not a medical condition, so a physician cannot make an official diagnosis. However, a trained mental health expert can help people identify a behavioral disorder that needs intervention. They will ask questions about the person’s symptoms and behaviors and when they started, and their consequences on their work, life, and relationships.

If you think you might be showing signs of passive aggression, you may want to consider booking an appointment with a counselor. The counselor will likelygive multiple questionnaires about your thoughts, signs, and personal history. They will also enquire about your childhood and the situations that cause the symptoms. After identifying all the potential environmental causes for your passive-aggressive behaviors, they can better help you deal with them.

However, if the psychologist does not discover any possible environmental causes for passive aggression, they may refer to a physician. The behavior may be caused by an underlying health condition. The doctor will conduct a physical examination and request neurological examinations to know if a medical condition causes passive-aggressive behavior. Diagnostic testing may include imaging tests, a neurological examination, and blood tests.

If you see signs of passive-aggressive behavior in a partner or family member, you can suggest that they see a psychologist. It can be challenging to be in a relationship with someone with passive aggression, so it is crucial to address any behavior problems.

Dealing With Passive Aggression

The objective is to achieve better resilience and flexibility while managing negative feelings. This means people need to learn skills to handle life disappointments constructively. People need to understand that negative and disappointment situations in life often gives way to growth opportunities. It helps people understand themselves better, and at the same time, learn to accept and appreciate themselves in a better way.

For those in a relationship with someone who regularly exhibits a passive-aggressive person’s characteristics, it is important to set boundaries. Creating a solid set of helpful and mutually agreeable boundaries can help reduce the effect of negative behavior and save the relationship.

Forming clear but slightly flexible boundaries in a relationship is important for enduring survival. When people form and assert their limits, they can begin to stop the seemingly endless cycle of passive aggression. Naturally, the tolerance limits for dealing with passive aggression depends on the person. However, with better understanding, one may get to a point where they start to reevaluate the relationship’s point. This means that if the other partner in the relationship fails to respect boundaries, it may be better to end the relationship.

Passive aggression can arise from multiple mental disorders, but it is not regarded as a distinct mental health disorder. Someone with this behavior may be unable to create and sustain healthy relationships and may have work issues as well. However, there are techniques to manage passive-aggressive behavior to not have adverse effects on the person’s quality of life.

Learning about ways to deal with passive aggression can come through consultation with a licensed mental health professional. They will gain a thorough understanding of you and your relationship(s) and present the best plan of action.

Treatment For Passive Aggression

If an underlying health condition is the cause of passive-aggressive behavior, the person needs to receive treatment for the condition first. The behavior should improvewith treatment.

You may also get a referral to a therapist or other mental health expert for counseling. A therapist can help you discover signs of passive aggression and help you learn to manage the behavior. They can also help control the anger, resentment, or low self-esteem problems that contribute to passive-aggressive behavior. They may provide effective tips for coping with the situation, including assessing situations objectively and healthily solving problems.

Assertiveness training can also help manage passive-aggressive behavior. The training helps you learn to express your thoughts and worries effectively and constructively. This can help limit the occurrence of negative behaviors resulting from anger and frustration. There are also some easy steps to take to stop passive aggression. These include:

  • Paying attention to your actions
  • Discovering the possible reasons for passive aggression
  • Thinking properly before making decisions
  • Putting yourself at ease before reacting to upsetting situations
  • Staying optimistic and avoiding pessimistic thoughts
  • Being open or honest with others and letting them know how you feel in a healthy way, rather than acting passive-aggressively

In Conclusion

Although it can be difficult to stop passive-aggressive behavior completely, especially if the behavior started from childhood, you can be proactive with the condition. Seeing a therapist for counseling can incredibly helpful, so it is transforming your thought patterns every day. Remember that you are responsible for your actions, and you can change them at any time. You can take an assessment test to learn more about the behavior.