Why Passive-Aggressiveness is Toxic | Heather Spurrell Life Coach (2023)

“I’m fine.” ……You know what that means when someone says it to you right?

Everything is NOT fine.

In fact, most of the time it means something like:

  • Everything is definitely not fine
  • I’m upset with you something you did (or didn’t do)
  • You better think quick and figure out what I’m upset about and apologize, or I’m going to get nasty.

Not an awesome experience by any stretch of the imagination.

These reactions can leave you feeling the whole spectrum of uncomfortable stuff including:

  • Like you’re walking on eggshells
  • Waiting for the bomb to go off
  • Defensive and angry, as if you’ve just been accused of something
  • Blindsided and shocked

Regardless of how it shows up for you, the feeling sucks and your relationship’s emotional bank account is left depleted, again.

  • The emotional bank account is the relationship equivalent of your personal monetary bank account. You can make deposits by doing things that contribute to your partner and the relationship or you can make withdrawals by doing things that diminish or take-away-from your relationship or your partner.

“I’m fine” is just one example of passive-aggressive behaviour, because that actually comes in many forms.

What exactly is passive-aggressive-behaviour?

Passive-aggressive behaviour is often a defence mechanism people use to protect themselves. It might be an automatic response learned over time based on what they learned growing up from the relationships around them.

Passive-aggressive behaviour consists of deliberate, active, but carefullyveiled hostile acts. It is the indirect expression of hostility using various methods to convey your message.

For example, if you grew up in a home where your parents were passive-aggressive with one another, you would naturally pick up on the behaviour and think it was a normal way of communicating and getting your needs met.

Regardless of what drives the behaviour or what you’re trying to protect yourself from, passive-aggressive behaviour only creates dysfunction. If you’re hoping for long-term success and happiness in a relationship, passive-aggressive behaviour has no place.

It’s important to note that passive-aggressive behaviour used as a defence mechanism allows people who aren’t comfortable being openly communicative to get what they want under the guise of still trying to please others.

Those using passive-aggressiveness want their to get their way, but they also want to avoid:

  • Making people dislike them
  • Rocking the boat or making people upset
  • Speaking up and holding boundaries

It’s a destructive pattern and, depending on the severity and frequency, can be a form of emotional abuse in relationships. It erodes any trust that exists in a relationship and can create immense hurt and pain to all parties.

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Unfortunately, passive-aggressive attacks are bound to happen.

When negative emotions and feelings build up inside you and are then suppressed based on theneed for:

  • Acceptance by another
  • Dependence on others
  • Avoiding further arguments or conflict

Using passive-aggressive behaviours can seem like a natural tactic to get our needs met.

The concern is when this behaviour is more persistent and repeats regularly. When this is an ongoing pattern of negative attitudes and passive resistance in your relationship, you have a problem.

Examples of passive-aggressive behavioursinclude:


When something is going on (an issue or problem) and it should be addressed but you avoid or refuse to address it.


When you are upset/hurt/angry and you feel you cannot speak calmly and truthfully to deal with the issue. Rather than have a conversation about why you’re upset/hurt/angry, you avoid and ignore or bury your head in the sand.


Intentionally putting off tasks that you know you’re responsible for, because you know it will impact or upset your partner. When procrastination is about sending a message, rather than avoiding due to fear, it can show up like “I’ll eventually get around to mowing the grass but right now I’m just going to tinker in the garage” when you know that will upset your partner.


Deliberately stalling or preventing something from happening with counter productive actions.


Being cryptic, unclear, not fully engaging in conversations leaving the people you’re talking to unclear and ill at ease.


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Being silent, morose, sullen and resentful in order to get attention or sympathy.

Chronic Lateness

A way to put you in control over others and their expectations.

Chronic Forgetting

Showing a blatant disrespect and disregard for others to (consciously or unconsciously) punish them in some way.

Making Excuses

Always coming up with reasons, justifications, or explanations for not doing things that you’ve agreed to do.


Being unable to look at your own part in a situation will turn the tables to put you in the victim position, and inevitably you will behave like one.


Projecting responsibility or blame onto others for situations rather than being able to take responsibility for your own actions or being able to take an objective view of the situation as a whole.


This is in regards to anything that is a normal expectation. For example withholding: time, money, sex, cooking, cleaning, etc. if they are normal behaviours within the relationship.

This can also includes the general niceties that have become the norm: making tea, running a bath, picking up a treat at the grocery store, etc.

