Commonly described as non-verbal aggression, passive aggressive behaviour is when you are angry or upset with someone, but do not or cannot tell them. It is the inability to express difficult feelings in a rational way and can often make the problem worse. For the person on the receiving end, it can be incredibly frustrating and upsetting.
Passive aggressive behaviour can manifest in many different ways. Someone who is passive aggressive may show resistance when asked to do something, through procrastination, disagreement or by being stubborn. They may refuse to be emotionally open – even if they are apparently angry or upset, they will insist they are fine, shutting down the conversation. They may even make excuses to avoid certain people.
There are different types of passive aggressive behaviours, which can all vary in severity, frequency, and intentionality. Common types include:
- Intentional ineffectiveness – For example, when being asked to do a task that you disagree with or don’t want to do, you might make mistakes that are noticeable enough to aggravate your boss, but not so bad to warrant punishment. This gives you a sense of power and satisfaction in an otherwise powerless situation
- Intentional delays and forgetfulness – a common form of passive aggression is to exaggerate the characteristics you know someone else finds frustrating. For example, if someone is constantly reminding you of the time you need to show up for something, you might purposefully turn up late. A passive aggressive person would see this as a small victory
- Sulkiness – Instead of putting up a fight or arguing, a passive aggressive person is likely to become sullen, cold and withdrawn. Imagine being out with your partner and noticing them looking briefly at someone else. Instead of confronting them, you become emotionally closed
Passive aggressive behaviour is typically triggered by a desire to please people. Reasons include wanting to keep the peace, avoid mistakes, trying to appear more confident and authoritative or being afraid of rejection or criticism. However, because passive aggressive people are naturally unwilling to expose their true feelings, it can be difficult to understand the reasons behind their behaviour.