Petty behavior is a complex aspect of social dynamics.
It’s not so blatant as to cause open conflict like anger can.
It tends to be more passive-aggressive, creating minor grievances that slowly undermine and chip away at relationships.
It’s very much a “death by a thousand cuts” scenario.
In this article, we’re going to look at some of the reasons why you may find yourself being petty and how you can stop.
A little self-awareness can go a long way toward unraveling the factors that influence petty behavior and will help improve your relationships in turn.
5 Core Causes Of Petty Behavior
Pettiness is a layered behavior that stems from personal and social factors.
It tends to emerge as a maladaptive coping mechanism for individuals who feel threatened, vulnerable, or inadequate.
People engage in petty behavior as a way to temporarily boost their self-esteem, protect themselves, or reinforce their need to always be right.
But what causes it?
Insecurity drives many negative behaviors, and pettiness is among them.
Insecurity makes people vulnerable, so they use pettiness as a means to protect themselves from perceived threats or criticism.
They use pettiness as a tool of deflection, drawing attention away from their insecurities towards their petty behaviors.
It may also be a way to keep people at arm’s length because of a fear of rejection.
An insecure person may constantly compare themselves to others and find themselves lacking due to negative self-worth.
They feel a need for recognition but don’t feel they can compete, regardless of whether or not there is actually a competition.
They use pettiness to assert control, undermine this perceived competition, or establish a false sense of superiority.
Addressing your pettiness can help you be less condescending, and view others and yourself as equals.
2. Poor communication skills.
The foundation of a healthy relationship is trust and communication.
But people are complicated creatures with complex emotions that can often be hard to express, for one reason or another.
When people in a relationship feel they can’t communicate openly and honestly it causes them to hold on to negative thoughts and feelings.
These emotions can stew and fester over time until they start seeping out in passive-aggressive behavior like pettiness and one-upmanship.
3. Difficulties empathizing.
Someone who lacks empathy, or who has difficulty empathizing with something they have never experienced may inadvertently engage in petty behavior.
If someone finds it hard to understand and relate to the experiences of others, they may unintentionally make insensitive comments or engage in seemingly petty behaviors because they don’t recognize that their responses might be viewed negatively.
If you struggle to relate to the experiences of others, it can also make it hard to interpret their behaviors and reactions. You may perceive them as behaving negatively towards you because you cannot understand their reaction to a situation, and so you may engage in a petty response in turn.
This can make it difficult to create and maintain close relationships, particularly with people who have very different experiences to your own.
4. Unresolved issues.
Unresolved, lingering issues may inadvertently cause petty behavior because pettiness can be used as a defense mechanism.
A petty person may not even realize they are being petty. It’s a reflex action used to defend themselves when someone gets too close to their unresolved feelings.
Unresolved issues tend to linger when a person doesn’t have a healthy way to let go or forgive. This inability to move on causes persistent negative feelings which makes it more likely for people to react defensively with petty behavior.
Unfortunately, this can create a vicious cycle: the pettiness causes negative reactions from others which further fuels negative feelings and in turn results in further defensive pettiness.
A repeated habit becomes a natural impulse.
For example, if you start drinking to deal with stress, your brain begins to equate alcohol with coping which causes you to want to drink whenever you’ve had a tough day.
Repeated often enough this becomes a habit. You’re stressed out, you sit down after work, and you automatically have a glass or eight of wine to decompress.
Pettiness can become a habit, too.
Whatever reason you started being petty, if you react in this way often enough, it becomes an ingrained, automatic response.
Unmaking a habit is challenging. It requires self-reflection, a plan to change, and then putting in the effort to make it happen.
11 Tips To Help You Stop Being Petty
It is challenging but possible. Here are some steps that can help:
1. Reflect on your behavior.
Take a step back and consider the times you’ve exhibited petty behavior.
What were the circumstances that caused you to respond that way?
You’ll probably notice recurring situations and patterns where you respond with pettiness. Consider the situation and the people involved in the situation.
How did you feel about the situation? How did you feel about the people involved in the situation? Can you identify the emotion that triggered your petty action or behavior?
