How to stop being passive-aggressive: 8 strategies for 2024

a woman with curly hair showing her two sides needs to learn how to stop being passive aggressive

Struggling with a passive-aggressive manner? It's a pattern where expressing anger directly feels impossible, leading to turmoil in relationships. But change is possible. Discover key traits and triggers behind passive-aggression and unlock effective communication strategies for a happier life.

Table of contents
What does it mean to be passive-aggressive?
What is passive-aggressive behavior?
What causes passive aggression?
Is being passive-aggressive a bad thing?
How to stop being passive-aggressive
How to stop being passive-aggressive and become a successful communicator

What does it mean to be passive-aggressive?

Passive-aggressive behavior involves indirectly expressing negative feelings, such as anger, resentment, or hostility, through subtle or covert means. This can include sarcasm, avoidance, procrastination, or deliberate inefficiency. Individuals exhibiting passive aggression may resist openly addressing conflicts or expressing their needs, leading to interpersonal tension and misunderstandings.

Underlying causes often include fear of confrontation, low self-esteem, or learned communication patterns from childhood. Despite appearing passive on the surface, this behavior can be driven by underlying anger and a desire to exert control or punish others. Effective management typically involves improving assertiveness and conflict resolution skills, and addressing underlying emotional issues.

What is passive-aggressive behavior?

A passive-aggressive person may behave in various ways:

  • Inconsistency between words and actions: Saying one thing verbally while displaying conflicting body language, tone of voice, or facial expressions. For example, a passive-aggressive person might say, “Everything’s fine,” while rolling their eyes and turning their body away from you.
  • Giving the silent treatment: Ignoring communication or refusing to respond to messages to convey displeasure or anger. A passive-aggressive person might ignore you and refuse to answer your phone calls, hoping you’ll pick up on their displeasure.
  • Undermining or sabotage: This is secretly working against someone's interests or goals by providing incorrect information or interfering with plans. A passive-aggressive person who doesn’t want a friend to succeed at planning a party, for example, might pretend to “help” but then intentionally give the catering company the wrong address or tamper with the guest list.
  • Non-verbal expressions of contempt: Demonstrating dissatisfaction or disdain through gestures like pouting, sighing, or huffing. 
  • Procrastination: Deliberately delaying tasks or requests instead of openly addressing concerns or issues.
  • Additional behaviors may include cynicism, frequent complaints, giving backhanded compliments, or displaying aggressive attitudes.

What causes passive aggression?

There are common traits and behavioral patterns that are related to passive-aggressive behavior:

  • Lack of assertiveness: “Sometimes these people are conflict avoidant,” says Jason Drake, LCSW-S, BCN. “Many times, what underlies passive aggressiveness is a perceived slight or wrongdoing by the other person. Instead of being assertive and addressing the issue, they may have a fear of conflict and instead play a 'get back game' by being passive-aggressive.”
  • Insecurity: “A person may have deep-rooted insecurities and experience envy or jealousy over the other person,” Drake says. “Instead of recognizing the envy or jealousy inside them and being happy for someone else's success, they may be passive-aggressive to defend their ego against not having, being, or doing what the other person has, is, or does to create success.”
  • Upbringing: Childhood experiences play a significant role, with passive aggression often learned from emotionally distant or communication-limited parental figures. In environments where expressing emotions is discouraged or suppressed, individuals may experience a feeling of powerlessness and adopt passive-aggressive tendencies as adults due to a lack of learned communication skills.

Is being passive-aggressive a bad thing?

Instead of viewing this behavior in terms of “good” or “bad” (which can often be shame-inducing), let's frame it in morally neutral terms: Is being passive-aggressive working for you? Is it helping you cultivate happy and healthy relationships? Do you have the type of interpersonal relationships and professional relationships you desire? Is it allowing you to express and uphold your boundaries?

“Being passive aggressive is an immature defense mechanism and likely served an important, protective function at some point in our lives when we did not know how to protect our emotions in other ways,” Drake explains. “Usually this develops when you're a child when you may not have the words to express how you feel and how to be assertive.

Being passive-aggressive likely protected your emotions from further harm. However, as we grow, our brain develops, we mature, and we are able to analyze situations and engage in introspection; this defense mechanism may no longer be needed and may cause more harm than good.

Sure, passive aggression indeed communicates something to the person you direct it toward, but the outcome may not be what you intended.

“While passive aggressiveness does give a person a chance to be angry or to disagree with someone without being openly confrontational or defiant, it is not the best technique to use in most situations,” explains life coach Leah Veazey. “Passive aggressiveness is one of the more detrimental forms of communication to a relationship.”

How to stop being passive-aggressive

Everyone is capable of change. As a collaboration and performance AI platform, we help everyone to bring out their best in work and life, so we know you can achieve your personal development goals with our world-class online coaching programs. This type of behavior can change with some of the strategies below:

1. Improve self-awareness.

The first step is to recognize your passive-aggressive tendencies by acknowledging how situations affect you. “If we are aware of how a particular situation is affecting us at the moment,” says Veazey, “then we have the opportunity to address it consciously.”

Pay attention to your emotions and the behaviors that flow from them. Re-read the behaviors of passive aggression above and start to recognize when you're exhibiting those behaviors and what circumstances trigger them.