Anytime you’re doing these things in an effort to send a message (rather than say it straight up) – like “I’m mad at you” – it’s passive-aggressive.

Learned Helplessness

Continually acting like you can’t do something or take care of yourself.

This includes deliberately doing a poor job of something you’re responsible for – like laundry – in an effort to avoid having to do it in the future. This behaviour can also show up in order to punish the other people impacted by your failure to complete the task. For example: “Sorry I shrank your favourite sweater when I did laundry.”

How is the need for control related to passive-aggressive behaviour?

Bet you never saw this coming… The driving factor behind passive-aggressive behaviour really comes down to the need for control.

Over time people learn that it can be easier to use passive-aggressive techniques to get their way, than it is to open their mouths and say what’s really going on.

This might look like…

I don’t want you to do X so I’m going to do or say Y

  • Example: I don’t want you to go out with your friends on the weekend so I’m going to say it’s fine but then I’m going to ignore you or be short with you.

I don’t want to do X so I’m going to do or say Y

  • Example: I don’t want to hang out with your family so I’m going to put off some important chores so when the time comes to leave, I have a valid excuse not to come.

I want to hurt you because I’m mad at you for doing (or not doing) X

  • Example: You asked me to do something time-sensitive that’s important to you, and I said I would but I conveniently ‘forgot’ until it was too late.

I’m mad at you so I’m going to do something to piss you off too

  • Example: I know you hate it when I don’t put my dishes in the dishwasher so I’m going to leave them on the counter repeatedly, just to piss you off.

You get the idea…

Since most of us prefer avoiding confrontation or conflict, passive-aggressiveness becomes an natural and easy solution.

What Can You Do Instead?

Here are some basic rules to help you avoid or overcome passive-aggressive patterns in your relationships:

Draw Boundaries (Emotional Limits) And Stick To Them

If you feel like you’re not being heard or understood, say something. If you feel like you’re being disrespected, have a conversation about it.

Say What You Mean And Mean What You Say

If you want them to know how you feel, you have to tell them. If you want them to do something you have to ask.It’s always your job to be responsible for actively and effectively communicating how you feel and what you need.

Create Fair Fighting Rules Ahead Of Time

Knowing how to ‘fight fair’ and have constructive conflict is a key part to the growth and development of any relationship. One way to do this is to set rules with the other party about what works and what doesn’t ahead of time, when you’re not fighting.

Knowing what your fair-fight-boundaries are before a disagreement happens can make tough conversations much more effective – and as a bonus, it increases trust and connection.

Forgive and Move On

When you said you were ‘over it’ and you’d let it go, you have to keep your word and do just that. Bringing up stuff from the past that’s supposedly been dealt with is unfair and only puts the other person on the defence.

If yousaid you were okay with something and that wasn’t true, get responsible for thatand deal with the consequences of LYING. If you have trouble letting go of previous situations, you might need to do some investigation into what’s getting in the way of that for you.

Being Tolerant and Being a Doormat is Not The Same Thing

There is a BIG difference between these two things and you need to figure out where your boundary is. In the long run, people-pleasing is a waste of time; ultimately you will end up resenting the person you’ve been ‘pleasing’ – not to mention a deep rooted contempt for yourself.

Regular passive-aggressive behaviour indicates a serious problem.

When someone is showing up as passive-aggressive on an ongoing basis, there is something they are upset/hurt/angry about that hasn’t been addressed. By the time this has become a regular behaviour whatever you think they’re upset about is just a symptom of a bigger, deeper issue.

If you want your relationship to return to one of fun, love, and happiness you’re going to have to do the work and dig into that deeper issue and confront it together.

Relationships are hard.

Download your free copy of the Build Lasting Love Guidebook and learn 3 proven techniques that will help you improve your relationships.


Is passive aggressiveness toxic? ›

This is particularly true when experiencing people's behaviors that are simultaneously hostile and confusing. Situations with this kind of display of emotions are often called passive-aggressive behaviors. This kind of toxic behavior is sometimes hard to spot and difficult to deal with.

What is the root cause of passive-aggressive behavior? ›

Passive aggression often stems from underlying anger, sadness, or insecurity, of which the person may or may not be consciously aware. Passive-aggressive behavior may be an expression of those emotions or an attempt to gain control in a relationship. Bearing that in mind can inform how you respond.

