What is passive-aggressive behaviour

How to identify passive-aggressive behaviour

Passive aggressive-behaviour at play
Passive aggressive-behaviour at play

Passive-aggressive behavior might be a feature of some mental health disorders, but it isn’t considered a recognisable mental health condition.

However, passive-aggressive behavior can interfere with your relationships and create difficulties at work, for both you and those around you.

Have you ever come across or been the recipient of passive-aggressive behaviour? The chances are that you have but perhaps not realised it at the time.

Have you ever, or do you display passive-aggressive behaviour? Again, the chances are that you have and maybe you weren’t aware of it.

Remember that time your best friend got a promotion only a fortnight after blagging that amazing new job? What about when you told hubby not to bother with Valentine’s Day, and he didn’t? Maybe you sulked a wee bit, and the next day your best friend or partner asked how you were. You smiled “Fine!”

I think most of us know that whenever someone tells you that everything is “fine,” it generally means the opposite.

Someone who uses passive aggression may feel annoyed, angry, resentful, or frustrated, but they act neutral, pleasant, or even cheerful. They then find indirect ways to show how they really feel.

What is passive-aggressive behaviour?

Passive aggression and the angry smile
Passive aggression and the angry smile

In The Angry Smile: The Psychology of Passive Aggressive Behavior in Families, Schools, and Workplaces, “passive aggression” is defined as a deliberate and masked way of expressing covert feelings of anger (Long, Long & Whitson, 2008).

It involves a range of behaviors designed to get back at another person without them recognising the underlying anger.

So, passive-aggressive behaviour is when somebody expresses resentment or animosity indirectly. Rather than showing hubby your resentment and explaining why he’s such an arse, you’ll behave in ways that distress or frustrate him. You didn’t receive a card or flowers, so now you’ll let that special Valentine’s Day steak dinner dry up!

Rather than telling your friend you’re a little jealous about her fab new job and pay rise, you’ll not contact her for the rest of the week. Perhaps you didn’t want to deliberately upset hubby or your friend, but that behaviour in itself can be really upsetting!

People with passive-aggressive behavior express their negative feelings, often subtly, through their actions instead of openly addressing them. This creates a disconnect between what the passive-aggressive person says and what they actually do.

Passive-aggressive behaviour in the workplace

Passive-aggressive behaviour at work
Passive-aggressive behaviour at work

For example, I’d propose that our Charge Nurses take the lead on planning the nursing rota. Curtis, with his passive-aggressive behaviour opposed the plan, but instead of voicing his opinion, he’d agree to it.

Since he was actually against the plan, however, he resisted following it through. He’d purposely miss deadlines, leaving staff nurses not knowing their shifts for the coming week.

There’s always that someone at work who tests your patience to the max, right? And while you probably can’t tell them to f*ck off how you really feel, there are some subtle ways to get back at them. I know, cos I’ve used them against or received them from narcissistic bullying bosses!

Morning Tessa, nice to see you.” Cue big smile to the b*tch who interviewed me for the third time and still refused to offer me the job. I’d only been acting up in this job for two years and we’d won three awards for Excellence.

I’d say “Thanks for your feedback Tessa! I’ll keep it in mind!” I could do my job with my hands tied, wearing a blindfold so Tessa’s negative feedback was unfounded.

“I’ll go through the Trust Policy and get back to you!” I beamed when Kate, my Modern Matron, told me to get all staff holiday plans a whole year in advance. Of course, I knew the policy was that staff could request any holiday leave as and when.

Curtis always used passive-aggressive responses like “Okay, if that’s what you want.” Then he’d continue to type everything in capitals and say “Ah, I forgot. Anyway, I think it looks okay!” when I explicitly said to type in lower case – because typing in capitals is called shouting and it’s considered rude.

Passive-aggressive doesn’t mean you’re bad

The angry smile of a passive-aggressive person
The angry smile of a passive-aggressive person

Being passive-aggressive doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. Often it’s “a strategy we use when we think we don’t deserve to speak our minds or we’re afraid to be honest and open.” says psychotherapist Tina Gilbertson, LPC, author of Constructive Wallowing: How to Beat Bad Feelings.

