Passive Aggressive – Signs and symptoms of passive aggression

passive aggressive

Also called: Passive Aggressive Behavior, Passive Aggression, Passive Aggressive Personality Disorder


Passive-aggressive behavior occurs when a person passively requests and/or demands made of them rather than directly confronting the situation. People who are passive-aggressive resist responsibility and may channel their resentment into behavior such as procrastination, inefficiency or forgetfulness. These behaviors allow individuals to avoid participating in or completing projects.

People who have passive-aggressive tendencies tend to resent authority figures and may be envious of those who get along with people in positions of authority. These individuals also tend to feel cheated, underappreciated and misunderstood, and may chronically complain. Many passive-aggressive people learned the behavior through interactions with family members. Passive-aggressive behavior also is commonly exhibited in workplaces and schools.

The exact cause of a person’s passive-aggressive behavior remains unknown, although it is possible that the roots of passive-aggressive personality disorder reach back into childhood. Because passive-aggressive behavior is concerned primarily with authority, researchers have studied the role that early authority figures have. If a person’s first exposure to authority figures was unsatisfying, erratic or ambivalent, the result might be passive-aggressive behavior. It appears also that some personality disorders might be inherited.

Some people seek treatment for the behavior, although this may be related to associated relationship problems or substance abuse. Patients who experience passive-aggressive feelings may benefit from some forms of psychotherapy. However, their tendency to resent authority figures and not recognize their behavior as a problem may make treatment difficult.

About passive aggression

Passive-aggressive behavior occurs when a person’s apparent willingness to agree to the needs or requests of others actually masks a seething resentment and desire to quietly resist. 

People who are passive-aggressive resent, oppose and resist the demands of others to function in certain ways. They struggle to express anger verbally and directly, and instead channel their resentment into behavior such as procrastination, inefficiency or forgetfulness that allows them to avoid completing projects. They tend to feel cheated, underappreciated and misunderstood. Often, they chronically complain to others and refuse to accept blame for their mistakes.

In many cases, a person who is passive-aggressive may espouse enthusiasm when asked to do something, but then will sabotage their actions by performing them too late or in a way that is not helpful. For example, a person who has received material to review may pretend to lose the file rather than directly tell a supervisor there is not enough time to complete the project.

Passive-aggressive behavior can occur in most situations, but is most common in supervisor/employee, teacher/student and personal relationships. People who are passive-aggressive tend to have a strong dislike of authority.

Because people prone to passive-aggressive behavior tend to bottle up their anger, they may experience health problems such as headaches, stress, depression or high blood pressure. In addition, several personality disorders are closely associated with passive-aggressive behavior, including: 

  • Borderline personality disorder (BPD)
  • Histrionic personality disorder
  • Paranoid personality disorder
  • Dependent personality disorder
  • Antisocial personality disorder
  • Avoidant personality disorder (APD)

Cultural differences may sometimes be misinterpreted as passive-aggressive behavior. For example, in some cultures, it is considered impolite to directly disagree with a person. In these cases, a worker may indicate they will perform a task (even when they know it is impossible) rather than refuse to do so. Then the worker leaves the task undone without an explanation.

The exact causes of passive-aggressive behavior remain unknown. However, like other recognized personality disorders, it may involve a combination of genetic and environmental factors. The problems with authority may be rooted in a child’s struggle with parental authority. Families or societies that do not recognize normal expressions of anger may contribute to the development of passive-aggressive behavior. If a person’s first exposure to authority figures was unsatisfying, erratic or ambivalent, the result might be passive-aggressive behavior. It appears also that some components of personality disorders might be inherited.

Signs and symptoms of passive aggression

Passive-aggressive behaviors tend to manifest in several different ways, including:

  • Procrastination
  • Intentional inefficiency
  • Avoiding responsibility by claiming forgetfulness
  • Complaining
  • Inability to accept blame and blaming others
  • Resentment
  • Sullenness and irritability
  • Impatience
  • Fear of authority
  • Resistance to suggestions from others
  • Cynicism and skepticism
  • Unexpressed anger or hostility
  • Avoiding direct language

However, many of these behaviors are also part of the normal human experience. To help better define passive-aggressive personality disorder, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM-IV says it is defined by four or more of the following personality traits:

  • Passively resists social and occupational tasks
  • Complains of being unappreciated and/or misunderstood
  • Is prone to argument
  • Criticizes and scorns authority unreasonably
  • Is frequently envious of people who seem to be more fortunate
  • Exaggerates his or her own personal misfortune
  • Alternates between hostility and contrition

Passive-aggressive people may experience an intense conflict between a desire for self-assertion and a tendency to depend on others. Despite superficial bravado, they often have poor self-esteem and a defeatist outlook.

Coping with passive aggression

In some cases, a person who appears to have passive-aggressive characteristics may be referred to a psychiatrist, psychologist or other mental health professional. This is particularly important if the behavior is actually a result of passive aggressive personality disorder. Therapy that explores the situations that provoke the behavior and potential ways to change it may help some people. Cognitive behavior therapy(CBT) helps patients replace negative thoughts and behaviors with more positive alternatives. Patients also are encouraged to focus on the unconscious conflicts that may be contributing to symptoms, and to examine the impact of their behavior on others. Group therapy may help some passive-aggressive people learn to better manage their hostility. In many therapeutic settings, a passive-aggressive person will initially participate in treatment and then give up because they do not recognize their behavior as a problem or are unwilling to make changes.

Questions for your doctor

Preparing questions in advance can help patients have more meaningful discussions with their physicians regarding their conditions. Patients may wish to ask their mental health professional the following questions related to passive aggression:

  1. How can I tell if I tend toward passive-aggressive behavior?
  2. Does having passive-aggressive tendencies mean that I have an emotional disorder?
  3. What other emotional disorders may play a role in my passive-aggressive tendencies?
  4. What changes can I make to reduce my passive-aggressive behaviors?
  5. What are my treatment options?
  6. Can medications help my condition? If so, what do you recommend?
  7. Are there any prescription or over-the-counter medications that may contribute to my behavior?
  8. Is there a genetic link to passive-aggressive behavior?
  9. If I exhibit passive-aggressive behaviors, how will it affect my children?
  10. Can you recommend an appropriate support group for me?
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