11 Telltale Signs You’re Being Passive Aggressive—Without Even Realizing It

Updated: Jan. 08, 2021

Have you ever answered "no" when someone asked you if you were upset—even when you were fuming? If so, you just entered passive-aggressive territory.


You say you agree, but your actions say otherwise

When given a task they don’t really want to do, a passive-aggressive person might appear to agree (sometimes even enthusiastically), but they won’t fully comply with the request, Daniel K. Hall-Flavin, MD, explains to Mayo Clinic. Instead, he or she might express anger or resentment by failing to follow through or missing deadlines.


You’re angry but never say so

Saying you’re not mad when you’re actually seeing red won’t do anyone any favors. “Denying feelings of anger is classic passive-aggressive behavior,” Signe Whitson, a licensed social worker and childhood therapist, writes in Psychology Today. Here are the 9 best ways to control your anger.


You sulk

Another strategy of a passive-aggressive person is withdrawing from a confrontation by sulking. Whitson explains, “Since passive aggression is motivated by a person’s belief that expressing anger directly will only make his life worse, the passive-aggressive person uses phrases like ‘fine’ and ‘whatever’ to express anger indirectly and to shut down direct, emotionally honest communication.” Instead, learn how to deal with five types of toxic co-workers.


You procrastinate

Putting off tasks, making excuses, and being unreliable are also telltale signs of passive-aggressive behavior. “They are master procrastinators,” says Whitson. “While all of us like to put off unpleasant tasks from time to time, people with passive-aggressive personalities rely on procrastination as a way of frustrating others and/or getting out of certain chores without having to directly refuse them.” Don’t put off finding out how to deal with passive-aggressive people.


You stir up trouble

According to Whitson, “passive-aggressive people are masters at remaining calm and feigning shock while others, worn down by his or her indirect hostility, blow up in anger.” Even worse, this person can take pleasure out of setting others up to go off-the-handle and then comment on why they are overreacting. To get more insight into how different people act when they’re enraged, find out about the 9 types of anger.


You give off mixed messages

A passive-aggressive comment is one that feels like a knife but is difficult to respond to directly, says Charlotte Howard, PhD, a psychologist in private practice in Austin, Texas. “This may be because it is either buried in a nice tone or some other large seemingly nice point. It also might be because the comment is so indirect that if you express you’re hurt, you may seem too sensitive.” Alternatively, passive-aggressive comments may be true statements that bring to light an unflattering angle on a person or situation. “Therefore, it’s difficult to argue with the statement, but it still stings because of what it implies about you,” she explains. Here are some passive-aggressive quotes that shed light on the behavior.


You put people down

Being passive aggressive is a way to subtly put someone down to make yourself feel better, says Jodi Aman, a psychotherapist based in Rochester, New York. “This is many times unconsciously done—usually when someone feels bad or guilty about themselves, and they want to turn the spotlight,” Aman says. “That’s why being aware is helpful. But then, of course, you have to want to change. Some people fail to see how hurtful it is.”


You giving people the silent treatment

According to Kimberly Williams, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and neuropsychologist in New York, giving someone the silent treatment in person is prime passive aggression. “You want them to know you’re angry but aggressively make an effort not to discuss the issue,” Williams says. On the flip side, here are some things you should never say to your spouse.


You make a point to avoid social media interaction

Giving someone the silent treatment via social media is also a telltale sign of passive-aggressive behavior. When you normally “like” or comment on a person’s post then suddenly stop doing so implies you no longer care about what that person is doing. “Not responding to a post is out of routine and visible for all to see,” says Williams. This makes it clear to others that there is a feud, and it perpetuates conflict because it makes people want to take sides. Meanwhile, the passive-aggressive person intends to stir more trouble by doing nothing.” Follow this social media etiquette to minimize awkward encounters.


You suddenly change your “relationship status”

Have you ever updated your relationship status to “single” after arguing with your partner? If you did it to intentionally hurt their feelings without having a proper discussion about the problem, you’re deep in the passive-aggressive zone—and you just made a big social media mistake. You’re basically saying, ” I am upset with you,” without doing anything about it. “A passive-aggressive person’s goal is to punish and make the target person sad and angry, which is, of course, far from productive in resolving conflict,” says Williams.


You’re not straightforward

An interesting passive-aggressive approach is telling other people that you have a conflict with a person without telling the target person. “This is passive aggressive because the aggressor wants to alienate the target person from the larger clique,” Williams asserts. “Unfortunately when the group is made aware of the conflict by the aggressor, the group cohesiveness trends towards the person telling the story about conflict, making it so much easier to alienate the target (since no one hears their side). Passive-aggressive behavior in this manner is actually a form of bullying.” she says. Now that you know how to avoid passive-aggressive behavior, discover the benefits of being the most sarcastic person in the room.