5 Signs of Passive-Aggressive Behavior

Updated: Jan. 08, 2021

Experts detail the classic signs of passive-aggressive behavior, and how to effectively deal with them.

What is passive-aggressive behavior?

It’s easy to recognize aggressive behavior: Somebody raises their voice, says intimidating things, or maybe even resorts to physical abuse and violence. Passive-aggressive behavior, on the other hand, is subtler, sneakier—and a lot harder to recognize.

“Aggressive behavior is easy to call out. Behavior that is passive-aggressive is much more difficult to put into words,” says Jessica L. Griffin, a clinical psychologist and associate professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. “Simply put, passive-aggressive behavior refers to behavior that is indirect and typically results from negative feelings that the individual has difficulty directly—or openly—expressing.” (Here are some passive-aggressive quotes that help shed light on the behavior.)

For those on the receiving end, passive-aggressive behavior can be emotionally destabilizing, says Abisola Olulade, MD, a board-certified family medicine physician with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group in San Diego.

“The fact that it is often subtle and not direct yet very hostile causes victims to question whether they are imagining things. They may not realize or understand what is happening at first which is part of why it can be traumatizing.”

Here, some signs of passive-aggressive behavior you need to know, along with expert tips on how to deal with passive-aggressive people.

Backhanded compliments

There’s a big difference between a compliment (“That’s a beautiful dress”) and a back-handed compliment (“That’s a beautiful dress—I had the same one in high school”). One makes you feel better; the other leaves you feeling worse.

“There’s no better example of passive-aggressive behavior than the backhanded compliment,” says Griffin. “My personal favorite is the communication that starts with ‘I’m not trying to be mean, but….’ Or ‘I’m not judging you.…’ Or ‘I mean this in the best way…’ when in fact, what is about to come out of their mouth is mean, judgmental, and not the best.”

So how can you deal with insults hidden in compliments? Dr. Olulade recommends expressing your feelings if it’s somebody you otherwise feel safe with.

“If it’s a pattern with this person, then you may express that this was hurtful to you. You can also choose to ignore it, but it’s important not to internalize it and use it as a point of self-criticism,” she says. “Don’t go into a self-critical spiral. Remember, it’s about them and their inappropriate behavior—not about you.”

Refusal to state feelings

You know the drill: A person is clearly bothered by something, but when you ask them what’s wrong, they shrug it off or say “nothing.” Why do some people keep their feelings bottled inside?

“It may be because they are themselves depressed or anxious. It may also be because they are scared of confronting a negative feeling or emotion and don’t have the right tools or coping skills for doing so,” says Dr. Olulade. “This is why it’s important not to tell children to ‘just get on with it’ or ‘just get over it’ and to welcome their expression of both negative and positive emotion. It’s important to acknowledge, validate, and listen to others’ feelings.”

Emotions are an important part of the human experience, says Dr. Olulade. We can learn a lot from allowing people to express both positive and negative ones. “When we don’t allow others to express their negative feelings in a healthy way and when we don’t give them a safe outlet to do that—or when we say expressing sadness, anxiety, or anger is ‘weak’—this can have a harmful effect and lead people to behave in a passive-aggressive manner.”

Some people are less comfortable directly expressing their feelings, says Griffin. She recommends providing a safe space for your friend, partner, or co-worker to talk about what’s going on. “You could try saying, ‘It seems as if you’re upset and I want to make sure you’re OK.’ ” (Check out the 9 different types of anger. Which one are you experiencing?)

Two people having discussion in cafeTony Anderson/Getty Images

Stonewalling or freezing someone out

Even worse than someone pretending nothing is wrong is someone refusing to engage with you, period. Getting that cold shoulder can hurt, and passive aggressive people have often mastered this behavior, says Griffin. Take, for instance, stonewalling.

Described by renowned relationship researcher John Gottman in the early 1990s, “stonewalling is a primary problematic communication style, which can erode a relationship over time as it sets up a pattern of poor communication,” Griffin says. Instead of dealing with the problem directly, people might ignore it—or you. “This is unsettling for the person on the receiving end and just builds resentment while eroding trust.”

To deal with stonewalling, it’s important to be direct and honest, as uncomfortable as it might feel, Griffin advises. “Encourage your loved ones to share their feelings with you,” she says. “Let them know directly that you want more honesty in the relationship and you can handle it if they are angry, upset, resentful, or annoyed with you.”

