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Passive aggression

man showing passive aggression and woman looking confused working on laptop

What is passive aggression?

Passive aggression is a subtle non-direct expression of anger, often denied as anger by the perpetrator. I find MayoClinics example where they state a distinct difference between what the person says and what they do, is very helpful.

People who use passive aggression, even though they may deny being angry, still get their angry feelings out into the open by being sarcastic, making cutting remarks or ignoring the person by giving them the silent treatment. 

As a psychologist, I have worked with many individuals who use passive aggression for various reasons.

Some people may be passive-aggressive instead of assertive or avoid confrontation when feeling threatened. They lack the skills to deal with the situation at hand.

Others may be passive-aggressive in an attempt to manipulate or exert control over others, but this stems from their own feelings of inadequacy.

What is the difference between aggression and passive aggression?

Aggression and passive aggression are two different types of behaviour; the main difference is how the person expresses them.

Aggression involves direct communication or action intended to harm or intimidate others. It includes violence, shouting and name-calling.

Passive aggression, on the other hand, is a more subtle form of behaviour involving indirect communication, such as procrastination, sulking, silent treatment, and intentionally forgetting to do something.

Example

Barry becomes aggressive with his partner Karen when he is drinking. He shouts at her and calls her names. If someone else were in the room when this was happening, they would be able to hear the loud voice of Barry and the swear words. It is overt behaviour; it is aggressive.

Barry does not like being asked to help around the house. Karen asked him to wash the inside of the windows, which he agreed to do. While cleaning the windows, he mumbled under his breath; he skipped some windows and only half-washed others. 

This type of indirect communication which he did not want to do chores, is passive-aggressive.

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What are the signs of being passive-aggressive?

Unreasonable resentment

Example. Barry has finished a continuing education diploma which his wife financially funded. He has recently secured a promotion based on the diploma, and people keep telling him how great it was his wife was able to help him and allow him to go back to college.

Barry feels resentment towards his wife but does not clearly state this. Instead, out of nowhere, he states “I owe you nothing.”

Avoidance

When Barry sees that his wife has called him asking to pick up something from the shop on the way home, not returning her call, pretending that he did not see because he was annoyed that she wanted him to do chores after work, is passive-aggressive behaviour. 

When he arrives home, he immediately goes out again as he does not wish to converse with his wife about why he did not go to the shops on the way home. This type of passive aggression is his way of avoiding confrontation, which he finds difficult to deal with.

Sarcasm

Sarcasm is a way of expressing a feeling of displeasure or disagreement mockingly or humorously. It is often used as passive aggression, where someone will say something they don’tdon’t mean to punish another person. 

Lack of Follow-Through

When his wife asks Barry to hoover the upstairs, he says, sure, no problem, but he never does it as he does not want to be bothered with household chores and resents his wife for the asking. 

The lack of follow-through is a symptom of being passive-aggressive. It is a way of dealing with anger and confrontation without having to confront the issue directly. Instead of voicing their desire not to do something, the person doesn’t do it. 

Consequences of Passive Aggression

Passive aggression can have various negative consequences for the person exhibiting the behaviour and those on the receiving end. Some of the consequences of passive aggression are:

  1. Poor Communication: Passive-aggressive behaviour can make it difficult for individuals to communicate effectively. It can lead to misunderstandings, misinterpretations, and increased tension in interpersonal relationships.
  2. Decreased Trust: When people use passive aggression, it can be challenging for others to trust them. It creates an atmosphere of uncertainty and doubt, and individuals may hesitate to rely on them.
  3. Reduced Productivity: Passive-aggressive behaviour can reduce productivity in the workplace, as individuals may resist completing tasks, miss deadlines, or undermine the work of others.
  4. Health Problems: Passive aggression can also lead to stress and anxiety, which can cause physical and mental health problems over time.
  5. Relationship Issues: Passive aggression can create significant issues in personal and professional relationships. It can lead to conflict, resentment, and deteriorating relationships over time.
  6. Lack of Self-awareness: Individuals who exhibit passive aggression may be unaware of how their behaviour affects others. This lack of self-awareness can make it difficult for them to address the problem and change their behaviour.

Causes of being passive aggressive behaviour

Unresolved anger and hostility

Unresolved anger and hostility can lead to passive-aggressive behaviour when individuals cannot express their emotions healthily. 

Difficulty expressing emotions

People who engage in passive-aggressive behaviours do not typically express their feelings directly and instead rely on other outlets to communicate their frustrations.

Fear of confrontation

The fear of confrontation is when an individual is afraid to directly and openly address a problem or conflict with another person. This fear can cause an individual to act in passive-aggressive ways instead of having a direct conversation.

Low self-esteem

Self-esteem refers to the value we place on ourselves and our abilities. People with low self-esteem may have difficulty communicating their feelings directly. They may instead resort to passive-aggressive behaviours to defend their ego. 

Psychological theories of passive aggression include;

  1. Frustration-Aggression Theory suggests that passive aggression responds to frustration or blocked goals. People who feel they cannot achieve their goals or meet their needs may resort to passive aggression to express anger and resentment.
  2. Attachment Theory: Attachment theory suggests that passive aggression can develop due to insecure attachment styles. People who feel anxious or uncertain about their relationships may use passive aggression to manage their anxiety and maintain control.
  3. Social Learning Theory: Social learning theory suggests that passive aggression can be learned through observation and modelling. Suppose people grow up in an environment where passive aggression is common. In that case, they may learn to use these behaviours to cope with stress and conflict.
  4. Cognitive Dissonance Theory: Cognitive dissonance theory suggests that passive aggression can develop when people hold conflicting beliefs or attitudes. Suppose people believe they should be assertive and direct in their communication but also feel anxious or uncertain about doing so. In that case, they may resort to passive aggression to reconcile these conflicting beliefs.

Recap

Someone who is using passive aggression may not intentionally wish to hurt. This may not be able to express their feelings or needs more suitably. However, if they recognise that they are using passive aggression and wish to make changes, there are things they can do to address this.

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