12 Signs of Passive-Aggressive Behavior

Do you or someone you love have trouble expressing negative emotions directly? Do you use sarcasm to veil feelings of frustration, anger, or hurt? Are you subjected to the “silent treatment” by your spouse or teen when they are upset?

These are all examples of passive-aggressive communication. We’ve all engaged in this type of behavior, unintentionally, from time to time—or been the recipient of it.  But when it becomes your —or a loved one’s—mode of expression, it can cause tremendous grief for all involved, even jeopardizing relationships and the ability to succeed in life.

Passive-aggression is a communication style in which you convey negative emotions like anger or frustration indirectly instead of addressing an individual in a straightforward, honest manner. Click To Tweet

Passive-aggressive behavior can push people away. Sadly, it can also make it very difficult for the passive-aggressive individual to ever have their underlying negative feelings acknowledged or addressed.

Here’s how to recognize the behavior in yourself or others.


Passive-aggression is a communication style in which you convey negative emotions like anger or frustration indirectly instead of addressing an individual in a straightforward, honest manner.

Passive-aggressive behavior can be verbal or nonverbal through body language or other physical actions, such as slamming doors. It’s not uncommon for people to engage in this type of behavior from time to time, usually subconsciously or unintentionally, and perhaps, on occasion, deliberately.

On a more insidious level, passive-aggressive behavior can be used to hurt others or manipulate them to get what an individual wants.  Gaslighting, which is when an individual intentionally does things to make another person doubt their perceptions, is considered a form of passive-aggressive behavior. Indeed, the worst forms of this behavior may involve cruelty, denial, distortion, and silence.

For some people, acting in a passive-aggressive way can become habitual. This can have a negative impact on many areas of life such as school, work, and personal relationships.

In fact, a persistent and problematic expression of these traits was at one time called passive-aggressive personality disorder. Experts later gave it the alternative name of negativistic personality disorder.

Today, an individual exhibiting pervasive passive-aggressive traits and meeting the criteria for a personality disorder may be diagnosed with “other specified personality disorder” based on criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5), according to the American Psychological Association.

Common traits of passive-aggressive people include indecisiveness, feigned forgetfulness, pessimism, stubbornness, catastrophizing, poor confidence, procrastination, shifting blame, and frequent complaining about their misfortunes.

A classic example of passive-aggressive behavior is when an upset individual becomes silent and withdrawn or sullen. If asked what’s wrong, they will deny their feelings, saying “Nothing, I’m fine.”

This common scenario illustrates the confusion this behavior causes. The individual is visibly upset, yet they verbally state they are not. The discomfort the individual has with their negative emotions delivers a mixed message. The recipient of this behavior will question if their perception is accurate.

It’s important to note that many passive-aggressive people are unaware of their behavior. Sometimes it is deeply unconscious. When confronted, they will deny their feelings.

For this reason, experts suggest that if something feels “off” about another’s behavior (i.e., it makes you question what’s really happening or how someone really feels) or you feel personally attacked, it’s a strong indicator that they are indeed passive-aggressive.


When direct communication can quickly dispel confusion and facilitate understanding, cooperation, and a greater chance of getting needs met, you may wonder, why do people exhibit passive-aggressive behavior?

Researchers point to several reasons. Passive-aggressive communication is common among people who are conflict avoidant. They are typically raised in homes where conflict was not addressed directly and/or negative emotions, especially anger, were not expressed.

Sometimes passive-aggressive behavior is situational. For instance, if you’re at a family gathering or in a professional setting, it might not be appropriate to express anger at that moment. Passive-aggressive behavior can be an adaptive response to another person’s controlling behavior.

A more pronounced and persistent expression of passive-aggressive behavior can be influenced by any of the following:

  • Genetics
  • Growing up with any kind of abuse (physical, sexual, emotional, neglect) or with substance abuse
  • Being punished as a child for expressing angry, negative, or opposing feelings or thoughts
  • Low self-esteem
  • Failing to learn assertiveness as a child
  • Disruptions in a child’s relationship to authority figures (parents, teachers, caregivers)
  • Having a mental health condition such as anxiety, depression, borderline personality disorder, substance abuse, ADHD, etc.

It’s helpful to be able to recognize problematic passive-aggressive symptoms and signs in yourself and others because many of the causal factors can be addressed.


  1. Sulking, Sighing, and Pouting

A passive-aggressive person may express their discontent by sulking, sighing loudly, or pouting—all indicating their unhappiness indirectly.

  1. Acting Sullen

Like in the example given above, in place of direct confrontation, a passive-aggressive individual will adopt a sullen disposition and often will deny anything is wrong. They may become silent, inflicting punishment through their refusal to engage or talk.

  1. Gaslighting

A passive-aggressive person may avoid the possibility of direct conflict by insisting that the other individual is simply misinterpreting their words or actions. They try to make it seem that it’s the other person’s issue.

  1. Ghosting or Creating Distance

Rather than addressing an issue directly or expressing discontent with another person, the passive-aggressive individual may simply stop communicating altogether. Or, they may move away emotionally from a person, creating distance.

The silence, distance, or disappearing act will cause distress to the recipient. Any attempts they make to repair things directly will often be met with denial or deflection.

  1. Offering Backhanded Compliments or Subtle Insults

We’ve all received a compliment with a zinger baked into it. Compliments like “Your haircut makes your nose look smaller” or “Congratulations on your marriage. I thought it would never happen!” are examples of this type of backhanded compliment.

  1. Procrastinating or Disregarding Requests

Instead of saying no to your request directly, a passive-aggressive person will drag their feet, procrastinate, or not do what you’ve asked at all.

  1. Using Sarcasm

Sarcasm can be aggression disguised as humor when the intent is to mock or punish another person. Passive-aggressive people are often sarcastic, and they will often deny the ill intent of their sarcasm.

  1. Scorekeeping

A passive-aggressive person tends to keep track of what they do for others. They often feel that others do not do the same for them. They will tally up all the times they feel wronged by another person. They feel justified in subtle, passive behaviors when the list of wrongs grows long.

  1. Sabotaging Others

A passive-aggressive person may sabotage a loved one. Perhaps they’ll have a “crisis” before a really important day for a spouse or friend, sabotaging their chances for success. If they’re angry with or envious of someone, they may say something negative about that person to someone else to influence their opinion.

  1. Vents to Uninvolved Parties

Passive-aggressive types may talk endlessly about their frustrations to a third-party person in order to find comfort and understanding. However, they will not address the issue with the individual directly.

  1. Hints

Masters of hinting, a passive-aggressive person will gently suggest feelings of discontent instead of expressing them directly. They may talk about a similar scenario and how that made them feel. They may reference an earlier incident but not express feelings about it.

  1. Physically Shows Aggression

A passive-aggressive person may slam cupboard doors, shuffle things around loudly, or slam things down to physically suggest anger without using words.


The good news about recognizing passive-aggressive behavior is that it can change. Through psychotherapy, an individual can learn to be more comfortable expressing (and receiving) direct communication about more difficult emotions.

Any underlying mental health conditions or brain health issue can be treated. With treatment, self-confidence, assertiveness, and self-awareness may make direct communication easier.

Passive-aggressive behavior and other mental health issues can’t wait. At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, clinical evaluations, and therapy for adults, teens, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834 or visit our contact page here.

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