How to Deal with Passive Aggressive People
You walk into the office after a much-needed vacation, feeling rested and ready to get back to work. “How was it?” says Camille, your questionable coworker. “I’m so glad you got to go, instead of staying to help us finish that project.”
She’s mad at you…right? But then again, her sweet tone of voice and wide grin doesn’t seem to match that impression. So you thank her and keep walking, wondering why the whole exchange left you feeling defensive and icky.
If you’ve been on the receiving end of a “nice remark” like this, you’ve experienced passive aggressive behavior. Passive aggression happens when we can’t or won’t express negative feelings directly, and instead resort to covert hostility as an outlet for our anger, jealousy, or resentment.
When you have a passive aggressive person in your life, whether it’s a coworker, friend, family member, or romantic partner, you’ll find yourself questioning your own perceptions, and wondering whether you’re just being sensitive, or if there’s actually some antagonism beneath their pleasant exterior.
Doubting yourself like this can be absolutely crazy-making, leaving you unsure about how to respond. That’s why I wanted to create this episode of the podcast for you: so you can recognize passive aggressive behavior, understand where it’s coming from, and deal with it in a compassionate, assertive manner that’s healthy and fair for you.
My guest is Kathleen C., a therapist and life coach here at Growing Self. Kathleen has helped many people set healthy boundaries with passive aggressive people or redirect their own passive aggressive impulses so they can have healthier, more authentic relationships with everyone in their lives.
We’re talking about what causes passive aggression, why it can be so damaging to relationships, and how you can deal with your own Camilles — without losing your cool, or your sanity.
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby
How to Deal with Passive Aggressive People: Episode Highlights
Passive aggressive behavior is confusing, exasperating, and damaging to relationships. When someone says everything’s fine, but their behavior says otherwise, that’s a form of gaslighting whether it’s intentional or not. The sooner you can get clear about what’s actually happening in a passive-aggressive dynamic, the better.
Understanding what passive aggressive behavior is about (hint: It’s not you!) will help you deal with it. Just recognizing passive aggression can be a big relief and can help you respond in a confident, emotionally healthy way.
Examples of Passive Aggressive Behavior
Passive aggressive behavior can take many forms, but it always involves expressing negative feelings indirectly rather than out in the open.
When you’re on the receiving end of this veiled hostility, it can feel confusing because there’s a mismatch between the passive aggressive person’s words and their actions. They may tell you they’re not angry, but then slam the door as they exit the room.
Here are a few other examples of passive-aggressive behavior:
- Giving a compliment in a sarcastic tone.
- Sabotaging someone else’s plans.
- “Forgetting” to do something you agreed to do.
- Giving someone the silent treatment when you’re upset.
- Excluding a coworker from an important meeting.
- Talking badly about someone behind their back, while being polite to their face.
- Sulking when you don’t get your way.
- Speaking to someone in a condescending tone.
Behaviors like these aren’t always passive aggressive, but they can be, especially when they’re part of a pattern. If you’re unsure whether someone is being passive aggressive, tune into your own feelings about what’s happening between the two of you. If a “friendly” exchange leaves you feeling confused or mistrustful, you might be picking up on some covert hostility.
Reasons for Passive Aggressive Behavior
People behave in passive aggressive ways when, for whatever reason, they don’t feel able to express their emotions directly.
People with a tendency to “people please” are often prone to passive aggressive communication. When you have a strong fear of being disliked, it can feel impossible to confront others directly. Instead, a people pleaser may try to get some emotional relief by being hostile to the person they’re upset with while maintaining plausible deniability about it. For this reason, many self-identified people-pleasers are experienced by others as quite passive aggressive.
Others may become passive aggressive because they have anxiety about conflict, they don’t believe anger is an acceptable emotion, or because they have low self-esteem and worry that if they’re assertive and direct, they’ll have no friends.
How to Deal with Passive Aggressive People
If someone is chronically passive aggressive toward you, particularly if you’re not close to this person, the best way to deal with it is to distance yourself as much as possible. You could do this by choosing not to be around the person, or by simply not engaging with them to the extent that you’re able. Certainly don’t react to their behavior in the way they’re most likely hoping you will — by getting angry, upset, or defensive.
Keeping your cool signals to the person that you’re not going to engage in the passive aggressive “dance” anymore, which makes treating you this way a little less gratifying.
How to Fix a Passive Aggressive Relationship
If it’s a relationship you value, you can try talking to the passive aggressive person about what you’re noticing, how it’s affecting you, and where your boundaries are.
You may say something like, “I’ve noticed that you make jokes at my expense in front of our friends sometimes. When you tease me like that, I feel embarrassed and hurt. I’m not going to spend time with you if you continue talking about me like this.”
This response is both vulnerable and direct, a combination that can sometimes disarm passive behavior. Either way, their response will tell you a lot about how emotionally safe you can feel with this person, and whether they’re actually a friend you can trust and count on.
And if your goal is to improve the relationship, it’s important to be an emotionally safe communicator yourself. Refrain from blaming, accusing, or lashing out in anger at the passive aggressive person. Instead, focus on your own observations, feelings, and boundaries.
How to Stop Being Passive Aggressive
Have you ever asked yourself, “Am I passive aggressive?”
We often don’t realize when we’re being passive aggressive, so it’s worth taking a look at your own behavior and being honest with yourself about your motivations.
Notice if you’re feeling angry, jealous, insecure, or threatened around a certain person, and how you might be acting those feelings out in your relationship with them. You might find yourself talking about them behind their back, being disingenuous with them, or being unsupportive of their success.
If you notice these things, don’t beat yourself up. Just think about why you may be feeling this way and what needs you’re trying to meet. By treating yourself with compassion, you can find better ways to get your emotional needs met, without resorting to passive aggressive behavior.
Episode Show Notes:
[1:59] The Passive Aggressive Patterns
- Passive aggressive behaviors leave us in a place of self-doubt due to a lack of clarity about the person’s intention.
- The classic passive aggressive pattern is mixed messages, for example, when someone’s words and tone don’t match.
- Intentional “forgetfulness” toward crucial promises is another example of passive aggressive behavior.
[11:23] How to Deal with Passive Aggressive People?
- Understand why they act that way.
- The root of passive aggressiveness is insecurity.
- Passive aggressive behavior can keep us from having close, meaningful connections.
[21:29] Passive Aggressive Relationships
- If someone’s being passive aggressive toward you, that’s a reflection of their feelings, beliefs, coping mechanisms, and communication skills, not of you.
- Sometimes, it is ideal to disengage and ignore the passive aggressive comments.
[32:16] How to Handle Passive Aggressive People?
- Set a positive precedent by modeling vulnerability when confronting passive aggressive behaviors.
- Create a space that encourages authentic and meaningful communication.
- Disengage if the person doesn’t feel emotionally safe to communicate with.
[43:44] Am I Passive Aggressive?
- Are you honest with yourself about your motivations when you communicate?
- Find other ways to get what you need, without resorting to passive aggression.
Music in this episode is “Watch Your Back” from The Coathangers
You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here: The Coathangers. Under the circumstance of use of music, each portion of used music within this current episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, i.e., Fair Use. Please refer to copyright.gov if further questions are prompted.
Listen & Subscribe to the Podcast
How to Deal with Passive Aggressive People
The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self. She is a licensed psychologist, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and a board-certified coach, as well as the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.
Let’s Talk: Start With a Free Consultation
If you’re ready to grow, we’re here to help. Connect with us, and let us know your hopes and goals. We’ll follow up with recommendations, and will help you schedule a first, free consultation.