How to Identify Passive-Aggressive Behavior

By Dr. Perry, PhD

“Let’s meet at noon at the gym – oh wait, you probably don’t know where that is.” ~ Anonymous

We all have that friend, co-worker or family member who has a special way of saying seemingly harmless words that makes us feel like we have been slapped across the face with a rose only to later find we have been embedded with thorns. These same individuals have the habit of doing or purposely not doing something in order to impede your stride. Procrastination, stalling, last minute cancelations; all of these are done while smiling innocently with no hint of anger. The passive aggressive person is often the nicest person in the room. But the smile and feigned innocence hide bottled up aggression and anger. Having no outlet, this anger will display itself through their words and behaviors.

Although no longer recognized by the American Psychological Association as a formal personality disorder, it is important we recognize what passive aggressive behavior is in order to understand it and deal with it. The DSM-111 described passive-aggressive personality disorder as a “Pervasive pattern of passive resistance to demands for adequate social and occupational performance, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts.” It is a manifestation of anger and other negative emotions that have no expression. It is behavior aimed to get back at a person without recognizing the underlying anger. A passive aggressive individual has learned that expressing anger directly will only make things worse. Often, they grew up in an environment where they learned not to express their feelings. As a child they may have been punished for expressing anger, therefore they have learned to channel their anger and frustration in other ways. Essentially, passive-aggressive behavior is the covert expression of feelings of anger and indirect expressions of hostility.

Passive aggressive individuals often come from an environment where no one expressed what they truly wanted or felt. As a result, they struggle to ask directly for what they want and will resort to manipulative tactics to get their needs met. Instead of asking for help carrying a box upstairs they may complain by saying, “I am probably going to hurt my back carrying this box.” They don’t mind if others feel sorry for them as long as it works to get the box upstairs.

Beneath their outwardly calm and agreeable persona lurks a person who desires to punish those who they feel have hurt them. They will go to great lengths to retaliate against individuals they feel have wronged them. They will do this by indirect means and will avoid doing or expressing any direct anger.

Here are some examples of passive aggressive behaviors.

1. Feigned illness or emergency
“Sorry for the last minute notice! I am not feeling well.” – They will say “Yes” to an invite or task that they have no intention of going to or completing and will use sickness or an emergency to escape the obligation.

2. Denying feelings of anger
“I’m not angry.” – Rather than being honest and upfront about how they feel, they will deny have any negative feelings. They are rarely openly defiant. Beneath the cool, friendly exterior is a whirlpool of anger and resentment.

3. Sulking and withdrawing from arguments
“Fine.” … “Whatever.” – They will shut down emotionally and will not communicate when things are not going there way. They will avoid direct confrontation at all costs and instead will quietly fume and plot revenge.

4. Temporary compliance
“Don’t worry, I will take care of it.” – They will cheerfully agree to do something then fail to complete the chore. For example, a person in customer service will assure you that the problem will be taken care of with no intention of following through.

5. Procrastination
They will repeatedly procrastinate and not complete a task in order to get out of doing something instead of directly refusing to do the task.

6. Completes the task, but in an unacceptable/inefficient manner
“Whoops! I am so clumsy.” – Because they really do not want to do what they are asked and are angry, they will complete the task in an unacceptable way. For example, a student will hand in illegible homework. When you ask your loved one to help with housework, they may sulk and by mistake cause a bigger mess for you to clean.

7. Omission
They will choose to express their anger by choosing not to share information when it could have prevented a problem. They will claim ignorance and will take pleasure in your discomfort.

8. Backhanded Compliment
They will often disguise an insult in a compliment. Sometimes, it may take us a few hours for the double meaning to register. Here are some examples. Please feel free to include your own in the comments section below:

A) “I didn’t expect you to get the job. Congratulations!”

B) “Congratulations on finishing the marathon! That is amazing for your size and age!”

C) “Wow! You look great for your age!”

D) “I wish I didn’t care about the way I look like you do.”

9. Sarcasm
“I was only joking! Can’t you take a joke?” – Sarcasm is a common way for a passive aggressive person to express hostility out loud but in a socially acceptable indirect way.

10. Indirect hostility
“Why are you getting so upset?” – Passive aggressive people take pleasure in frustrating their targets. They will pretend to be calm and cool while appearing surprised when you express anger after being repeatedly provoked by their indirect hostility. They are masters at getting others to act out their angry feelings and when you do, they will question your supposed overreaction.

