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Passive Aggression: Definition, Examples & Quiz

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Taught by

Chevette Alston

Dr. Alston has taught intro psychology, child psychology, and developmental psychology at 2-year and 4-year schools.

This lesson discusses what passive-aggression is and how it effects relationships. It also gives examples of passive-aggressive behaviors and how to be helpful to someone you may consider passive aggressive.

Passive-Aggressive Behavior

Passive-aggressive behavior is used to describe behavior or personality traits that are indirectly aggressive rather than using direct aggression. These behaviors usually occur when a person is angry or upset but will not or cannot express their discontent. Instead of communicating honest feelings, a passive-aggressive person will keep their feelings to themselves and want you to notice they are upset. They may also stop talking to you, give angry looks, or demonstrate obviously negative changes in behavior, such as sulking or stonewalling (which is a refusal to answer questions or giving evasive answers in order to delay or block a request, process, or person). Passive-aggressive behavior can be covert or blatantly obvious.

A passive-aggressive person may not show that they are angry. Instead, they may appear to agree with you in a friendly or kind manner. However, the intent to manipulate the situation to their favor is in the forefront of their mind. For example, a worker may purposely and repeatedly make excuses to avoid workers or tasks as a way of expressing their dislike toward a job or individual.

Is This Really Emotional Abuse?

This type of aggression is destructive because it is often believed to be a form of emotional abuse. Such relationships can slowly kill any trust that exists between people or groups by creating negative relationship dynamics between all involved. The bullets below mention a few passive-aggressive behaviors. Remember it is not passive-aggressive when these behaviors rarely occur, nor if it is one or two occurring within isolated incidents. Passive-aggression is a coping skill and happens often.

  • Ambiguity
  • Avoiding or Ignoring a person or situation
  • Avoiding Communication
  • Blaming
  • Evasiveness
  • Excuses
  • Learned Helplessness
  • Obstruction
  • Procrastination
  • Sulking
  • Withholding

From time to time, everyone will experience negative emotions and feelings. Everyone will also at some point do things to avoid arguments or conflict. However, for the passive-aggressive person, holding on to negative feelings and avoiding conflict are continual and persistently repeated patterns of negative attitudes and passive resistance.

Defense Mechanism

Passive-aggressiveness is thought to be a defense mechanism that many people automatically use to protect themselves. This can be a conscious or unconscious effort that is unique to each person. However, underlying feelings of fear, mistrust, rejection, low self-esteem, and insecurity are common among all. This may be something as simple as an employee constantly coming in to an afternoon staff meeting 10 or 15 minutes late because he or she would prefer to have it in the morning but does not want to say so.

Although it may be annoying, it is helpful to understand that you may not be the cause of their negative emotions. It is helpful if you are patient with a passive-aggressive person because they have learned it is not okay to openly express their feelings. It can also be helpful to be aware of your own automatic responses and to calmly communicate how their behavior affects you. Be honest about your part in their situation and if their negative behavior continues, you may have to set boundaries or rules for what you will and will not accept. Focus on the positive.

Passive Aggressive

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