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Handling Passive Aggressive Behavior

Updated: Jun 2, 2021

What is passive aggressive behavior?

It is covert or sneaky aggression that leads the other person to think that they are the crazy one. Another human issue with shame at the core of it. There's an undertone of aggression but it doesn't feel quite right. It's an under-the-surface feeling that something isn't quite right but it's not directly said. It leaves us feeling like an invisible crime was just committed, but everyone is acting normal still and pretending it didn't happen.

We all have reasons why we act in ways that aren't helpful. When someone grows up and it wasn't ok to express basic needs/feelings, then they learn a different way to get those needs met. It then carries into adulthood relationships or communications - there is a core unmet need that for a certain reason isn't safe to share with others. The outer child category fits well here as it doesn't serve us well, and it doesn't help with adult to adult relationships.

Types of passive aggressive behavior:

1) Sarcasm - a form of hiding.

2) Using a lot of indirect criticism - insulting and critical in not-overt ways. They can't directly ask for what they need. "I guess I take care of everything around here" vs. a direct request: "do you mind pitching in?"

3) Underhanded compliments - "Congrats on the new job! How did you manage that?" It leads us to not know how to respond. It's not overtly cruel but it leaves the other person with an ugly taste in their mouth.

4) Ignoring/silent treatment/pretending to not hear you - It's a way to avoid handling any conflict. They were never taught how to deal with issues head-on.

5) Insult you - then laugh about it. It leaves the other person confused but it felt cutting.

6) Gossip - They avoid something and pretend that everything is ok. "I think you're just reading into things" but then they go behind your back and gossip about you.

How to deal with it?

It's frustrating and difficult. It's confusing because the other person will often deny it. We've all done this behavior too. People will handle it in different ways depending on how entrenched their fear is. If you are left in a winner or loser mentality, that is the continuum to challenge in your internal thinking. Remind yourself that you are ok, you are still good, and there doesn't have to be a winner or loser in this. You haven't lost yourself at all, even though it can feel that way.

We don't have control over how others act, but we do have control of our personal bubble and our own process. Working on ourselves in a way that shows clear communication, isn't reactionary, but also states our needs is a good place to focus our attention. What's needed is to name the impact, ask for clarification on their intent, and be as specific as possible without lashing out.


1) Call out the behavior that doesn't feel right to you, but do it in a soft way. Do it without any aggression or anger. "I get the feeling that something put you off or made you upset. Can we talk about it? " Extending the olive branch is the good work on your part, regardless if they are open to talking about it.

2) Give them the benefit of the doubt. "I don't know if you meant that in this way, but this felt hurtful."

3) Tell them how something made you feel. "How you said that made me feel bad, it didn't feel good." They could deny it or say you are too sensitive, but it's important for us to communicate in honest ways, even if they can't own up to it. Setting healthy boundaries that we are assertive and clear in our communication. It's ok to be more open and honest.

4) Not getting sucked into their drama. If they are unhealthy in their communication, that we don't fight fire with fire. Don't compromise your integrity, hold your ground, address things and don't let others take advantage of you. Also not getting sucked into their outer child. "What are you trying to say? What are you wanting?" Invite them to be more clear with their communication. You can model a different way of engaging that is more open.

5) Be clear, be respectful, have your boundaries. It's ok to speak up and say no.

6) In difficult cases, shower the person in empathy. Saying something like, "I don't know how you do it sometimes." There's something in that simple sentence that can throw the conversation in a totally different direction.

Trying to understand another adult in the context of them as a child not getting to safely advocate for themselves can be a good entry point in trying to understand where they are coming from. The difficult behavior points to unprocessed elements in their story, and at the core their inner child hasn't gotten to have space to express totally valid feelings. It helps to go to a place of sadness too in naming things while we try to hold onto ourselves. We are all unique and have struggles, nobody is immune to that.

An outer child is just a self-sabotaging behavior that doesn't serve the person or their relationships, and each of us are responsible for our own individual growth paths. Putting a boundary on it and saying, "Ok this behavior is actually about that person, and it doesn't accurately reflect who I am" can be really healthy and needed to differentiate ourselves from another person's toxic behavior.

A lot of us let unhealthy comments go unchecked. It can be good work on ourselves in starting to put a name to it with the other person. Speaking into the void is scary and dangerous, and it's surprising how many of us go along silently with toxic behavior. The work is speak into it in a differentiated way that isn't angry but says, "No, I am worth advocating for. The other person's behavior doesn't match how I view my inner child - this is about the other person right now."

5 Ways to Deal with Passive Aggressive People | Psychology Today

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