Most of us would say we know someone who behaves in a passive-aggressive manner. We may even wonder if we’re looking at that someone in the mirror. But do we really know what it is? I mean, maybe it’s a good idea to bone-up on some facts. Passive-aggression: what you need to know…

It’s so easy to refer to someone as, say, a narcissist or “borderline.” Identifying someone as their disorder is unfair and hurtful in and of itself. But if we’re short on facts, things can turn even uglier. And so it is with passive-aggression. As always, education is huge.

Let’s roll up our sleeves and get after it…

What is passive-aggression?

Passive-aggression (PA, also for passive-aggressive) is a way of expressing hostile feelings – anger, annoyance, disgust, etc. Now, expressing negative feelings is a good thing when it’s handled with consideration – and directly. However, with PA the expression is indirect, often in an effort to hurt and confuse the target. As you can imagine, the behaviors associated with PA can destroy relationships.

Because of its variety and subtlety, PA behavior is extremely difficult to nail down. However, many emotional and mental health experts agree that these are the most common behaviors: refusing to talk about concerns openly and directly, avoiding responsibility, and being deliberately inefficient.

To paint a picture, the PA individual often leaves a job undone or all but complete. They frequently run late and are pros at subtly sabotaging others when they disagree with a plan. Finally, the PA individual often resorts to the silent treatment or a backhanded compliment to get their point across.

How ’bout we go with this list of common PA behaviors…

  • Avoiding responsibility for tasks
  • Procrastinating – even to the point of missing deadlines
  • Withholding vital information
  • Frequent underachieving relative to one’s ability
  • Giving the silent treatment
  • Diminished eye contact
  • Ignoring targeted individuals during group activity
  • Persistent forgetting
  • Stonewalling

Let’s go to the next level with PA. Though you won’t find it as a diagnosis in the DSM-5, many professionals believe in the validity of passive-aggressive personality disorder (PAPD). Being a personality disorder, we’re dealing with a chronic and inflexible PA. The American Psychological Association (APA) describes it as “a personality disorder of long standing in which ambivalence toward the self and others is expressed by passive expressions of underlying negativism.”

What is negativism? According to the APA: “an attitude characterized by persistent resistance to the suggestions of others…or the tendency to act in ways that are contrary to the expectations, requests, or commands of others…typically without any identifiable reason for opposition.”

What causes passive-aggression?

Most often, troubling PA stems from deep anger, hostility, and frustration. The bottom-line cause of the feelings and behavior varies on a per case basis. However, it’s really all about the PA individual being terribly uncomfortable with expressing themselves directly.

It’s important to note that many PA individuals have no idea they’re behaving in an objectionable manner. They’ve pushed their anger, sadness, etc. down so deeply that they’ve truly lost awareness.

How is passive-aggression treated?

what causes passive-aggression

“There must be a way to express my feelings directly – the right way.”

The first step in treating PA is gaining insight into the fact that a problem exists. That means someone has to break the news to the individual. Of course, the individual may know they’re behaving inappropriately and really want to do something about it.

If the insight is there, as well as the desire to change, therapy is a great intervention. What better way to identify PA behavior and come to know more acceptable methods of expressing feelings?

Even better, a therapist can help with working through the anger, resentment, or low self-esteem that may be generating the PA behavior. And then it’s about learning to solve problems in a healthy way.

Something known as assertiveness training can be very helpful in managing PA behavior. One learns how to express thoughts and feelings effectively. And it can assist with negative behaviors caused by underlying misery such as anger and frustration.

Whether or not one participates in therapy, here are some things that can be done on a daily basis to rid oneself of PA behavior…

  • Be aware of the behavior
  • Identify possible reasons for the behavior
  • Think clearly before acting
  • Take a break before reacting to situations that are upsetting
  • Stay optimistic
  • Be honest with others and strive to express feelings in a healthy manner

No doubt, with insight and hard work, PA behavior can be changed.

How to interact with a passive-aggressive person?

When it comes to interacting with a PA individual, job-one is understanding the nature of the behavior. As we know, it stems from underlying anger, sadness, insecurity, etc. And the individual may not be consciously aware of the problem.

That said, reacting to the PA individual with your own PA behavior, or direct expressions of anger and frustration, won’t cut it.. So as difficult as it may be, somehow showing that you value the PA individual’s perspective may help, especially if you’re trying to address an underlying sense of insecurity.

You may choose to limit the time you spend with the PA individual. But if you decide to engage, be sure to set clear boundaries. And if you elect to confront PA behavior, do your best to avoid being accusatory, as you calmly express how the behavior makes you feel.

But don’t apologize for supposed offenses or in any way placate the PA individual. And don’t forget, they may want you to respond to their PA behavior with your own. Don’t play the game.

PA individuals are to be held accountable.

That’ll do it

Passive-aggression: we think we know what it means. And we may be right. Still, it’s always best to get the facts straight. Only then can we effectively manage relationships with the PA individuals in our life – and lend a hand, if we choose.

And hey, that PA individual may be looking at us in the mirror.

Thanks for the material: Psychology Today, Healthline, Medical News Today. Tap any of the links for even more passive-aggression info.

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