Passive-aggressive behavior can undermine your relationships and cause so many preventable problems.
A lot of people don’t really mean to be passive-aggressive. They may not feel comfortable with conflict, feel like they won’t be heard, or haven’t had many respectful relationships.
A person may use passive-aggression to defend themselves because they couldn’t do it in a past relationship. For example, a person who’s survived child or domestic abuse may not be comfortable with taking a strong stand. A strong stand against an abuser can result in horrific pain, injuries, or punishment. So the person who has lived in that kind of environment for years may develop the habit of passive-aggression as a subtle “f*** you” to that person.
The problem is that negative habits and behavior like that have no place in healthy, respectful relationships. Passive-aggression can cause distrust and unnecessary conflict. And while it may have served you in the past for whatever reason, it’s not something you can carry into the future if you want to have healthy relationships.
Speak to an accredited and experienced therapist to help you stop being passive-aggressive. You may want to try speaking to one via BetterHelp.com for quality care at its most convenient.
What is passive-aggression?
We need to define passive-aggression so you can clearly understand what it is and how to identify it.
To borrow from the Mayo Clinic, passive-aggression is a pattern of indirectly expressing negative feelings instead of openly addressing them. The person engaging in passive-aggressive behavior will typically say one thing and do another.
The kind of behaviors of a passive-aggressive person include:
1. The silent treatment.
The silent treatment is a tool used to punish the offending person. Usually, the person giving the silent treatment has difficulty managing their anger or voicing their expectations. They may also be uncomfortable with conflict and try to communicate that indirectly.
2. Undermining and sabotaging activities.
This person may try to undermine the efforts of the person they are angry with. Instead of trying to talk it out directly, they will try to set that person up for failure or inconvenience them. The goal is to see the offending person fail so the passive-aggressive person can revel in their misfortune.
3. Negative body language.
Since passive-aggressive people do not feel comfortable expressing themselves verbally, they may use body language to voice their displeasure. Long sighs, huffing, and pouting about a thing are all examples. “I’m fine,” folded arms, and refusing eye contact would also fall into this category.
Sometimes the passive-aggressive person may put off doing something they agreed to for the purpose of inconveniencing the person they are angry at. Instead of directly communicating, they hope that the other person will pick up on the bad vibes and feel punished.
5. Purposeful negative language.
The passive-aggressive person may be extremely cynical or give backhanded compliments. They may also use non-apologies like, “I’m sorry you feel that way.”
Why might someone be passive-aggressive?
1. The person cannot healthily express their feelings.
Some people have an extremely difficult time expressing their feelings. They may not have grown up in a supportive environment, had their feelings dismissed, or felt they needed to maintain a particular image.
Toxic masculinity is one example of this. Many boys and men are expected to just swallow their feelings and get on with it, which, while sometimes necessary, isn’t a healthy approach. Likewise, many girls and women feel like they aren’t heard or taken seriously when voicing complaints.
Either of these experiences can cause a person to engage in passive-aggressive behaviors because they know that their emotional needs will not be met.
2. The person is insecure about themselves or the relationship.
Insecurity causes a slew of problems in relationships. The insecure person may not feel like they can honestly express their feelings because the other person will leave them.
But, in a healthy relationship, disagreements and conflicts happen. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a fight. Some people can amicably and reasonably disagree with each other. In fact, that’s a healthy way to resolve conflicts. Both parties need to feel comfortable talking about the issues they have so they can come to a compromise.
3. The person may be uncomfortable with conflict or assertiveness.
Some people just aren’t comfortable with conflict. They feel like any kind of conflict disrupts their peace of mind, or they may feel like the situation will escalate. In addition, they may have social anxiety or other problems interacting with people that keep them from acting directly.
That person may not mean to be passive-aggressive, but they are because they can’t approach the problem directly.
4. The person was raised in an environment lacking emotional support.
Many bad habits that we carry into adulthood start in childhood. A child who doesn’t have adequate emotional support or have their emotional needs neglected may use passive-aggression to communicate their displeasure.
It may also be a coping mechanism to deal with neglect or abuse. The child may learn to lie for the sake of their own survival. Then they carry that behavior into adulthood, where it undermines and destroys their relationships.
How do I stop being passive-aggressive?
The following tips should help you change this behavior. First, do be aware that habits are hard to change. It’s not going to happen overnight. But you can make great strides to improve your peace and relationships by committing to making a change.
So don’t give up if it takes a while to click. And don’t think you’re not doing it right if your initial thought is still to do the wrong thing.
Repeated behavior can cause unhealthy behaviors to become ingrained. For example, you may initially think of a bad or wrong thought, but you can choose to do something different if you pause and think about it.
1. Talk to a therapist.
Many of the steps that follow this one will be easier to take with the help and advice of a trained mental health professional.
A therapist knows what to ask, what bits of what you say are important, and what advice is going to help you the most in your quest to stop being passive-aggressive.
While it is possible to work on this issue yourself, if it’s affecting you, your relationships, and your life enough that you find yourself reading this article, therapy is certainly an option you should seriously consider.
BetterHelp.com is a website where you can speak to a therapist from wherever you happen to be in the world and can get the help you need in an easy and convenient way.
2. Look for the root cause of your passive-aggression.
You can’t fix a problem without first identifying what the problem is. To do that, you need to get to the root cause of the problem.
