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Dealing with passive aggressive behaviours

Jane Murphy / 03 March 2016 ( 09 December 2019 )

Think you can get your point across by dropping indirect hints? Here's why passive aggressive behaviour never works – plus how to handle it in other people.

Passive aggressive message or hint
Do you get your point across by dropping hints?

Ever said 'It's fine' when clearly it wasn't? Or contacted a friend to 'check she's OK' as you didn't hear from her on your birthday? We're all guilty of passive aggressive behaviour from time to time – but for some people, it becomes second nature.

It may seem like a good way to get a point across while avoiding direct confrontation. However, it's also draining, destructive and wide open to misinterpretation. In short, it's a waste of time.

'Whenever we express our true feelings by way of indirect hints, we're essentially being passive aggressive,' says integrative psychotherapist Hilda Burke ( 'It typically develops in childhood. If speaking your mind is deemed unacceptable in families, children learn other means of expressing themselves – and this will persist into adulthood.'

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Are you passive aggressive?

Even if you recognise a pattern of passive aggression in yourself, it can still be difficult to break. 'Because it was learned in childhood, it's likely to be deeply entrenched,' Burke explains.

'I don't think there are any quick fixes in terms of changing the behaviour. Passive aggressive people often spend their whole lives denying or repressing their true feelings and opinions. I would strongly recommend psychotherapy as a route to unearthing the reasons why they have learned to bury their true feelings and to build the necessary trust so they can express their feelings without the fear of being rejected.'

Still, if you're a 'part-time passive aggressive' – maybe you just veer towards it with certain people or in particular situations – there are ways to break the habit.

Try taking a step back and asking yourself whether the point really needs to be made. And, if it does, are dropping hints or sulking really the most effective way of making it? Of course not. If you're feeling aggrieved or misunderstood, this kind of negative behaviour is only going to prolong the situation. It's much better to articulate your views in a cool, calm, straightforward manner.

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Know when to let it go

Let's return to the examples above. If you're upset because of a perceived slight from a friend, there's a very good chance you're blowing it out of proportion and she may well have no idea she's upset you – in which case she probably won't pick up those indirect hints you're dropping anyway. So she forgot your birthday? So what? Some people are just bad at remembering dates. Before you rush in with the veiled jibes and accusations, take a deep breath and then try to let it go.

Meanwhile, if you tell someone you're fine when you're not, they will either choose to accept you're fine and carry on regardless – or they will acknowledge there's clearly a problem but address it in their own way, possibly by starting an argument anyway. Either way, you're not in control and the issue isn't getting resolved. A frank but good-natured discussion, on the other hand, is far more likely to see results that suit you both.

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Dealing with passive aggression

While passive aggression is often employed in a bid to avoid a full-on confrontation, it nearly always succeeds in creating a negative and unsettling atmosphere. So what can you do when faced with this kind of behaviour from other people?

'First and foremost, be patient,' Burke advises. 'Anger or aggression will only encourage the individual to retreat further. And try not to take it personally. Remember, the behaviour isn't an attack on you. Passive aggressive people often fear rejection. They're also fearful of authority, so don't be overbearing. Be frank, but show them you respect their opinions and ideas and eventually they will learn to believe you truly value them.'

Another good tactic for quashing passive aggressive behaviour is to use humour. 'It might be giving the behaviour a name and personality,' says Burke. 'So, for instance, if your partner has a tendency to sulk, you might say that “Mr Sulker has entered the room” whenever that behaviour rears its head. This can break the tension, allow you to have a laugh and then discuss what's really going on. The important point here is that there's no blame attached: it's just both of you trying to notice and resolve a problem.'

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