How to Stop Being Passive Aggressive

At some point or another, we have exhibited this type of behavior, or have been on the receiving end of a passive-aggressive person.

Learn ways to express anger in a healthy way and to stop being passive-aggressive, with these experts’ insights.

Ritu Reimer, MA, LPC

Ritu Reimer

Licensed Professional Counselor, RNR Life Solutions, LLC

In order to stop engaging people in a problematic interpersonal interaction style, an individual has to identify that there is a problem.

Once there is an intrinsic motivator, we can then embark on the process of sustainable change. For example, a partner saying you can be passive-aggressive may bring you to counseling but this is extrinsic motivation and only goes so far in the process of change.

Most often, people want to avoid conflict, attempting to not ‘rock the boat’. There are a lot of different reasons people behave passive-aggressively, generally driven by their beliefs.

The goal of changing is to challenge and shift these beliefs. Some problematic thought processes are categorized into the following themes:

  • Mind reading. Presuming the response. You have taken a walk in the other person’s head and are confident in how saying something will be received. Often we presume it will be unfavorable, such as anger, disregarding, blame flipping, etc
  • Minimization. Presuming your issues or concerns are “not important” or “silly” that drives passive behaviors. Often this is referred to as “stuffing”. It keeps the water calm.
  • Catastrophization. After stuffing and re-stuffing (minimizing) then mind-reading how someone will negatively respond to your issues, something triggers the same frustration again.But now it’s gone on for a while with no change that it’s grown so big for you that it’s enraging. It’s almost like, “They keep doing this even though it hurts my feelings…they just don’t care!” This is known as the aggressive reaction or “exploding”.

The main issue in any of these common, problematic thought patterns is that communication is lost. People are operating on a presumption without knowing how the other person will react. It is a presumption that drives one to stuff their feelings that perpetuates problematic interactions.

Once you understand what being passive-aggressive does for you than you realize what it does not do for you – it limits your relationships from growing.

Slow yourself down when you’re interacting with people

Challenges the beliefs that motivate these interaction styles using self-talk. Ask yourself if your presumption is accurate. Ask yourself what’s the worst thing that could happen if I bring this up. You may want to ask yourself why am I really not saying something.

Practice giving people a heads up whenever something bothers you

Then you want to implement the thought process that it’s a positive practice to give people a heads up the first time something bothers you. They have no way of being in your head and knowing it bothers you. Every time you stuff it and don’t bring it up, it grows. Do you want to address your issues before they are the highest level of frustration?

Operate with the premise that nobody knows unless you say something

It is your responsibility to communicate with people how to treat you. It is your responsibility to communicate with people what you need from them. We can’t control other people but we can control ourselves.

Now, this is not to say that every time you are assertive that people are going to respond favorably. There will always be those people who really don’t like to rock the boat.

Don’t let that discourage you. You are being true to yourself and others by communicating in an authentic manner.

Use the “sandwich method”

Sometimes people catastrophize how they sound when they are being confrontational. These individuals often don’t believe they have the skills to be “confrontational”.

My best recommendation is called the sandwich method. Sandwich the hard to say part between two positives, people tend to respond positively that style of assertiveness.

If you feel some anxiety around doing so start with someone that you feel safest with. See how that goes. As you have some successes, try it with another person and then another.

It should decrease recurrence and hopefully over time become a changed behavior. A positive interaction style, assertiveness.

Krisztina Petho-Robertson, M.Ed., LPC

Krisztina Petho-Robertson

Licensed Professional Counselor, Grief Recovery Center

Do you, at times, feel like you have been avoiding clear communication with individuals you are in frequent contact with?

Do you feel like you have been trying to hide your anger while blaming others and making excuses in a joking manner?

Do you feel, at times, like you are bitter, sarcastic, or cynical with others while trying to communicate your frustration with them?

There are many individuals who grew up in an environment where they did not have the opportunity to learn how to freely express their feelings or their opinion.

Quite often, people feel expected to remain quiet even when something is bothering them or when they are experiencing a certain level of dissatisfaction.

At times, people find themselves in a situation where they are unable to communicate their negative feelings in a healthy manner. Instead, they remain in the space between anger and silence, although they would like to express their frustration to others.

In these situations, while trying to avoid direct confrontation, some individuals indirectly express their upset by judging or blaming others, or by becoming cynical and sarcastic in their communication.

This type of indirect resistance to the demands of others is harmful to both parties. It is hurting both to the person who is expressing it, and to those they are trying to communicate with.