What is wrong with passive-aggressive people? ›

Although passive-aggressive behavior can be a feature of various mental health conditions, it isn't considered a distinct mental illness. However, passive-aggressive behavior can interfere with relationships and cause difficulties on the job.

What mental illness makes you passive-aggressive? ›

Passive-aggressive personality disorder, also called negativistic personality disorder, is characterized by procrastination, covert obstructionism, inefficiency and stubbornness.
Passive–aggressive personality disorder.
Passive-aggressive personality disorder
Other namesNegativistic personality disorder
SpecialtyPsychiatry, clinical psychology
2 more rows

What is the biggest act of passive aggressiveness? ›

In fact, fake politeness is rated as the worst example of passive-aggressive behavior, according to 24% of respondents. Other behaviors ranking among the worst include fake or feigned innocence (17%) and weaponized kindness (14%). People use weaponized kindness by being overly kind as a manipulation tactic.

Is passive-aggressive a form of manipulation? ›

In passive aggression, the manipulator doesn't voice negative feelings toward or problems with a person. Instead, they find indirect ways to express their anger and undermine the other person.

What personality type is passive-aggressive? ›

What is it? According to the American Psychological Association (APA), PAPD is “a personality disorder of long standing in which ambivalence toward the self and others” is expressed by passive expressions of underlying negativism. This means that PAPD is a chronic, generally inflexible, condition.

How do you outsmart a passive-aggressive person? ›

Here are ways to successfully deal with passive-aggressive people.
  1. Pay attention to passive-aggressive behavior. ...
  2. Call out the specific behavior. ...
  3. Stay present. ...
  4. Be open and inclusive to communication. ...
  5. Recognize your own passive-aggression. ...
  6. Remove yourself from the situation the best you can.
Oct 17, 2018

How do you fix passive-aggressive behavior? ›

How to Stop Your Passive Aggressive Behavior
  1. Recognize your behavior. ...
  2. Understand why your behavior should be changed. ...
  3. Give yourself time. ...
  4. Realize it's OK to be angry. ...
  5. Be assertive, not aggressive. ...
  6. Be open to confrontation. ...
  7. Believe in Yourself.
Sep 6, 2018

What happens when you live with a passive-aggressive person? ›

Passive-Aggressive Cycles

Passive-aggressiveness can often lead to cycles of conflict that create problems in relationships. In such cases, an individual may engage in passive-aggressive behavior to force the other person to respond, which may then be met with more direct anger or aggression.

Are passive-aggressive people unhappy? ›

The passive-aggressive often experiences physical, mental, and emotional distress due to repressed anger, resentment, and/or hostility. The passive-aggressive often feels more isolated personally and professionally due to the unwillingness or inability to engage in effective communication.

Why would a person be passive-aggressive? ›

People may act like this because they fear losing control, are insecure, or lack self-esteem . They might do it to cope with stress, anxiety , depression, or insecurity, or to deal with rejection or conflict. Alternatively, they might do it because they have a grudge against a colleague, or feel underappreciated.

Are passive-aggressive people lonely? ›

Loneliness as passive-aggressive behavior

A passive-aggressive person will avoid face-to-face confrontation. They can't show their feelings; therefore, being lonely will improve peace of mind. Most passive aggressors will isolate themselves to clear harsh feedback.

What are physical signs of passive-aggressive? ›

Acts out aggression physically

A passive-aggressive person may slam doors, move things around loudly, or use other physical means of getting their point across without words.

Do passive aggressives ever apologize? ›

Im sorry, Im sorry, Im sorry. This is a passive-aggressive apology done to silence the other person and move onto a different topic. It minimizes what the other person has experienced.

What do passive aggressives want? ›

People who behave passive-aggressively do not want others to notice or respond to their aggression, but they still want to communicate their emotions. There is no single method that works for all types of passive-aggressive behavior.

Do passive aggressives know what they are doing? ›

Limited Awareness. The passive-aggressive is somewhat aware of the fact that she or he is resisting but does not recognize it as passive-aggressiveness per se; they just do what they do. They are not cognizant of, or concerned with, the destructive impact of passive-aggression.

Is passive aggression a form of gaslighting? ›

The most obvious example of passive-aggressive behavior can be experienced when someone is gaslighting you and being emotionally manipulative. But it can happen in smaller ways, too, even with people you love and care about or see every day.

