Psychology Definition Of The Week: Passive Aggressive Behaviour

What is passive aggressive behaviour?

Passive-aggressive behaviour is defined in the English dictionary as “of or denoting a type of behaviour or personality characterised by indirect resistance to the demands of others and an avoidance of direct confrontation”. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) revision IV defines passive-aggressive personality disorder as a “pervasive pattern of negativistic attitudes and passive resistance to demands for adequate performance in social and occupational situations.”

Simply put, this just means that a passive-aggressive person will show indirect expressions of hostility, such as through sullen behaviour, procrastination, avoidance, or deliberate or repeated failure to accomplish requested tasks in order to avoid confrontation.

Long, Long & Whitson (2008) described passive aggression as a deliberate and masked way of expressing covert feelings of anger.Generally, passive-aggressive behaviour comes in many forms and on a wide scale but can usually be described as a non-verbal aggression that manifests in a variety of negative behaviour.

Many of us have experienced an instance where we have been angry with someone but don’t or can’t find the will to tell them. Rather than explaining the issue honestly when irritated, upset or disappointed, you might bottle up the feelings instead and this tension and frustration can manifest in negative behaviours such as those below.

Passive aggressive behaviours can include:

  • Shutting down verbally and sulking
  • Giving angry looks
  • Being deliberately obstructive or unhelpful
  • Resenting the demands of others or deliberately performing poorly at a task (so that they won’t be asked again) Indirectly resisting requests from others by evading or creating confusion around the issue
  • Indirectly resisting requests from others by evading or creating confusion around the issue
  • Hostile behaviour
  • Disguising criticism with compliments
  • Voicing injustices and lack of appreciation towards themselves
  • Or other noticeable changes, uncharacteristic to the person

Passive aggressive behaviours can manifest in a covert (concealed and hidden) or overt (blatant and obvious) way, which means that it may not always be clear whether a person is hiding anger or resentment.

On the surface, the individual might appear happy, in agreement, friendly, polite, down-to-earth, kind and well-meaning. Politeness is a key factor in passive aggressive behaviour since a person can feel too pressured to be polite that they cannot express their opinion and become frustrated, yet unable to show it. Underneath the surface of these nice superficial behaviours, however, the individual may be hiding irritation or sadness which may cause manipulative behaviours, for them to lash out or shut down.  Putting on a front is often what may occur, hence the term “Passive-Aggressive”.

Managing passive aggressive behaviour

Do you know someone that always makes you feel like you are on an emotional roller coaster? Is there someone in your life who might be lovely one day but makes subtle jabs or shuts down towards you the next? Do you have a family member or friend who consistently procrastinates, stalls or avoids emotionally difficult situations or conversations? Have you ever been that person?

If the answer was “yes” to any of the above questions, it may be that your family member, friend or even you yourself, might be exhibiting signs of passive aggressive behaviour. If you need help managing your anger, do look into anger management help. However, if you are regularly interacting with a passive aggressive, you may need to take a more gentle approach. First, identify whether they are in fact exibiting passive aggressive behaviour; below are some useful warning phrases that migth signal an issue. Once this has been established, try to talk with the individual in a friendly and supportive way to understand the problem and help them resolve it where possible.

Common passive signals or phrases

Passive aggressive behaviour involves a range of (often subtle) actions designed to spite another person without them recognising the underlying anger. Below are a few common passive aggressive phrases that can serve as a warning system for you, family or friends, and help recognise potential hidden hostility so that you can help the individual confront the issue in a mangeable way and ease the situation before it gets out of hand.

  • “Okay, I’m Coming!” (when refusing a request, the passive aggressive person may deliberately take a long time to do something)
  • “You Just Want Everything to be Perfect.” (This may often follow a task being done deliberately badly.)
  • “I’m Not Mad.” (Hiding feelings)
  • “Fine.” ”Whatever.” (Hiding feelings)
  • “I Didn’t Know You Meant Now.” (Causing deliberate confusion, and refusing requests)
  • “Why Are You Getting So Upset?” (the passive aggressive person may feign shock when jibing others, and will often enjoy the extra aggravation this comment causes)
  • “You’ve Done so Well for Someone with Your Education Level.” (Jibe hidden in compliment)
  • “I Thought You Knew.” (claiming ignorance while taking pleasure in other person’s upset)
  • “Sure, I’d be Happy To.” (may be a superficial statement, hiding resentment)
  • “I Was Only Joking.”  (socially acceptable way for person to make a jibe, makes the insult or comment indirect, and the individual a victim)

We hope you found these definitions interesting as well as useful. If you’d like to find out more on extreme aggression and how it can be treated or understood, please visit our Anger Management page.


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