This type of behavior creates tension and it might lead either to silence or to explosion between the individuals involved. At the same time, it diminishes the true message we are trying to communicate to the other person.

Overall, a passive-aggressive way of behavior happens when we do not find a way to express our frustration and anger.

In addition, it occurs when we are not being completely clear about how to let others know about our dissatisfaction in a given situation.

In these types of situations, individuals we are trying to communicate with will be able to tell that we are unhappy, yet they might not be able to pick up on our anger and frustration. However, we cannot expect others to know what is bothering us without letting them know.

There are many healthy ways we can implement in our daily lives in order to communicate our dissatisfaction/frustration with others:

  • Learning to identify and recognize our feelings that come up throughout the day – accepting that, at times, we have negative feelings.
  • Becoming assertive in order to communicate in a healthy manner – initiating a conversation and sharing how we truly feel – letting others know what is bothering us without being sarcastic, bitter, or cynical.
  • Practicing “I” statements such as: “It really bothers me when the door gets slammed”, “I feel overwhelmed when I need to complete all the chores around the house.”, “I am frustrated when there are clothes all over the bedroom floor.”
  • Asking ourselves why we have become upset – we will feel relieved once we are able to release the hidden aggression that we may not even be aware of.
  • Writing down how we feel on a daily basis (e.g., journaling or creating a chart that reflects our feelings).
  • Trying to become honest with ourselves and understanding that it takes time to express ourselves freely in different types of situations.

Heather Z. Lyons, Ph.D.

Heather Lyons

Licensed Psychologist | Couples Counselor | Owner, Baltimore Therapy Group

Figure out why this is a “go-to” form of communication for you

For many people, passive aggression stems from fear. Specifically, people who communicate passive-aggressively tend to fear one of two things.

First, people worry that if they share their wishes directly, particularly when those wishes might run counter to what someone else wants, they’ll be met with some form of punishment. That punishment might be the loss of a relationship or facing someone else’s disappointment.

Second, for other people, passive aggression represents fear of or discomfort with their own anger. People who fear their own anger repress it and instead communicate anger only indirectly. When people communicate anger indirectly it tends to “leak” out, outside of their awareness.

Once people identify the reason why they tend to take a backchannel route in communication, this frees them up to begin to logically challenge those fears.

Will they really lose a relationship if they challenge a friend? Isn’t it OK to feel angry sometimes?

One way to challenge fears is to face them head-on with practice. When people don’t have practice communicating directly it can feel uncomfortable and even abrupt at first. However, it’s important for people to remember that tone conveys so much.

Therefore, even if it’s difficult to deliver a direct message it helps to do it over the phone or in-person so that the person you’re speaking to can hear kindness, curiosity, and openness in your communication.

Jennie Steinberg, LMFT, LPCC

Jennie Steinberg

Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist | Owner, Through the Woods Therapy Center

Educate yourself on communication styles

In order to understand why people communicate passive-aggressively, it’s important to understand how communication styles interact. There are three main ways that people communicate: Passive (Your needs matter; mine don’t), Aggressive (My needs matter; yours don’t), and Assertive (My needs and your needs are both important).

Assertiveness is the gold standard of healthy communication. So where does passive aggression come in?

Acknowledge that it is aggressive communication in disguise

When someone is passive-aggressive, they’re prioritizing their own needs – but in a subtle way so that they can have plausible deniability.

Someone who is often passive-aggressive may describe themself as a passive communicator because we think of aggression as being a big, loud response. But a lot of people who lack the constitution to be big and loud become passive-aggressive instead.

Recognize that it comes from a place of fear

It takes a lot of vulnerability to ask for your needs to be met. When you’re upset because you feel like you’ve been disregarded or disrespected, it can be easier to accidentally-on-purpose bump into someone, or leave your socks on the floor, or work late.

Start with generous assumptions

Ask yourself, what is the kindest, most generous assumption I can make about why this person did what they did? Then, respond as though that were true. This allows you to be direct, rather than passive-aggressive, without leading with an accusation.

Melissa Wesner

Melissa Wesner

Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor | Owner, LifeSpring Counseling Services

In order to not be passive-aggressive, people will ultimately need to work on communicating directly which is easier said than done.

It’s not uncommon for people to engage in the type of communication patterns that they themselves were exposed to growing up. Communication is learned behavior.

Reflect on the communication patterns in your own home

Were you brought up in a home where issues were swept under the carpet, never to be spoken about? Were you brought up in a home where only certain emotions could be expressed or acknowledged?