For example, what kind of situations in your life may have caused you to not feel like you can be honest with your feelings? A couple of good places to look are in your childhood or abusive relationships.
Now, it’s important to note that an emotionally absent childhood doesn’t necessarily mean an abusive environment. Maybe your parent was a great parent who did everything they could to provide you with food and keep a roof over your head, but they absolutely sucked with emotional support and development. That doesn’t make them a bad person. People are flawed, and they have their own problems that don’t always get addressed. Still, that kind of environment can impact how you act in your own relationships.
Abusive relationships can do similar things because the abuser typically doesn’t care about your feelings unless they can be used against you somehow. This teaches you not to be open and honest about your feelings.
3. Develop your self-awareness.
You will need to identify when you are likely to engage in passive-aggressive behavior. Typically, that would be when you are mad at someone. So, when you are mad, you can stop and consider what kind of actions you will take toward the person.
Are you being direct with your displeasure? Have you specifically said, “I am angry at you because…?”
You cannot expect the other person to read your mind, know what’s wrong, and know how to fix it. The person you’re mad at in a healthy relationship will want to resolve the issue. Maybe they did you wrong, or maybe they are engaging in their own unhealthy behavior because of their grievance.
Either way, self-awareness will help you interrupt unhealthy choices that may otherwise undermine your relationship.
4. Journal out your emotions and actions.
Journaling is a powerful therapeutic tool when used correctly. To get the most out of journaling, you need to be able to freely express your emotions and experiences that affect how you conduct your life. It takes a great deal of courage and vulnerability to open yourself up that way, even to a written page.
There are a couple of things you can focus on when you journal.
The first are situations in which you felt slighted by choosing not to directly approach the problem. Explore the lead-up, what actually happened, why you didn’t want to be direct, and what you could have done differently. That will help you see past patterns to find new strategies to deal with the conflict and change those patterns.
The second thing you can explore is your current relationships. Are you acting in a passive-aggressive way now? What is causing you to act that way? Is there a reason you cannot openly communicate with a specific person in your life? Because if that’s the case, then it may not be a healthy relationship to begin with.
5. Learn healthier ways to deal with your anger.
Much passive-aggression comes from an unhealthy ability to deal with anger. Anger needs to be expressed healthily, or it can boil over into conflict or passive-aggression. And, of course, there are several different ways to deal with anger.
Once you get that angry energy out of your system, you can take up your problem with the other person and hopefully come to a reasonable solution.
The idea is not to just let the bad situation go or avoid it. Instead, you want to burn off that excess angry energy before you dive into a discussion with the person. Some ways of burning off that angry energy include:
Journaling. Get your anger out with a pen on the written page. Many people find that their emotions temper off once they’ve written out their feelings.
Exercise. A quick run, yoga, or weight-lifting can be a fantastic way to blow off that energy.
Meditation. Meditation is the practice of letting your emotions come and go. You accept them, feel them, and let them resolve in your mind before letting them go. Instead, many people hold onto their emotions and stew on them.
6. Practice assertiveness through direct communication.
Sometimes we get wrapped up in the severity of our own emotions. We feel hurt, angry, or sad, and it just becomes too much to try to deal with. So instead of finding a way to voice those emotions, you may find yourself shutting down and turning inward. That is when you are most at risk of falling back into the negative patterns of passive-aggression.
Instead, take some time to think about what you’re feeling, why you’re feeling it, and then bring those feelings to the person you’re having a problem with. The more you practice it, the more comfortable you will get with it.
For example, in a healthy relationship, heated words are sometimes exchanged. In an unhealthy relationship, heated words may lead to violence or other severe outcomes. So if you have that fear of violence in the back of your mind, it may try to keep you from engaging in healthy discourse even after you leave that unhealthy relationship.
That’s a habit that you’ll need to break. No one who cares about you will want you to feel unsafe.
7. Ask someone you trust to help point out the behavior.
It can take some time to become aware of your habits and behavior. If you have someone you can trust with the responsibility in your life, ask them to help point out when you are acting in a passive-aggressive way. Chances are pretty good that the people you’re close to will have seen your passive-aggressive behavior and know when you aren’t acting healthily.
That person may be able to say, “Hey, are you doing okay? You’re acting kind of like a jerk at the moment.” When that happens, you need to pause, think about what’s going on, think about what you’re doing, and then choose to do something better. Finally, you may need to find the right words and discuss them with the person you’re angry with.
Passive-aggressive behavior can make a person come across as toxic, and it often has its roots in some of the uglier aspects of relationships. The good news is that you don’t need to be bound by those behaviors forever. Instead, you can change, develop healthier ways of communicating and foster healthier relationships.
The great part is that you have enough self-awareness to realize that passive-aggression is not working for you. So you’ve taken the first big step on the path to recovery and a better you.
Still not sure how to not be passive-aggressive towards others? Speak to a therapist today who can walk you through the process. Simply connect with one of the experienced therapists on BetterHelp.com.
You may also like:
- 12 Examples Of Passive-Aggressive Behavior In A Relationship
- 5 Tricks To Spotting And Dealing With Passive-Aggressive Behavior
- How To Stop Being Emotionally Abusive To Your Partner
- How To Stop Being Defensive: A Simple 6-Step Process
- 9 Reasons You’re Being Mean To Your Boyfriend (+ How To Stop)