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15+ Signs of Passive-Aggressive Behavior to Watch Out For

Amber Murphy

Passive-aggressive is a sequence of expressing your negative emotions indirectly instead of transparently addressing them. Spotting aggressive individuals can be easy compared to passive-aggressive people because they don’t want to be criticized, insulted, or belittled. In addition, aggressive people won’t hide their negative feelings or emotions. If you’re surrounding yourself with spouses, siblings, parents, or coworkers who make you feel uncomfortable, anxious, or sad, then you may be around passive-aggressive people. In this article, we’ll examine the causes of passive-aggressive behavior and the signs to watch out for to keep yourself safe.

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Causes of Passive-Aggressive Behavior

Many of the causes of passive-aggressive behavior are rooted in mental illness. That doesn’t mean that the people are bad; they might not have the tools available to learn how to improve their passive-aggressive actions. There are numerous causes of passive-aggressive behavior, such as:

  • Depression
  • Attention-deficit disorder
  • Hyperactivity disorder
  • Drug addictions, such as cocaine
  • Alcohol abuse
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Stress and anxiety disorder
  • Conduct disorder, upbringing
causes of passive-aggressive behavior

Other causes include situational characteristics and schizotypal personality disorder. Indirect attacks are more irritating when compared to direct ones. Therefore, passive-aggressive behavior is harmful because it makes people feel resentful and manipulated. In the next section, we’ll discuss some of the signs of passive-aggressive behavior to watch out for.

Signs of Passive-Aggressive Behavior

1. Sullen Behavior

Spending time with passive-aggressive people is uncomfortable because they are often sour, depressive, sulky, gloomy, grumpy, and moody. In addition, if you’re afraid of expressing your anger because you don’t want to belittle people, you’re struggling with passive-aggressive behavior. Most passive-aggressive people won’t console or comfort you, even if you’re going through a difficult situation.

If you rarely smile and stay serious when other people enjoy and laugh at certain events, conditions, or phrases, you’re exhibiting passive-aggressive behavior. To change this behavior, you can let your guard down a little bit and enjoy the company of others. Give yourself permission to have fun with other people even when you feel a bit uncomfortable in their presence.

2. Inability to Keep Promises

Sometimes you may say yes out of guilt but act passive-aggressively. For instance, if someone wants you to accompany him or her on vacation and you say yes and fail to end up going. Most passive-aggressive people will convince themselves that the situation isn’t worth it for them. In addition, some passive-aggressive people will avail themselves late to please you. Aggressive individuals will clarify the situation openly because they care about their self-worth.

Don’t overcommit to things that you genuinely don’t want to do to stop this passive-aggressive behavior. Remember that showing up is an essential part of friendship and relationships, in general. So if you say you’ll be there for someone, be there for them even if you don’t feel like it. Or, at minimum, avoid making the plan at all.

passive-aggressive people break promises

3. Practicing the Silent Treatment

If you fight or demean someone, you’ll be guilty of the silent treatment. The silent treatment is also known as stonewalling. Based on science, a passive-aggressive person sees silent treatment as a powerful weapon. Silent treatment denies your relationship needs and basic human socially acceptable behavior.

Some studies show that silent treatment impacts child development, alienates friends, and ends romantic relationships. When a passive-aggressive person experiences silent treatment from friends, family, or colleagues, the effect is devastating. For instance, the silent treatment can lead to ignoring your wants or presence among other individuals.

One way to end the passive-aggressive behavior of stonewalling, particularly if you live with the person, is to do the following. First, you put on the person’s favorite movie. Then, make some popcorn or a light snack that you place near enough to reach but not directly in your lap. When the person enters the room, they’ll shortly afterward join you to watch the movie. Make a comment on the film. And focus the conversation on the movie only. After the movie is over, you can re-start the discussion that led to the silent treatment. Passive-aggressive people typically need some time to cool off when they’re upset.