It’s not always a bad thing either. Passive-aggressive behaviour might be a way to retaliate if you’re at the wrong end of a power dynamic. Like me and Tessa. Although she was my boss, she felt threatened by my twenty years of HR management experience, so had to publicly undermine me.

Or me and Curtis. Upset because I was sent in as Acting Ward Manager, the job he’d expected to get, he was deliberately passive-aggressive. Sadly, rather than telling Tessa to “stuff her job” or yelling at Curtis to “grow a pair”, I retaliated with passive-aggressive behaviour of my own!

If you’ve encountered acts of passive-aggression then you’ll know just how frustrating, overwhelming and exhausting it can be. And if like me, you’ve been guilty of it, stop! It’s not very adult-like and it’s not the best way to resolve things.

The following post will explore more signs of, causes and ways to change passive-aggressive behaviour, particularly in relationships.

Over to you


Have you used passive-aggressive behaviours or have you been on the receiving end of them? How did you handle them, or not? What are the best passive-aggressive phrases you’ve used to get back at someone? I look forward to any witty one-liners I could pinch, any comments or questions.

Author: mentalhealth360.uk

Mum to two amazing sons. Following recovery from a lengthy psychotic episode, depression, anxiety and anorexia, I decided to train as a Mental Health Nurse and worked successfully in various settings before becoming a Ward Manager. I am a Mental Health First Aid Instructor and a Mental Health Awareness Trainer, Mental Health First Aid Youth and Mental Health Armed Forces Instructor. Just started my mental health from the other side blog.

30 thoughts on “What is passive-aggressive behaviour”

  1. This is interesting and timely because I think I was being passive-aggressive just a few days ago. Yeah, it was Thursday. I was in a fog of emotional ruin (another day in the life), and my friend said something that really upset me. I couldn’t voice it, so I attacked him with accusations of making me miserable (with no specifics), so he had no clue why I was unhinged. (It really wasn’t his fault–he was in the wrong place at the wrong time in my stressful week.) So eventually, I said, “I hate myself now! I’m a bad person! Thanks for that!” And he was like, “What are you talking about? I didn’t say you’re bad!” So I told him what he’d said, even though it was hard to deal with it at all, much less in my mental state, and he backpedaled and apologized, which I think was more than I deserved, so I feel a bit bad about that, but I think he understands. And I’m not too mad at myself. I don’t think I’m too passive-aggressive under normal circumstances, but these weren’t normal circumstances–I was completely zoned out and flatlining.

    When I was in the mental hospital a few times as a teen, they’d show us videos about being passive, assertive, or aggressive with examples, like, your hamburger at the restaurant is undercooked. Passive=do nothing but eat it. Assertive= ask nicely for it to be cooked longer. Aggressive= throw a fit. They didn’t include passive-aggressive in the videos, but they should’ve! 😮

    1. Aaawww, bless you my lovely. It can’t always be helped when we’re in that kind of emotional whirlwind Meg. And at least you got an apology 🙂 He also sounds like he knows you quite well so he understood. Glad you’re not so mad at yourself either.

      Wow, they showed videos like that in the hospital? That’s great and perhaps they should still be doing it. Lots of our patients, particularly the females, would act out and we’d let them know that it was anger, not mental illness that made them swear at staff or throw chairs at the office windows lol 🙂

      1. Thank you so much for the kind words!! Yes, he’s one of the best friends I’ve ever had!! I’m so glad to know him!

        Yeah, the videos were interesting and useful! They also separated us by gender to show us videos about checking for either breast or testicular cancer. Another score! And we played the Oregon Trail computer game a lot. And the cafeteria food was to die for. Fun times! Good point about anger versus mental illness, for sure!!

      2. I’m so glad to hear he’s your best friend, it’s always good to have male best friends 🙂

        Wow, sounds like a hoot where you were lol – and good hospital food? Ours was like slops – urgh!