11. Forgets
“Oh my! I am so absent-minded.” – They will avoid obligations by claiming they forgot. Instead of declining an invitation or task and risk appearing disagreeable, they will claim that it slipped their minds. For example, they may forget to call or to meet you for lunch because they really did not want to go.

12. Work Place
Unfortunately, passive-aggressive behavior is prevalent in the workplace. The examples are numerous and I have listed a few.

A) Abuses sick days. Will take sick days before a big deadline.

B) Ignores emails and notes left by others. Fails to return calls.

C) Arrives late

D) Takes longer breaks

E) Obstructs the efforts of others by failing to do their share of the work

F) Forgets or misplaces important documents

G) Gives you “ASAP” work last minute

H) Works deliberately slow or does a bad job on tasks that they do not really want to do

I) Attacks a person indirectly by starting a vicious rumor about them

This article is not meant to diagnose or to be a guide for self-diagnosis. The sole purpose of this article is strictly for educational purposes. Please feel free to share below in the comment section your own experiences with passive behavior.

I hope this was helpful. If you are in need of further support please click here.Kindly,

Dr. Perry
“We specialize in a solution-focused approach to psychotherapy, specifically treating depression, anxiety, relationship issues and narcissistic abuse.”
Verified by Psychology Today
Office in Sherman Oaks, CA

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38 responses to How to Identify Passive-Aggressive Behavior

  1. It took me twenty plus years to realize this behavior in my Narcissistic sister, and a little bit longer to see it in my “best friend.” So, in essence, I lost two enemies and gained a friend-myself. Great article!

    Liked by 4 people

  2. I could relate, especially about not being able to express my anger during childhood and also to punish those who hurt me indirectly or unknowingly. It is very important to understand this behaviour and quickly take steps before anyone gets hurt.
    Awesome article!

    Liked by 5 people

  3. prior.. says:

    Great details about such a common condition – you explain things so well – and a few folks came to mind – and each of them were snuffed or silenced from expressing their feelings – and some of the behaviors noted here are also what we used to call head games !!

    Liked by 3 people

  4. I realize it’s off topic, but how are you?? This is in response to the loss of your friend. Your followers (me included) enjoy your blog and write ups but know that we truly care about you too.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Dr. Perry says:

      I appreciate your thoughtfulness ✨ I take it a day at a time and find great solace in the blog and my work. Thank you for asking ✨✨

      Liked by 2 people

      • You are most welcome. I’ve never thankfully lost anyone valuable to me and pray I don’t. However I understand the pain having lost other things of great importance. I’m glad to know you are taking it a day at a time. I’ve followed your blog since first finding it and you offer sage advice and wisdom, always. Just wanted you to know you mean more than a blog. You are special in other ways and as an individual on planet earth. Please take care.

        Liked by 3 people

  5. emmitsomo says:

    I am not perfect either… I have a few of these.. sometimes. But I also experienced millions of number 8, all the false and hurtful compliments… my family is very good at them. I started to have issues after a very special afternoon when they had outdone themselves in it. But I guess, it could also be, that there is more behind it since the whole world can come with such insults sometimes, and that is why I stay off the world mostly. I don’t need that… Sad but true.
    Thanks for this article. 😉

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Nicolle says:

    Thanks for this informational post! It’s nice to be able to understand why some people do this, and it’s sad in a way because they’re not being true to themselves, not even accepting their feelings. 🙁

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Kim Bushong says:

    Great article! I have to ask, I dated a covert narcissist for 5 years and I found I was using some passive-aggressive behavior, as well as body language to communicate my displeasure about what was happening to me. I found it easier and safer so I wouldn’t “poke the bear”. Do you find this to be a normal reaction while being in an abusive relationship? Thank you in advance, I have always wondered about this.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Hi Kim, I am Dr. Perry’s assistant, Isabel. Unfortunately, for ethical and liability reasons Dr. Perry cannot answer individual questions on this blog. Please feel free to fill out the initial consultation form if you are interested in working with him. He offers reduced rates to the blogging community. Wishing you the best, Isabel

      Liked by 2 people

  8. Ellie Strand, MSN, RN, APRN (Ret.) says:

    Another post that hits where I live. My hubby is P-A. Took getting into therapy myself to recognize what it was and learn how to deal with it. He’s still P-A, but no longer does a piss poor job so I have to redo. However, he still “forgets”. He formerly wondered why I’m upset at his actions, but decades of meditation have helped me not react and remain calm. It’s very tough living with a P-A personality, but forewarned is forearmed. Thanks!

