Passive Aggression: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Chevette Alston

Dr. Alston has taught intro psychology, child psychology, and developmental psychology at 2-year and 4-year schools.

This lesson discusses what passive-aggression is and how it effects relationships. It also gives examples of passive-aggressive behaviors and how to be helpful to someone you may consider passive aggressive.

Passive-Aggressive Behavior

Passive-aggressive behavior is used to describe behavior or personality traits that are indirectly aggressive rather than using direct aggression. These behaviors usually occur when a person is angry or upset but will not or cannot express their discontent. Instead of communicating honest feelings, a passive-aggressive person will keep their feelings to themselves and want you to notice they are upset. They may also stop talking to you, give angry looks, or demonstrate obviously negative changes in behavior, such as sulking or stonewalling (which is a refusal to answer questions or giving evasive answers in order to delay or block a request, process, or person). Passive-aggressive behavior can be covert or blatantly obvious.

A passive-aggressive person may not show that they are angry. Instead, they may appear to agree with you in a friendly or kind manner. However, the intent to manipulate the situation to their favor is in the forefront of their mind. For example, a worker may purposely and repeatedly make excuses to avoid workers or tasks as a way of expressing their dislike toward a job or individual.

Is This Really Emotional Abuse?

This type of aggression is destructive because it is often believed to be a form of emotional abuse. Such relationships can slowly kill any trust that exists between people or groups by creating negative relationship dynamics between all involved. The bullets below mention a few passive-aggressive behaviors. Remember it is not passive-aggressive when these behaviors rarely occur, nor if it is one or two occurring within isolated incidents. Passive-aggression is a coping skill and happens often.

  • Ambiguity
  • Avoiding or ignoring a person or situation
  • Avoiding communication
  • Blaming
  • Evasiveness
  • Excuses
  • Learned helplessness
  • Obstruction
  • Procrastination
  • Sulking
  • Withholding

From time to time, everyone will experience negative emotions and feelings. Everyone will also at some point do things to avoid arguments or conflict. However, for the passive-aggressive person, holding on to negative feelings and avoiding conflict are continual and persistently repeated patterns of negative attitudes and passive resistance.

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