Or were you brought up in a home with yelling and door slamming, and now you’ve swung to the opposite end of the spectrum, not wanting to be like your family?

Check-in with your emotions

If we’re committing to improving our communication, we can also start to get better at checking in with our emotions.

I often recommend that individuals use a mental “emotion meter” reserving a 10 for those instances when they completely lose control and behave in regrettable ways.

If someone is able to recognize that they were calm as a cucumber, let’s say a 1-3 on the emotion meter, and they began rising to a 5 or 6 after talking with someone, they can pause and be aware that their emotions are escalating.

When we recognize that we are mildly upset or irritated, that is the ideal time to communicate our concerns to the other party. If we wait until there’s smoke coming out of our ears, we will have an incredibly difficult time communicating respectfully, and the message we want to communicate will be lost.

If we wait too long, our dismay will also show up in our behavior (ignoring, avoiding, doing things to poke at the other party, etc.)

Many people who communicate passively do so because they don’t want to make waves, don’t want to ruffle feathers, don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, etc. They hold things out of respect for the other person.

In doing so, however, their feelings get bottled up, they escalate, and the person eventually engages in actions (or words) that end up negatively impacting the relationship. And that is the situation they were initially trying to avoid.

Also, in trying to respect other people’s feelings by avoiding difficult topics, we are disrespecting ourselves. While thinking about others’ feelings, we are struggling with the feelings that are gurgling on the inside.

Communicating assertively means that we respect ourselves and we respect the other person (by communicating respectfully). In this case, it’s a win-win situation. Now, for the people who are afraid of hurting the other person’s feelings, sometimes hurting feelings is inevitable.

For example, I can break up with my partner in a way that is direct, honest, and caring. Nonetheless, that person’s feelings are still going to be hurt. That doesn’t mean that we don’t follow through with saying what we need to say.

Take a break when you realize that the conversation is getting heated

Individuals can pay attention to behavioral, physiological, cognitive, and emotional indicators that the situation is escalating. Once someone realizes this, they can initiate a 20 minute minimum time out.

According to John Gottman’s Research with the Gottman Institute, it takes a minimum of 20 minutes (engaging in a self-soothing activity, in essence, not dwelling on the issue) for our body’s physiology to calm back down. Once we are calmed down, we can resume the conversation that it goes well.

The Gottmans also recommend a soft start-up technique. Individuals who initiate conversations harshly have over a 90% chance that the rest of the conversation will go down the drains.

The Gottman soft start-up technique that they can use is: “I feel___________ about____________. I really need__________.”

For example, I feel really stressed about working from home while taking care of the children. I really need some more help with the kids.

Carrie Krawiec

Carrie Krawiec

Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Birmingham Maple Clinic

Passive-aggressive implies communication that speaks to two levels at the same time. On the surface, there is compliance and subservience and underneath, there is sabotage.

A person who behaves passive-aggressively may seem to your face like there is agreement but then behind your back is seeming to sabotage.

Do a cost-benefit analysis to weigh the pros and cons

Do they want the other person to feel “right” or do they want to get their way? Do they want to feel heard or do they want to be liked? As a person weighs the options, they may decide which side of the coin is more important to them. They may explore and uncover where do these fears come from and challenge them.

Practice small approximations or assertive behavior or communication

Try directness even if unpleasant with trusted loved ones or friends or with strangers that have no real sway in your life. As it goes well, make more attempts. Partner something challenging to say with something more positive. Also, try “I” statements or couching something like a preference, not a strong position.

Mattison Grey, M.Ed., MMC (IAC)

Mattison Grey

Leadership and Performance Specialist | Certified Professional Business Coach

A common way people are accidentally passive-aggressive is by complaining instead of requesting. People often complain about what they aren’t getting to try to get what they do want.

When people communicate this way, it can occur to others as passive-aggressive. This approach really doesn’t work well at all.

Make a request that makes it clear what you want

Here is an example:

A wife might say to her husband. “My friend Jane’s husband takes her on 4 vacations a year. Just last month, they went to Fiji! Why can’t we be more like them?”

This communication causes the husband to feel defensive and puts his focus on the wrong thing. Also, he doesn’t have enough information to figure out what his wife really wants. This is a complaint, with no request.

To turn this communication into an inspiring request, and stop being passive-aggressive, the wife could say: “Hey honey, I’d like to talk with you about planning a vacation to the beach. I know you enjoy surfing and I love sunbathing. What do you think?”

