How to Defend Against Passive-Aggressiveness

How to Defend Against Passive-Aggressiveness
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 15 November, 2021

Passive-aggressive behavior is characterized by dependence and manipulation. Its devious art combines negative attitudes and pervasive pessimism which are so strong that they drag others to a point of deep mental and emotional exhaustion. Likewise, these characteristics make for a defiant personality that is, unfortunately, very common. This type of behavior complicates all types of  relationships, whether they be romantic, platonic, or familial. How can we defend against passive-aggressiveness?

Something that most of us know how to recognize almost immediately is aggressive behavior. On average, all of us are observant enough to notice this type of behavior. Whether it is because of violent attitudes or communication styles, or a superiority complex and more or less explicit aggressiveness, we recognize aggressive people.

“Fear usually manifests itself in two ways: through aggression, or through submission.”

Paolo Coelho

That being said, we can’t always see passive-aggressive behavior coming. It isn’t always so easy to translate certain attitudes or reactions that fluctuate between charismatic and reactionary. What does stand out is hostility disguised by irony, sarcasm, and “good manners”. It is a personality type that is confusing and leads to mistakes. Little by little, we finally become aware of the concrete harm that this person is causing us.

On the other hand, it is worth noting that until a few years ago, passive-aggressiveness was identified as a personality disorder. However, this clinical label disappeared with the fourth edition of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). Now it is categorized as a type of behavior, a “non-pathological” personality type.

In the 90s, this supposed disorder was overdiagnosed. The controversy was such that experts reached the consensus that it didn’t make sense to pathologize resistance, pessimism, or concealed aggression. It would only be correct in the case of a person who permanently has this dominant, pessimistic, and invalidating attitude.

Characteristics of Passive-Aggressive Behavior

We can all be passive-aggressive at one time or another. Without even realizing it, there are certain triggers that can generate suppressed hostility and irritable and bad-humored reactions. So, it is important to always understand what is behind certain types of passive-aggressive behavior. 

Let’s take a detailed look at some of the most common characteristics.

Passive-aggressive language

Passive aggressive behavior always masks hidden anger. It is not very well-hidden, and it shows itself especially through language. Insinuations are common, those that hurt and catch the listener by surprise. The use of confusing and even contradictory messages is also very common, as are the following phrases:

  • I don’t understand what you are trying to tell me” (even if they know exactly what we are trying to communicate).
  • Whatever you want” (affirmations that end the discussion as soon as possible in order to avoid sincere and direct emotional communication).
  • “Why do you act like this? You take everything so seriously” (the passive-aggressive person uses these kinds of phrases to humiliate the listener and push him to his limit).

Behavioral hostility and procrastination

Passive-aggressive people might appear kind and open-minded, but that image crumbles as soon as we get to know them better. Then we see their true, passive-aggressive side.

  • They tend to be shy and very critical of everything around them.
  • They can be irreverent, which makes them proud because they see themselves as anti-establishment and rebellious…
  • They are addicted to blaming others for everything.
  • Resentment and grouchiness are two deep roots in the heart of the passive-aggressive person.
  • They don’t like authority or suggestions from other people.

On the other hand, going along with this hostility, they also put off almost everything for tomorrow. They don’t do what they promise, they start things and leave them half-done. They are forgetful and they don’t take care of what they have, whether that be objects or personal relationships.

defend against passive aggressiveness

Emotional dependency

It is interesting how their behavioral hostility and defiant and hostile attitude actually leads to an intense emotional dependence on others.

Their “I look down on you but I need you” is without a doubt their most characteristic motto. It is a trait that hides a weak person whose insecurities makes him feel small. This is a person who needs everything from others but at the same time, lives in the bitter crust of his hard outer shell.

How to manage a passive-aggressive person

Behind passive-aggressive behavior, there are multiple and sometimes complex realities. Depression, anxiety disorder, attention-deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), low self-esteem, a bad childhood, or even certain biological or environmental factors.

“Those who get tangled up in a competition of aggressiveness lose their sense, and, most importantly, their strength”

Julián Marías

If you are aware that in your day-to-day behavior and attitude trigger passive-aggressive behavior, the best thing is to find a good therapist who can help you understand and channel your anger and frustration.  Furthermore, it’s never a bad idea to keep the following basic strategies in mind:

  • Try to understand why you act and respond this way.
  • Think and reflect before talking or acting.
  • Identify what affects you the most, what concerns you, and try to confront it.
  • Defeat your negativity.
  • Practice mindfulness.
  • Cultivate your Emotional Intelligence.
defend against passive aggressiveness

On the other hand, if we have to deal with passive-aggressive people, one of the best ways to reduce their impact on us is to ignore them. Generally, a passive-aggressive person has very low self-esteem and lacks emotional assertiveness. It is someone who doesn’t know how to act when they feel like their behavior is not having any effect.

The more they feel like we are affected by their words and attitude, the more power they have. On the other hand, if they see that we don’t care, they won’t keep going and their psychological impact on us will be lessened. Nevertheless, just as we’ve already pointed out, it’s always good to know what is behind this kind of behavior. If the passive-aggressive person is a relative, we can encourage him or her to seek professional help. 

In conclusion, we leave you with this interesting fact about the origin of this term and when it was used for the first time. It was during the Second World War when a group of military psychiatrists noticed that many soldiers displayed a certain defiant behavior. They showed passive and negative resistance to carrying out orders. The true reason for the behavior of these soldiers was post-traumatic stress…

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.