We all bear witness to passive-aggressive behavior at times—or maybe even exhibit it ourselves on occasion. You know the type: the person who hooks you on false promises, builds up your hopes, but rarely comes through. The friend who can't be counted on yet has an armful of excuses to explain her negligence. The family member who sets himself up for failure, then complains about his bad luck. The boyfriend who says he'll call for a date, but then doesn't until it's too late to go out. The partner who claims to have forgotten to pick up groceries, rather than explain that he actually just couldn't be bothered. Much of the time, "passive-aggression is what's not done, more than what is," explains Scott Wetzler, PhD, a clinical psychologist, author of Living With the Passive-Aggressive Man and vice chairman of the psychiatry and behavioral sciences department at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, N.Y.
Causes of Passive-Aggressive Behavior
Passive-aggression is not a contradiction in terms; it's not that someone is passive one moment and aggressive the next. Rather, it's an aggression with an escape clause, Wetzler explains (i.e., "I didn't do it; you must have misunderstood"). But make no mistake: Passive-aggression is an expression of hostility in relationships. "Passive-aggression is how the weak and powerless try to thwart the authority of those who they view as strong and powerful," says Wetzler.
Often this happens because they're angry, but their fears get in the way of them being able to express it openly. This can begin in early childhood and blossom during adolescence, says Wetzler. Some people outgrow it, leaving it behind as they shed their teenage angst; others don't and bring these psychological conflicts into adulthood. While everyone acts in a passive-aggressive way at some point, what distinguishes people with a long-standing problem is that they do it all too often and in inappropriate situations. People develop passive-aggressive behavior when they have not learned how to deal openly and honestly with their own aggressive impulses or when they're severely punished for responding to these impulses.
Recognizing Passive-Aggressive Behavior
"When you find yourself frequently in 'damned if you do, damned if you don't' situations with a particular individual, that's a good indication [you're dealing with a passive-aggressive person]," says Rudy Nydegger, PhD, a board-certified clinical psychologist and chief of the psychology division at Ellis Hospital in Schenectady, N.Y.
Another sign is when a person appears to be saying or doing things that you perceive as being of hostile intent, but the person denies or deflects these issues when confronted. A passive-aggressive individual will not respond directly to issues, but will instead externalize or blame others whenever they're backed into a corner, says Nydegger.
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How to Respond to Passive-Aggressive Behavior
Dealing with a passive-aggressive person on a regular basis can be confusing and frustrating. Wetzler shares an example of a woman who confronted her boyfriend about why he was never available for a Saturday night date. He replied that she was too clingy, while in reality he was going out with someone else that night. Instead of talking about his misbehavior, he had changed the subject to her dependency and neediness—a classic passive-aggressive behavior.
In a situation such as this, the best response is to recognize passive-aggressiveness as a form of hostility. Use the same strategies for dealing with someone who expresses hostility in a more direct manner, says Wetzler: Set limits, enforce them, and be proportionate in your response.
Nydegger adds that you should not fall into the trap of trying to read the subtext—i.e., what the passive-aggressive person really means. "You should only respond to their actual words," he shares. "By doing this, you eliminate the manipulation effect of the behavior and will catch them in their own trap." For example, if a person says something that feels hostile and you ask, "Why did you say that? It wasn't very nice," and they say, "Oh, that wasn't meant to be mean, I was only pointing out what others have said." Then you can respond, "Thank you for that feedback; it's very helpful." This removes the effect the person was trying to provoke, thereby neutralizing the passive-aggressive behavior, says Nydeggger.
How to Tell If <i>You</i> Are Being Passive-Aggressive
If you think you might be passive-aggressive, the real way to find out is to be completely honest with yourself. When you feel angry or hostile, respond to those feelings honestly and appropriately, says Nydegger. For instance, if people often accuse you of being passive-aggressive, take a hard look at yourself and your intentions. "If you find that people avoid you, won't talk to you about anything controversial, and seem to feel hostile toward you without any apparent reason, these may be indicators [you are exhibiting passive-aggressive behavior]," Nydegger adds.
When to Seek Professional Help
If whatever you're doing consistently produces reactions that you do not like, or if your behavior is resulting in outcomes that affect you socially, interpersonally, occupationally, or educationally, it may be time to seek help, says Nydegger. Even if it turns out that passive-aggressive behavior is not the cause and you don't have a clinically diagnosable condition (such as narcissistic personality disorder), talking to a professional can help you address it.
Something to keep in mind, though, is that psychotherapy is only useful if people recognize that they have a problem and are ready and willing to work on it. Unfortunately, many people with passive-aggression do not acknowledge it's an issue and/or are not motivated to address it, says Wetzler. If and when a passive-aggressive person realizes the cost of their own behavior and takes responsibility for themselves, however, psychotherapy can be very effective. An important tip, Nydegger adds, is to avoid jumping from one therapist to another in hopes of finding someone who will agree with you. "When people realize that they are the common denominator in all of the situations in which they are having difficulties," he says, "that is a big step in the direction of self-improvement."