Is passive-aggressive the same as narcissism? ›

It's important to note that not all passive-aggressive individuals are narcissistic. What characterizes the passive-aggressive narcissist is their barely disguised sense of superiority, conceit, and entitlement. They are inclined to become covertly hostile when they don't get their way, no matter how unreasonable.

Is silent treatment passive-aggressive? ›

The silent treatment can often be used when the person doesn't have the tools to respond differently. When faced with the triggering of strong feelings, they may not know what else to do — so they go quiet. It can also be a passive-aggressive response to avoid directly communicating how (hurt) they feel.

How do you communicate with a passive-aggressive person? ›

10 Strategies for Dealing with Passive-Aggressive People
  1. Recognize the pattern: ...
  2. Don't take the bait: ...
  3. Address the issue as soon as possible: ...
  4. Use humour: ...
  5. Use assertive, clear, and direct communication: ...
  6. Stay present and state your feelings: ...
  7. Offer to solve the issue together: ...
  8. Don't try to change them:

What do you call someone who is always passive-aggressive? ›

Today, passive-aggressive is also used in everyday conversation to refer to a tendency some people have toward a less direct style of communication, especially communication that may create conflict. Some potential synonyms for this kind of behavior are negativistic, apathetic, petulant, or snide.

Is passive-aggressive a mental illness? ›

They then find indirect ways to show how they really feel. Passive aggression isn't a mental illness. But people with mental health conditions may act that way. Passive aggression could damage your personal and professional relationships.

How does passive-aggressive behavior affect relationships? ›

The main effect of passive-aggressive behaviour on a relationship is usually to create a sense of mistrust between the two people involved. It can create an environment where neither partner feels able to express emotions directly, and may indeed continue to use passive-aggression to do so.

What is passive-aggressive narcissist? ›

Signs of Passive-Aggressive Behavior in Narcissists

Passive-aggressive behavior can come in many forms, including: Indirect hostility (backhanded compliments) Silent treatment to purposely cause discomfort. Purposeful lack of communication. Sulking.

Do passive-aggressive people have low self-esteem? ›

People who are passive-aggressive often [have] low self-esteem; they tend to be anxious and feel that they must control others,” explains Colleen Wenner, a licensed mental health counselor in Fort Walton Beach, Florida.

What are 5 characteristics of passive behavior? ›

Some Ways Passive Behavior Might Manifest:
  • Avoiding confrontation or conflict.
  • Not setting boundaries.
  • Not speaking up for yourself.
  • Not asserting to yourself.
  • Putting the needs of your colleagues or partners first.
  • Having difficulty making decisions.
  • Feeling powerless or helpless in some situations.
Mar 15, 2023

Can passive-aggressive be positive? ›

Passive aggression allows people to subtly vocalize their negative emotions without directly addressing the source of the discomfort. While passive-aggressive behavior can feel good and even righteous, it slowly erodes relationships, eliminating any chance of fixing the underlying problem.

Is passive aggression acceptable? ›

Social norms. Outward displays of anger and honest expression of emotions may be inappropriate in some cultures. Passive aggression may be the only acceptable outlet when someone is upset, stressed, or frustrated.

Is being passive-aggressive a trauma response? ›

For some people, passive-aggression may be the only way they know how to express their negative feelings. Passive-aggression may also be a coping strategy or survival tactic learned in childhood in response to trauma.

How do you outsmart passive-aggressive? ›

Strategies for Managing Passive-Aggressive People
  1. Identify the Behavior. ...
  2. Create a Safe Environment. ...
  3. Use Language Carefully. ...
  4. Stay Calm. ...
  5. Identify the Cause. ...
  6. Provide Training.
  7. Set Clear Standards and Consequences. ...
  8. Open up Channels of Communication.

Is being passive-aggressive a narcissistic trait? ›

Covert narcissists often behave in passive-aggressive ways. They disregard others while exaggerating their own importance. They also blame, shame, and ignore the feelings and needs of other people.

Is passive aggression a red flag? ›

Some red flags that someone you know is being passive-aggressive: Resents or outright opposes the instructions of others, though they may still do what they're told. Delays finishing a task that someone else requested or makes intentional mistakes. Has a sarcastic or argumentative attitude.

Do passive Aggressives know what they are doing? ›

Limited Awareness. The passive-aggressive is somewhat aware of the fact that she or he is resisting but does not recognize it as passive-aggressiveness per se; they just do what they do. They are not cognizant of, or concerned with, the destructive impact of passive-aggression.


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