How to Recognize and Change Your Passive-Aggressive Behavior

Dealing with a passive-aggressive lover, mate, co-worker, friend or family member can be a continuing source of aggravation and frustration for most people. If you engage in this type of behavior very often, you may be harming your most important relationships and sabotaging your chances to be successful in your endeavors.

What Passive-Aggressive Behavior Is

This is a continuing pattern of incongruent communication and actions, which means you

  • Make promises you have no intention of keeping.
  • "Forget" important duties, dates, deadlines, etc.
  • Don't talk honestly about problems to the people you need to have conversations with, and instead complain to others about them.
  • Secretly obstruct others' efforts.
  • Don't share your true thoughts, feelings, or opinions, or you share them at inappropriate times in self-defeating, relationship-damaging ways.

Why You Are Prone to This

At some point in your childhood or early adulthood, you could not openly express yourself and felt constrained. It could be that your parents were neglectful, derisive, bullying, abusive, or very controlling. In this atmosphere, it was impossible to get your emotional needs met.

You coped with a veneer of submissiveness, but inwardly you felt rebellious and resentful. So you developed passive-aggressive traits as survival mechanisms. The problem is now these aren't working well, and it's time to evolve beyond it.

How to Change Your Behavior

One important way to overcome a passive-aggressive behavioral stance is to work on your communication style. The best one to learn about is the assertive style rather than an aggressive (belligerent or confrontational) or a passive (docile) style. This type of communication shows respect for self and others, and it is fueled by a healthy self esteem and self confidence.

When you use this style, you communicate things clearly and honestly, plus you use a steady voice. If you make a commitment, you follow through promptly in this mode. You stand up for what is right, beneficial, and effective when it is appropriate to do so, but you don't yell, insult, or judge others. You reason with people instead of bullying them or giving up. This is a "let us work together and get things done" stance.

Say an acquaintance asks you to help them move and you don't want to. In fact, you hate helping people move. In a passive-aggressive mode you might agree but come late, drop something and break it, or lift something too heavy, strain your back and then complain loudly to make them feel guilty. In an aggressive mode, you could put your friend down and bluntly refuse. In a passive mode, you would help, but feel put upon. In an assertive mode, you would either agree to help for a couple of hours, or refuse and explain nicely that you don't want to or can't.

Professional Help

You will want to seek the services of a therapist who can help you identify the causes of passive-aggressive behavior and increase your motivation overcome this tendency. A professional like Albano Fischetti Counseling can guide you to make incremental changes and may also role-play so that you can practice assertiveness. With this practice, assertive communication and behavior can become your default mode.