What is passive-aggressive behaviour?
It’s easy to recognise aggressive behaviour: Somebody raises their voice, says intimidating things, or maybe even resorts to physical abuse and violence. Passive-aggressive behaviour, on the other hand, is subtler, sneakier – and a lot harder to recognise.
“Aggressive behaviour is easy to call out. Behaviour that is passive-aggressive is much more difficult to put into words,” says Jessica L. Griffin, a clinical psychologist and associate professor of psychiatry and pediatrics. “Simply put, passive-aggressive behaviour refers to behaviour that is indirect and typically results from negative feelings that the individual has difficulty directly – or openly – expressing.”
For those on the receiving end, passive-aggressive behaviour can be emotionally destabilising, says Abisola Olulade, MD, a family medicine physician.
“The fact that it is often subtle and not direct yet very hostile causes victims to question whether they are imagining things. They may not realise or understand what is happening at first, which is part of why it can be traumatising.”
Here, some signs of passive-aggressive behaviour you need to know, along with expert tips on how to deal with it.
There’s a big difference between a compliment (“That’s a beautiful dress”) and a back-handed compliment (“That’s a beautiful dress – I had the same one in high school”). One makes you feel better; the other leaves you feeling worse.
“There’s no better example of passive-aggressive behaviour than the backhanded compliment,” says Griffin. “My personal favourite is the communication that starts with ‘I’m not trying to be mean, but….’ Or ‘I’m not judging you.…’ Or ‘I mean this in the best way…’ when in fact, what is about to come out of their mouth is mean, judgmental, and not the best.”
So how can you deal with insults hidden in compliments? Dr Olulade recommends expressing your feelings if it’s somebody you otherwise feel safe with.
“If it’s a pattern with this person, then you may express that this was hurtful to you. You can also choose to ignore it, but it’s important not to internalise it and use it as a point of self-criticism,” she says. “Don’t go into a self-critical spiral. Remember, it’s about them and their inappropriate behaviour – not about you.”
Refusal to state feelings
You know the drill: A person is clearly bothered by something, but when you ask them what’s wrong, they shrug it off or say “nothing.” Why do some people keep their feelings bottled inside?
“It may be because they are themselves depressed or anxious. It may also be because they are scared of confronting a negative feeling or emotion and don’t have the right tools or coping skills for doing so,” says Dr Olulade. “This is why it’s important not to tell children to ‘just get on with it’ or ‘just get over it’ and to welcome their expression of both negative and positive emotion. It’s important to acknowledge, validate and listen to others’ feelings.”
Emotions are an important part of the human experience, says Dr Olulade. We can learn a lot from allowing people to express both positive and negative ones. “When we don’t allow others to express their negative feelings in a healthy way and when we don’t give them a safe outlet to do that – or when we say expressing sadness, anxiety or anger is ‘weak’ – this can have a harmful effect and lead people to behave in a passive-aggressive manner.”
Some people are less comfortable directly expressing their feelings, says Griffin. She recommends providing a safe space for your friend, partner, or co-worker to talk about what’s going on. “You could try saying, ‘It seems as if you’re upset and I want to make sure you’re OK.’”