Heard the term passive aggressive thrown around, or even used it yourself? But honestly not quite sure what it really is about? And what does or doesn’t count as passive aggressive behaviour?

The meaning of passive aggressive

It can help to begin with the opposite of passive aggressive, which is active aggression. This looks like directly showing our anger, clearly stating what is upsetting us, or taking people to task for things we are unhappy about.

Passive means inactive, and in this case indirect. When we are being passive aggressive we are either purposely or unconsciously showing our anger and upset in more subtle, underhanded ways.

Passive aggressive examples

So what might examples of passive aggressive behaviour look like? Common forms of passive aggressive behaviour include:

  • saying you are fine and not bothered but then sulking
  • being sarcastic instead of admitting you hate something
  • refusing to communicate when someone wants to talk about things
  • small subtle acts of punishment like being impolite, breaking things and pretending it’s an accident, 'forgetting' things, leaving someone out of plans, embarrassing them
  • being withdrawn and cold instead of saying you are upset.

There are other forms of passive aggression that might surprise you. If you are doing the following, you are also being passive aggressive:

  • avoiding someone
  • showing up late over saying you don’t want to go
  • constantly criticising someone you are secretly annoyed with
  • saying things only behind someone’s back or through others
  • putting things off to the last minute over saying you don’t want to do it
  • doing a bad job at something on purpose
  • constantly complaining instead of having an honest conversation
  • turning the tables -- saying, "Why are you so angry and upset, relax," when it’s you who is angry.

Why does it matter if I’m passive aggressive?

It makes it very hard to have healthy supportive relationships. Other people never know where they stand with you and can struggle to trust you, or feel really uncomfortable or exhausted by you. This is because essentially, being passive aggressive is being false and dishonest.

But I’m hiding my anger to protect people

Sometimes we can be surprised to realise that we are actually quite passive aggressive.

In our minds, we are instead just being nice. Our reasoning can be that by hiding our upset and anger, other people don’t have to deal with it.

Except that they do. Other people are not stupid. They sense there is something not right and that you are being false and are actually angry.

And passive aggression can be worse than overt aggression as the person is left to guess what you are angry about. This can lead to more guilt and upset than if you were just open with your feelings and gave them a chance to sort out the problem.

So this kind of 'being nice' is actually, in the end, selfish. We are avoiding confrontation and the person we are really protecting is ourselves.

But anger is bad

Convinced that showing your upset and anger makes you a bad person? It’s probably something you learned as a child.

It’s common to end up a passive aggressive adult if you grew up in a household where emotions weren’t accepted. Where you were praised for burying your feelings and acting a ‘good’ and ‘happy’ child.

Perhaps your parents were also very fake with each other, modelling that this was what was acceptable.

In other words, you learned to bury who you were, be someone else, and be dishonest.

How can I stop my passive aggressive behaviour?

So how to stop and be more assertive about how you think and feel ?

1. Be patient with yourself.

Passive aggressive behaviour can be something we’ve done for so long it might feel second nature to us.

So it's not something we are going to fix in a day. It can take a lot of patience and self-compassion to work through.

2. Learn to recognise your feelings and thoughts.

You’ll also have to learn to be more honest about your feelings, and even to recognise what you think and feel in the first place.

Passive aggression can come hand in hand with poor self-awareness and a confused idea of who we are. Again, this comes from a childhood where we were encouraged to be false in exchange for the love and support we needed.

Tools that can help you get more in touch with yourself include mindfulness, journalling, and therapy.

3. Learn how to communicate clearly.

The idea of sharing our feelings can seem terrifying at first, if historically we never have. Or we can overdo it, talking too much, or being too direct or emotional.

It can help to learn about how to communicate, even under stress. This includes things like:

  • choosing a calm moment
  • sticking to one issue at a time
  • not bringing other people into the conversation
  • avoiding blame language
  • speaking in a way that takes responsibility: "I feel this__ when you do this", over “You make me feel…”.

Can therapy help me to stop being so passive aggressive?

Yes. All types of therapy help you become self aware. And a therapist can help you recognise where you are being inauthentic in life, plus help you practice better communication.

Ready to kick passive aggressive behaviour to the curb? Find a therapist you like using our easy booking tool, and learn how to express yourself in ways that are constructive over destructive.

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