But if it’s a repeated pattern of behavior and interferes with your relationship, you should address it, says Dr. Olulade. “If you have persistent worry and a sad mood about it, then it may be time to seek professional help for it.” (What is gaslighting? This psychological tactic also leave you feeling uneasy.)

Avoiding responsibilities or being chronically late

Forgetting to turn in assignments, always running late, lacking follow-through—these can all be signs of passive-aggression. While, of course, everyone is maxed out these days and even the best-intentioned people can run late or become overwhelmed, it might be worth bringing up if there’s a pattern of irresponsibility.

Griffin recommends understanding that the behavior may not come from a negative place, but instead from one of discomfort or learned behavior. She advises clear communication, naming feelings, and asking for more directness.

You might say something like, “I’ve noticed you’ve been late to Sunday dinner for the last several weeks. I’m wondering if you’re feeling upset or annoyed by something and I’m hoping we can talk about it,”  Griffin suggests.

Or you might say, “When you’re late, I feel frustrated because I’ve spent a lot of time cooking and we all wait to eat until you get here. You’re important to me and I’d like to resolve this and want us to be honest with each other. Is Sunday dinner something you want to do? If it’s not on your priority list, that’s OK with me. I just want to resolve this so that I’m not bothered by it and you’re also feeling good about being here.”

On the flip side, the passive-aggressive person might set up a situation to make you look bad. For example, “you may have indicated to your mother-in-law that you can’t attend a family dinner at the time she desired because of your child’s scheduled nap time,” says Griffin. “Despite your directness, she sticks to her guns and sets the dinner for when she wants it.”

So “you do your best to get there and, of course, you arrive late because your child had their scheduled nap. Your mother-in-law comments about how the food has gotten cold and that your daughter is too old for a nap.”

How should you react to this sort of passive-aggressive behavior? “The same principles apply,” says Griffin. “Be direct about your observation and the impact on you and your wish to resolve this.” This type of honest, direct communication can be scary. But it also proactively opens up room for positive results.

Feeling as though you’re walking on eggshells

If you’re always on eggshells around another person, worried about how they’ll react to things, their behavior might be considered passive-aggressive. Repeated overreactions—or inappropriate lack of reactions, such as ignoring you—can do a number on your self-confidence and sense of security.

It’s important to take note of how you feel around the other person, says Griffin. “If you’re struggling with a relationship in which someone else is being passive-aggressive—despite your intentions to solve the issue with them—and it’s negatively impacting you, consider talking with a professional to determine how to set better boundaries for yourself.”

While therapy is a good first step, it’s possible the other person might not be willing to work with you. Ultimately, if you always feel awkward or uncomfortable around somebody, you might decide that it’s time to move on from the relationship.

How to recognize passive-aggressive behavior in yourself?

Sometimes it’s the people around you who are behaving inappropriately. But what if you realize that you frequently fall back on passive-aggressive behavior yourself?

Dr. Olulade recommends paying attention to subtle cues people may give off when they’re with you. “Do people tense up when you are around? Do your coworkers avoid talking to you or making eye contact with you?” Dr. Olulade asks. “If you find that you are constantly making snide or negative remarks, being sarcastic, sabotaging tasks and projects, or avoiding healthy self-expression, then these may all be signs of passive aggression.”

If you’re someone who avoids confrontation, you may unknowingly fall back on passive-aggressive behavior rather than tackle the problem head-on, says Inger Burnett-Zeigler, MD, a licensed clinical psychologist and associate professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. “People who are passive-aggressive are often trying to send a message about how they feel through their actions rather than their words. Often this message can be unclear or misconstrued.”

“When you are feeling consumed by a negative feeling and you don’t know how to express it,” that can also be passive aggression, says Jennifer Tomko, a clinical psychotherapist at Clarity Health Solutions in Jupiter, Florida. “You may have difficulties setting a boundary in a way that is mutually helpful. You may also feel that you are doing something kind out of obligation, so you may not perform as the best version of yourself.”

Having the courage to confront negative behavior in yourself is scary but valuable, Griffin says. “If you are finding you have a hard time being direct in your communication and continue to avoid others, are late in your work or obligations, and notice your relationships are being impacted, you could seek professional assistance with a trained therapist to assist you in understanding the roots of your passive-aggressive behavior,” she recommends. A therapist can also help you “work on increasing your level of ‘appropriate’ assertiveness and directness in your relationships.”