For example, you might struggle with passive-aggressive behavior in a workplace setting because you fear retribution if you express yourself directly to your boss or coworkers. This is understandable, but if you want to stop being passive-aggressive, you'll need to learn more direct ways to communicate with the people you work with.

One way to better understand yourself is to answer our questions on what motivates you. You'll uncover your top motivational traits, such as your preference for direct communication vs nonverbal communication, which could help you begin to unpack your emotional responses and behavior patterns related to your communication style. 

Or you might discover that you have a strong need for a sense of belonging, which means you might respond passive-aggressively if you feel you're being left out.

f4s dashboard shows your motivations so you can understand yourself and stop being passive aggressive
F4S dashboard

2. Address root causes.

The key to overcoming anything is to tackle it at the source. If your passive-aggressive tendencies stem from a childhood upbringing where healthy communication was never modeled for you, you might struggle to express yourself and turn to passive-aggression to do so indirectly. The key here, then, would be to learn more effective ways to communicate.

Our Increase EQ online coaching program allows you to explore, develop, and strengthen your emotional intelligence (EQ) to improve self-confidence and communicate emotions.

3. Practice mindfulness.

John P. Carnesecchi, LCSW, recommends beginning with mindfulness. “Mindfulness is the power to be in the present, in the now, and be aware of one's emotions, feelings, thoughts, and behaviors,” he explains. When you have mastered mindfulness (which takes lots of practice), you can think clearly about responding to situations and conversations rationally. You become entirely in control of your mind and body.

I recommend the person take inventory of the scenario and parties involved to ensure a positive outcome will occur instead of being in a counterproductive environment.”

You can also take part in one of our many AI coaching programs, such as Vital Wellbeing.

4. Start a journal.

To help you understand how passive aggression is negatively affecting your life, Drake recommends keeping a journal and writing about it when you feel passive-aggressive throughout the day.

“In your journal, write down the situation or experience, your thoughts in the moment, and the feelings that resulted from those thoughts,” he says. Over time, this can help you recognize common themes that lead you to be passive-aggressive.

Once you know the ‘why,' you can then work effectively on the ‘how' to stop being passive-aggressive.”

5. Practice assertiveness.

Practicing assertiveness will help you overcome passive aggression. “Be observant of the times when you are passive-aggressive,” Drake says. You need to stop and think about the thoughts, feelings, and experiences that led you to be passive-aggressive. Then, approach the person and apologize for being passive-aggressive.

Depending on the person, you may even have a conversation about the thoughts, feelings, and experiences you feel you are defending against with passive aggression. Most people will respond positively to this. But, you will need to be mindful of the person as this may not be productive depending on the person who elicited those feelings for you.”

Starting our Personal Power program will help you develop confidence, assertive communication, and breakthrough self-sabotage.

6. Channel anger positively.

Passive aggression often arises when we have no way to express our anger or negative feelings about something. When we bottle up those emotions, they often result in passive aggression. The key, then, is to find healthy outlets for your anger. One such way is through exercise.

And don't let the word “exercise” intimidate you. You don't have to go to the gym or do anything intense if you don't want to. A healthy way to blow off steam could be as simple as walking around your neighborhood. And if you can find a nature walk, it would be even better! Research on the benefits of walking through forest areas found that 15 minutes decreased anger-hostility emotions in participants compared to walking through city areas.

7. Use verbal expression.

“Use your words,” as in, use words to express how you feel. Passive aggression is a failure to use your words to express what's happening inside of you (or a failure to use those words accurately, such as when you say, “No, it's fine,” without meaning it).

So, the next time you feel passive-aggression creeping up, try writing out what you want to say. Then, share it with the other person. It'll probably go over better than huffing, sighing, or avoiding the person, hoping they'll guess what you're mad about.

8. Craft a “when-then” statement.

If you're still struggling to “use your words,” try crafting a “when-then” statement as recommended by licensed psychologist Thomas DiBlasi, Ph.D.:

“Saying something like: ‘When you yelled at me, I felt hurt. It seems like you didn't consider my feelings or perspective, making it hard to be around you.' In this case, the when is ‘when you yelled at me' and the then is ‘I felt hurt. It seems like you didn't consider my feelings or perspective, making it hard to be around you.'

By using these words, you are being open and honest with the other person by telling them how you feel. You are also doing it in a way that is most likely to get what you want. It is vital to communicate how you feel, not what you think. People can argue thoughts with you until they are blue in the face, but no one can legitimately tell you that your feelings are wrong. Communicating how you are feeling makes it less likely that you and the other person will get into an argument.”

How to stop being passive-aggressive and become a successful communicator

By learning how to stop being passive-aggressive, you can make small changes today that will reap rewards in the long run. It may seem overwhelming now, but you've already gotten a head start by realizing you're resorting to passive-aggressive behaviors.

“The first step is for a person to be able to recognize that being passive-aggressive is not working for them,” says Drake. “It negatively impacts relationships and overall happiness in life.”

And hopefully, this recognition will fuel your motivation to make a positive change.

Ditch passive-aggressive communication

Answer our questions on what motivates you to understand yourself better. Find out your top communication traits and become a more assertive communicator.

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