Passive Aggressiveness - We Learn It At An Early Age

Passive Aggressiveness is a way we resist directly setting boundaries. To avoid confrontation, we hope the other person will figure out what they’re doing wrong and self-correct their behaviors through our indirect actions. But we don’t get what we want by pretending to be unbothered and avoiding the straightforward expression of our needs. Being indirect is counterproductive because our needs go unmet. This only makes us more frustrated and overwhelmed in our interactions with others.

Passive aggressiveness is learned at an early age. It stems from underlying anger, sadness, or insecurity when there is a strong and domineering parent or sibling in the child’s life, when there is a power struggle over obedience, conformity, and individual identity, or if the child has to compete for attention, affection, and approval. Children learn that the most reliable way to get what they want and need is through manipulation, and as adults they do this often through the use of guilt and/or shame. 

Passive aggressiveness often arises when we feel powerless and lack a strong voice in a challenging environment. Out of the fear of being dominated once more, we may utilize a set of survival and resistance strategies to avoid being victimized again.

Characteristics of passive-aggressiveness can include patterns of:

  • complaining
  • feeling misunderstood or unappreciated
  • frequent arguing
  • bitterness and scorn toward authority
  • resentfulness toward the success of others
  • envy
  • indecision
  • low self-confidence
  • pessimism
  • negativity
  • catastrophizing
  • stubbornness
  • procrastination, lateness
  • feigned forgetfulness
  • sarcasm
  • silent treatment, acting sullen, grumpy
  • withholding important information
  • spreading rumors, gossiping
  • saying ‘yes’ while meaning ‘no’ (temporary compliance)
  • being aggressive, then quickly apologizing or backing off

These characteristics can emerge in a number of behaviors. One example might be, instead of telling our partner that we’d like to feel more connected to them, we might say something like "Oh, so you want to hang out with your friends but not me.”

It's important to remember that people who communicate passive-aggressively aren't intentionally trying to hurt us. They are simply operating out of a place of fear, with a lack of communication skills learned in childhood.

More examples of passive-aggressiveness:

  • Appearing upset but refusing to admit it (I’m fine)
  • Making verbal attacks not related to the current situation
  • Being moody with no reason 
  • Bringing up issues from the past
  • Gossiping about things you could fix but have no intention of addressing

Passive aggressiveness is a common way people communicate when trying to avoid confrontation and can cause significant personal and/or professional damage to relationships. People who exhibit passive-aggressive behavior can experience significant inner shame and self-loathing. The alternative to passive aggressive behavior comes through self-awareness, slowing down to observe ourselves in order to gain clarity for self-reflection. Improvement comes by recognizing when we default to it and becoming curious rather than defensive in the moment. 

Assertive communication is the opposite of passive-aggressive communication. It can boost self-esteem and establish mutual respect. Start by pausing, checking in with your body to consider your feelings about something before responding. Then, try expressing your general feelings about a situation. Saying something like, "I'm not sure that I totally agree with that." can be a small adjustment that can help you feel safe enough to communicate directly.

Changing the way we interact with others takes commitment, and "re-parenting" ourselves to break out of our old patterns and conditioning.  Be kind to yourself, this pattern can be healed and will be worth the energy and effort when you can make a new choice in the present moment.

“Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves even when we risk disappointing others” - Brenè Brown