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Oh, dear! The father of my daughter and my future ex-husband to the T!!! This sounds a lot like the description for someone with NPD. He is just like you described. I can’t speak for point #12. But I have heard complaints regarding his job and they mentioned some of the things you mentioned in that point. But I was not there to know. Either way, I am definitely reblogging this on my blog. Dr. Perry, you are the best! I love your articles. They provide so much knowledge and with practical examples. They are the right length, easy to read, and very insightful. Thank you so much for taking the time to write them and share them. I know you’re helping a lot of people with your articles. I am one of them and I’m very grateful for having found your blog. Keep it up!!!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Dr. Perry says:

      Hi Maria, thank you for your kind words! My main goal in having a blog is to educate and help as many people as I can. I truly believe that knowledge is power ✨ Have a wonderful evening!

      Liked by 2 people

      • My pleasure. I think you’re accomplishing that goal, indeed! 🙂 I also believe knowledge is power. I do not like that quote that says “What you don’t know can’t hurt you.” I am a living example that lack of knowledge can and it does hurt you. I had no idea what NPD was until a friend of mine told me that my husband was a narcissist and she pointed me in the right direction. Once she helped me open my eyes, I realized how little I knew and how much more I still needed to grow. Unfortunately, many people go through life not knowing why certain things keep happening to them and they cannot answer that question because they will never gain the knowledge for those much-needed answers. I hope that at least some of them do stumble on your blog. 🙂

        Liked by 3 people

  10. My kids step mother. A passive aggressive Narcissist. One very small example. We have a six months split for the households. In the twenty years of school functions, my wife and I maybe missed two conferences. Maybe one of us couldn’t go to the band concert or Christmas play. but the other was there. Not too bad… But she always tells the kids how many we miss all the time. Making them think we miss stuff all the time. (Kids get programmed to accept what they are told.) Also, no matter what. At every single school event, she would say, “Thank you for coming…” Thank you? I know it doesn’t sound bad. but it is very insulting. I mean, why are you thanking me for coming to see our own children?? Okay, my step children. I raised them since 2 years and six months old. SO no difference to me than our other three kids. Though, their own mother.

    Another big one. It would be their six month stay, so we get the kids every other weekend for our visitation. She would call on that Sunday night, Monday being a school day. We would drop them off. They get picked up by then and we would see them again in two weeks. It went that way until our six months and they get bi weekly visitation. So, this would have several times a year. Sunday night call from Step mom. 8 or 9 PM.

    “Did our son get his project done? He has had three weeks to work on it. He was suppose to tell you… It’s due tomorrow.”

    How is an 8 year old responsible enough to inform his parents with no notes home. Assignments unseen on our end. very little class/school communication (Until we pushed the subject years later) until our six months. UHG! A rush to stay up late, write/build/create whatever needed done. before morning with a tired eight year old.


    The list is huge, manipulative, disgusting, conniving, evil. Thank God we don’t have to deal with her anymore.

    Liked by 3 people

  11. theblackpage says:

    Loved this article. I’ve come across a few in my lifetime. Not very nice people and sometimes they bring out the worst in people. Best thing is to walk away. Good job!👍🏼

    Liked by 2 people

  12. geminilvr says:

    I loathe passive aggressive behavior. It is one of my biggest pet peeves in a relationship – whether romantic or work-related, family or friendship. Great article – thank you

    Liked by 2 people

  13. Oh wow…this guy I dated was very passive aggressive, now I understand why he would irritate me so much that it would give me anxiety. We got in an argument once and he made some backhanded comment followed by “do you wanna go cuddle?” I told him no and asked me if I wanted him to leave I told him yes to please leave. He says “oh so you want me to leave?” I said “yes, you asked me and I’m answering you honestly. Leave.” When he leaves we get in a text war and blames me. He has tried 3x to get back together with me. No thank you! I enjoy my solitude it’s peaceful.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. Beth says:

    Oops saw that I do a lot of these! My partner always says ‘Be assertive, not passive aggressive’ 😂 I also didn’t realise half these things counted!

    Liked by 2 people

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