4. Passive-aggressive People Are Defiant

As previously stated, passive-aggressive individuals are resentful because they won’t admit their failures or mistakes. In the long run, a passive-aggressive person will secretly belittle and undermine you. According to research, most individuals with passive-aggressive behaviors are too prone to various acts of insubordination, such as sloppy execution, meanness, back-handed compliments, and criticism.

Often, passive-aggressive people want to feel valued and appreciated. However, people rarely express appreciation in general. And as a result, what happens is a sense of bitterness towards people. For instance, if a passive-aggressive person is constantly helping someone, but the person speaks poorly of them, they might end up exhibiting more passive-aggressive behavior.

5. You’re a People Pleaser

According to research, not all people-pleasers are passive-aggressive, but most people pleasers are passive aggressors. If you’re trying hard to please toxic people, then you’re dealing with passive-aggressive behavior. A passive-aggressive person will try to avoid a situation without annoying or hurting someone. Facing the fear of losing friends or colleagues because they feel offended will maintain your low self-esteem.

It’s crucial to start setting boundaries for yourself. The goal isn’t to make everyone happy. You can still be kind towards people while respecting yourself. It’s okay to tell people the truth, such as “I need some space to recharge my batteries tonight.”

people pleaser

6. You’re Withholding or Manipulating Information

A passive-aggressive individual will toy with a person they’re in a relationship with, being manipulative or withholding essential information. Once you achieve your objectives, you’ll offer the withheld information to make the other person feel guilty. In addition, a passive aggressor will try to manipulate you to hide some critical information. This covert form of manipulation will create deep-rooted animosity. In most relationships, passive-aggressive behavior causes problems because a passive aggressor undermines the other partner, thus diminishing trust.

Honesty is an integral part of any relationship. Keeping secrets or manipulating the truth adds more drama to your life. The reality is you want to experience more inner peace. Sometimes, you need to cut yourself off from people who don’t make you happy instead of creating stories to keep the peace.

7. Passive-aggressive People Make Excuses

A passive aggressor will make numerous excuses to avoid you. Based on research, making excuses is a covert way of inviting challenges. Therefore, a passive-aggressive person will use excuses, such as a grieving process or a sick family member, to cover for inadequate application at work. A passive aggressor seeks ways to convince the other person that they have a tight schedule to avoid their company. Note that a passive aggressor won’t socialize with other toxic people.

Keep in mind that most people make excuses today because they’re overworked, busy with family life, or lack energy as they need to recharge. It’s important not to assume that every person who makes excuses is a passive-aggressive individual. Try to make hanging out with you sound enjoyable to others, so they get excited about it.

8. You’re Using Technology to Minimize or Avoid Communication

The key objective of a passive-aggressive person is to avoid confrontation. Face-to-face communication gives the other person an advantage because a passive aggressor won’t address the situation. Improved technology has increased ways of communicating without face-to-face contact.

A passive aggressor will opt for social media and smartphones to maintain a considerable distance. A passive-aggressive person will use abusive language due to a lack of ownership and quasi-anonymity. In addition, a passive aggressor will ignore your messages, especially if you’re talking about negative things.

9. Withholding Intimacy as Punishment

In romantic relationships, a passive aggressor will withhold intimacy to punish the other partner. Withholding intimacy gives a passive aggressor power to control the situation. Based on research, withholding intimacy as punishment is a form of emotional blackmail.

For instance, a passive-aggressive person will make the other partner a hostage until there is transparency. Therefore, the other partner will admit their problems and comply with the other partner’s demands. Withholding intimacy or love is a great manipulative tool that can cause numerous relationship problems, particularly in the long run. In addition, a passive-aggressive individual will accept the situation if there’s change.

If you’re unhappy in a romantic relationship, rather than withholding intimacy, consider leaving the relationship. Overpowering another person isn’t love.