  2. It brings to mind an indent several years ago. It was at a team that was imploding, and one of the management darlings was on a non-stop power trip. Since there was nothing constructive that could be done, it devolved into passive aggressive silliness. Some of us cooked up the idea to toss a McDonald’s Filet-o-fish in the garbage can in the office that she used the most, although it wasn’t officially hers. We did that in the evening so she had a nice smelling surprise in the morning. It was childish, but there weren’t any adult options open.

  3. There was a recognised tactic in my world of “if you don’t want to do something, do it so badly that you will never be asked again”, which I suppose is passive agressive. I would get to know who could and couldn’t be trusted to do a task.

      1. This was where my role as a consultant came in.
        I would do what I was asked to do as well as I could. If they asked me to do something dumb, their problem.
        If I were an employee, I would have cared more about people working efficiently.

      2. Sometimes I’d encourage my team to do whatever was asked of us and if it didn’t work, we’d revert back to our way and I’d tell the big bosses their ‘suggestions’ were not workable. And I made sure we always documented everything during team meetings, so if something went badly wrong, as it did once, the team weren’t to be blamed! Two of our bosses were – and they just got moved to other departments, when they should have been sacked!

  4. Great post as always~!!! I much prefer having someone straight up with me and try to do the same. With that said, I have no doubt done it from time to time. ❤️ Cindy

    1. Yep, I prefer straight up too. But I’ve sadly reverted to passive-aggressive acts rather than have a public showdown with bosses – that just would have made things even worse lo. Caz x

  5. I think most everyone has engaged in passive-aggressive behavior at the some point. It may be a sort of defense mechanism to deal with a situation until we can figure out something else to do. Learning how to be more direct is of course much more effective although it can take a lot of practice to figure out just how to do this without alienating everyone in the process. 🙃

    1. Lol, my sister (who has borderline personality disorder) managed to alienate most people prior to getting her diagnosis and treatment.

      She’s now become a bit more aware that “it can’t be all the people all of the time, it must be you some of the time.”

      But if I dare to point out her passive-aggressive behaviour – whoa………. she flips, blocks me, deletes me, ignores me lol.

      1. Wow… that’s sad to hear as I’m very familiar with that kind of thinking. I still feel that way sometimes but I’m getting better at rationalizing my way out of it. Hopefully she will continue to improve as well!

  6. I think I’ve definitely been passive aggressive on more than one occasion, I think a lot of it is to do with me not liking confrontation…but I forget that confrontation doesn’t have to mean having an argument 😦

    1. You’re right about confrontation doesn’t mean……………. but the thought of confrontation can be scary – we never know how the other person’s going to respond. But I do find, that if I’m calm and not raising my voice, the other person mirrors this behaviour.

  7. I’m trying to be better about avoiding passive-agressive behaviors since I know they rarely do anything effective. Most of the time I’m paradoxically trying to avoid “unnecessary” conflict while also hoping someone will call me out so that we can talk more directly. Well, I only expect that with specific somebodies. I know at least one somebody who harbors attitudes toward me that block full conflict resolution, so with that person I’m only hoping to defuse my own tension so that I don’t blow up later on.

    1. These days I find it easier to call someone out. But like you, I have that one somebody who also harbours attitudes towards me. I’ve called her out once or twice over the years but she always reverts to type.

      That old saying “you can’t change other people, all you can do is to change the way you think/feel about them. It’s not easy, I know lol.

  8. A great topic Caz, on what I have found the most difficult behaviour to deal with. Like you point out, they are not bad people, it’s how they deal with something they don’t want to do. Of course, I will try and deal with it, but the trick is recognising when it’s worth your time to do so and when it isn’t 😊

    1. Thank you Sean. Yes, sometimes you have to pick your battles and think: is it worth it, will we get the desired outcome by ignoring it or confronting it? At work, I’d let it go for so long, but inevitably if their behaviour is impacting on the rest of the team or patients then I had to raise the issue with one or two staff members.

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