Now, the husband can respond to this request without becoming defensive, and it is clear what his wife wants. It’s a win-win!

Next time you are frustrated and not getting what you want, don’t be passive-aggressive by complaining, make a clear request that inspires the other person to help you get what you want.

Claire Barber

claire barber

Certified Mental Health Consultant | Relationship Expert, Treeological

Unlearn it

Passive aggressiveness, as with any other type of coping mechanism, generally has to do with behaviors we learned either from our parents as kids, or from experiences in which we tried to express ourselves and wound up getting burned in the process.

So in order to stop being passive-aggressive, you might want to first reflect on why this is your M.O. Getting to the root of the issue can help you knock down your defenses and start behaving differently.

Say how you feel

Essentially, passive-aggressiveness occurs when you are upset but don’t openly express your thoughts. So, the best way to end this behavior is to practice saying how you feel.

The ideal way to do this is to figure out how to express yourself in a calm, clear way. Working on your communication skills is a great step in changing the dynamic and stopping to be both passive and aggressive.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the common signs of passive-aggressive behavior?

Passive-aggressive behavior can be subtle and challenging to recognize. Here are some common signs:

Sarcasm: Using sarcasm as a way to express feelings of annoyance or anger without directly addressing the issue.

Silent treatment: Deliberately ignoring someone or giving them the “cold shoulder” as a way to express dissatisfaction or punish them.

Procrastination: Intentionally delaying or postponing tasks, especially when someone else is relying on you to complete them.

Backhanded compliments: Giving a compliment with a hidden insult or criticism making the other person feel bad or unsure about themselves.

Sabotage: Deliberately undermining someone’s efforts or creating obstacles to prevent them from succeeding.

Avoidance: Evading conflict or difficult conversations by not addressing issues directly.

What causes a person to be passive-aggressive?

There are several factors that can contribute to someone developing a passive-aggressive communication style:

Upbringing: Growing up in an environment where expressing emotions openly was discouraged or punished may lead to adopting passive-aggressive behavior as a coping mechanism.

Fear of confrontation: Some people are uncomfortable with direct confrontation or conflict, so they choose passive-aggressive tactics to express their feelings indirectly.

Feeling powerless: When someone feels powerless in a situation, they may resort to passive-aggressive behavior as a way to regain a sense of control.

Lack of emotional awareness: Difficulty identifying or expressing emotions can lead to passive-aggressive behavior, as the person may not know how to address their feelings directly.

How can I recognize when I am being passive-aggressive?

It’s important to be self-aware and recognize when you’re engaging in passive-aggressive behavior. Here are some steps to help you with this process:

Reflect on your emotions: Take a moment to identify what you’re feeling and why you’re feeling that way. Acknowledging your emotions is the first step to addressing them directly.

Evaluate your communication: Are you expressing your feelings or needs in an indirect or ambiguous manner? If so, consider how you can communicate more openly and honestly.

Notice patterns: Pay attention to any recurring patterns in your behavior or relationships. Are there specific situations or people that trigger your passive-aggressive tendencies? Recognizing these patterns can help you address them more effectively.

Seek feedback: Ask for feedback from people you trust about your communication style. They may be able to offer insights into your behavior that you may not have noticed.

Can you be unintentionally passive-aggressive?

Yes. Unintentional passive-aggressiveness can happen to anyone. It often occurs when people feel uncomfortable expressing their emotions or asserting themselves directly. They might not realize that their behavior comes across as passive-aggressive, but their actions or words might still convey hidden annoyance, frustration, or resentment. 

Is being passive-aggressive a trauma response?

Passive aggressiveness can indeed be a trauma response for some individuals. People who have experienced trauma may develop coping mechanisms to protect themselves emotionally, and one such mechanism could be passive-aggressive behavior. 

However, it’s crucial to remember that not all passive-aggressive behaviors stem from trauma. If you suspect your passive-aggressiveness might be connected to past experiences, consider seeking professional help from a therapist or counselor to explore and address the root cause.

Is being passive-aggressive manipulative?

Yes, being passive-aggressive can be perceived as manipulative because it involves indirect communication of one’s feelings or needs. This behavior may include subtle actions or comments meant to express dissatisfaction or provoke a reaction without openly discussing the issue at hand. 

When someone is passive-aggressive, it can make it challenging for others to understand their true intentions, leading to misunderstandings and conflicts. While not all passive-aggressive behaviors are intentionally manipulative, they can still create confusion and emotional strain in relationships. 

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