10. You Downplay Requests and Personal Statements

Based on studies, most passive-aggressive people are ashamed, afraid, and unwilling to express their emotions or feelings. Therefore, if passive-aggressive people get enough courage to confront you, they’ll use an approach that makes the situation less significant. At a point, the habit of downplaying requests and personal statements is a way of pleasing other people or reducing the impact of the situation.

By being upfront about how you feel, you can get the support you need. For instance, explaining to someone how something triggers you can get him or her to stop doing that specific behavior. However, if they don’t know that their behavior is bothering you, they’ll keep hurting you without realizing it.

11. Loneliness as passive-aggressive behavior

A passive-aggressive person doesn’t like to receive feedback, particularly criticism. Although let’s be real, no one does. A passive-aggressive person will avoid face-to-face confrontation. They can’t show their feelings; therefore, being lonely will improve peace of mind. Most passive aggressors will isolate themselves to clear harsh feedback. In addition, if you prefer working unsupervised because you’re anxious, there are high chances that you’re a passive-aggressive person. Being lonely is associated with numerous mental health problems, such as depression, addiction, inadequate sleep, anxiety, and emotional distress. Keep in mind that this behavior tends to happen when you work in a toxic culture.

12. Being Fluent in Sarcasm

Passive-aggressive people will use humor to mask their emotions and feelings. Being fluent in sarcasm is a way that passive aggressors use to deflect criticism. According to research, a passive-aggressive person will play the victim of a misunderstanding. Using sarcasm to diffuse your hostility and humbling yourself when the other person takes the situation seriously, you’re dealing with passive-aggressive behavior. Sarcasm can destroy healthy relationships within a short span, as it is a toxic behavior.

13. You Don’t Get Satisfied, Even After Coming to a Resolution

People exhibiting passive-aggressive behavior won’t express their feelings; therefore, there are high chances that the resolution doesn’t satisfy you. Passive-aggressive individuals will pretend to be satisfied, even if they aren’t. For instance, if a couple resolves an underlying problem in the relationship, a passive aggressor will be unwilling to admit it and stay unhappy. It’s essential to seek help early because passive-aggressive behavior will lead to mental agony and stress. You can only calm the mind if both parties have resolved an issue together.

14. You Ask Leading Questions

A passive-aggressive person will ask leading questions to help you understand their feelings indirectly. Passive aggressors won’t address their feelings on a direct approach; therefore, it’s your duty to read their minds. Mind-reading is considered a pattern of problematic thinking since no one can do it.

Asking leading questions is a common approach that lawyers use to incriminate other people. Being unable to request what you want from someone directly is a subtle sign of passive-aggressive behavior. Sometimes, a passive-aggressive person will opt for this strategy to lower the chances of offending others.

15. Avoiding Clear and Direct Communication

Communication between two or more people is essential because it helps them understand each other. A passive-aggressive person avoids clear and direct communication to minimize the risk of disagreements, conflicts, and arguments. Avoiding clear communication is what makes a passive aggressor prefer isolation rather than socialization.

In addition, a passive-aggressive individual will remain silent, even if an answer or response is required. A passive aggressor will procrastinate communication until the other person reads their mind. It’s, therefore, essential to find a therapist to help prevent ruining healthy relationships, particularly during the long term. You can also try this loving-kindness meditation, which can help you better showcase your love for others when communication is hard.

16. Self-victimization as passive-aggressive behavior

Most passive-aggressive people like to play the victim in many situations. Passive-aggressive behavior makes you feel frustrated and angry at the people in your orbit. A passive aggressor will play the victim, especially if the other person can’t read your mind. Blaming yourself will lower your self-esteem, thus minimizing your productivity. Passive-aggressive behavior makes you feel hurt because people don’t understand you at all.


There are several ways to deal with passive-aggressive behavior, such as believe in yourself, determine your behavior, improve your communication skills, be assertive, accept criticism, and be open to confrontations. It’s important to notice the signs of passive-aggressive behavior to protect yourself from harm or stop yourself from damaging your own life.

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