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Passive-aggressive behaviour
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Health and Wellbeing

11 Nov 2020

Passive-aggressive behaviour

By Rajna Bogdanovic - Clinical psychologist

There is so much more to passive-aggressive behaviour than we usually see. Its roots can run deep and it can have grave consequences to relationships between family members, partners, and in the workplace.

Specific signs of passive-aggressive behaviour include opposition to the thoughts and ideas of other people, intentional mistakes in response to other people’s instructions, sullen or hostile attitude and frequent complaints about feelings of underappreciation.

There are five common identifiable “types” of passive-aggressive person:

  1. Silent treatment: This involves remaining tight-lipped, turning a cold shoulder, or providing short, one word answers to others when the situation did not end in their favour.
  2. Sulker: ​Much like when children do not get their way, sulkers do the same when a situation does not pan out how they would have liked, turning sad and bitter if they do not get their way.
  3. Forgetter: ​A forgetter may agree to help with a task or duty, but later claim they forgot to do it, or they procrastinate to the point where another individual has to take over, often having had no intention of helping in the first place.
  4. Low-performer: ​Low-performers will carry out a task assigned to them, however often with little effort and disappointing, sloppy results.
  5. Needler: ​In an attempt to undermine others and make them feel self-conscious, needlers use backhanded compliments or sarcasm and ambiguity as a form of passive aggressive communication.

Why does passive-aggressive behaviour happen?

There are a number of situational and environmental influences that could cause an individual to become passive-aggressive, this includes childhood and upbringing; individuals raised in an environment where expression of emotions was frowned upon or discouraged may lead to the thought that expression of emotions in an open setting ​is not allowed. Further, situations where displays of aggression are not considered socially acceptable may lead to the inclination to respond in a passive way when feelings of anger and frustration arise.

Lastly, for some people, being assertive and emotionally “on display” is not easy, with the easier route for dealing with emotions being passive aggression, where there is no need to confront the source of anger or frustration.

How to change passive-aggressive behaviour

If you believe you are exhibiting passive-aggressive behaviour, firstly work on improving your self-awareness; passive-aggressive behaviour can appear when you do not understand how you are feeling towards different people and situations.

Once you are self-aware of your emotions you can then begin to identify possible reasons or triggers. You may then want to practice expressing yourself in more appropriate ways. Start by practicing expressing yourself assertively with friends, family and people you trust.

If you are experiencing a passive-aggressive individual there are also a number of steps you can take to address their behaviour in a suitable manner. Firstly, know the signs to look out for, and then (if you’re able to), express how you are feeling in the moment. For example, if a passive-aggressive friend is always late, tell them that you would appreciate them being on time and why. Finally, be open and inclusive in your communication. They are likely to be averse to confronting conversations so encourage a two-way conversation which includes open dialogue and positive feedback •

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