2. Identify the root cause.
There is always an underlying reason for pettiness, as we’ve already explored.
Identifying the root cause allows you to address the issue.
Identify the root cause, and work towards correcting that, and it’ll be much easier to avoid petty behavior going forward.
3. Practice empathy.
Develop and practice empathy by trying to understand the situation from the other person’s perspectives, feelings, and experiences.
Don’t assume that because you haven’t experienced the same difficulty with something, the other person’s struggles aren’t real and valid.
By practicing empathy, you can respond with greater understanding and compassion.
Pettiness is an unhealthy reaction to another person’s actions or words, whether they were intended to be harmful or not.
Practicing empathy will also help you see beyond the person’s actions or words to help decide whether they are genuinely and intentionally hurtful or whether you’re just feeling negative about them and are reacting as such.
4. Improve your communication skills.
Expressing your thoughts and feelings directly avoids passive-aggressive, petty behavior.
Open, honest, respectful communication fosters healthier relationships because you don’t have negative undertones affecting the relationship.
And because communication is a two-way street, active listening and responding directly can be powerful tools for unraveling petty behavior.
5. Learn to choose your battles.
Learn to differentiate between minor annoyances and significant issues.
Not every situation requires a response and getting angry over little things only harms relationships.
Sometimes you just have to shrug your shoulders and let trivial irritations go.
But if there is a significant issue, address it promptly and directly to avoid petty, passive-aggressive behavior.
6. Set healthy boundaries.
Establish clear boundaries for yourself and others. And don’t cross them.
Clear, well-communicated boundaries tell everyone how to respect and be comfortable with each other, which reduces the likelihood of conflict and petty behavior.
Crossing a boundary can make people feel vulnerable and uncomfortable, which may result in them using pettiness as a defense mechanism or to hide their feelings of insecurity.
7. Improve your emotional intelligence.
Emotional intelligence goes beyond just understanding others’ emotions and relating to them.
It’s about understanding yourself, your emotions, and your reactions to other people’s emotions.
Developing your emotional intelligence will help you recognize when you’re feeling triggered so you can take a minute to cool off before you respond.
Awareness and active management of your emotions can prevent you from falling into old, negative responses and habits.
Developing mindfulness through observing yourself, your thoughts, and your reactions is a major step in improving your emotional intelligence.
8. Seek resolution for grudges.
Actively seek resolution for the grudges and issues you have with people.
Address conflicts promptly and directly, apologizing when necessary, and working towards mutually beneficial solutions.
Sometimes you’ll be wrong, sometimes they’ll be wrong, and sometimes you’ll need to meet in the middle in order to move on.
More often than not, both parties share some responsibility for the issue.
Person A causes a problem (real or perceived) and person B responds with judgment and negativity. Person A then becomes defensive and attacks back and so the ongoing negative responses turn into a spiraling battle of petty tit-for-tat.
Learning to identify and break this cycle is key to letting go of petty behavior.
9. Celebrate the success of others.
Feelings of jealousy and rivalry can trigger petty behavior and one-upmanship.
By learning to celebrate the success of others without comparing them to your own, you can replace those negative, triggering feelings with positive feelings.
Positive feelings don’t trigger pettiness or passive-aggressiveness.
10. Focus on self-improvement.
Self-improvement is about making yourself “better” so you can feel better about yourself.
By focusing on your self-improvement and growth, you can grow more comfortable in your skin, feel more confident, and compare yourself to others less.
As they say, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” The more you compare yourself to others, the worse you’ll feel because there is always someone who’s going to be better than you at something.
Life isn’t a competition after all. It’s just life.
11. Seek professional help.
The truth is, that changing petty thoughts and behaviors is a challenging journey, especially if there are complex underlying causes.
If you’ve read this article and implemented the suggestions, but still find yourself struggling with pettiness, there is no shame in reaching out to a trained professional for help.
Therapists and counselors can help you confront and overcome problems like these.
You may also find that the support a therapist provides can help you to work through the root causes of this behavior, which is likely to have a positive effect on many aspects of your life.