Phrases like “and I’m not offended at all”, “are you the smartest?”, “would you come even later” at first glance may seem harmless – because they do not contain direct insults. However, passive-aggressive communication can harm personal relationships even more than open aggression. We understand what passive aggression is and how to recognize it in yourself and others.

What is passive aggression

Passive-aggressive behavior is an indirect expression of negative emotions. Instead of openly broadcasting their feelings, a person resorts to tricks. Because of this, there is a gap between what he says and what he does. For example, he may be offended, but at the same time answer that everything is in order.

According to social worker Sine Whitson, in order to prevent the other person from recognizing anger, the passive aggressor masks his anger. It seems to the passive aggressor that life could get worse if people around him find out about his negative emotions. And sometimes a person can take pleasure in upsetting others.

Where does passive aggression come from?

Marriage and family therapist Sarah Epstein identifies three reasons:

1. Education. Some children are judged or punished when they express negative emotions. Then the child adapts and uses passive aggression to somehow splash out feelings.

If the parents are passive-aggressive towards each other or towards the child, the child learns to communicate in the same way and applies the same techniques. In this case, passive aggression becomes a learned survival skill. It can become the only way to express yourself.

2. Lack of communication skills. Sometimes people do not know how to openly express emotions or simply do not realize that they are resorting to passive aggression. Because of this, they use simpler but cruder forms of communication. For example, they take out their discontent and irritation on others instead of trying to control themselves.

3. Fear of open conflict. A person may think that through passive aggression, he avoids quarrels or direct conversation. It can be difficult for the interlocutor to respond to jokes and sarcastic remarks, so the passive aggressor will shy away from an expressive showdown.

Also, sometimes people may not respect the interlocutors with whom they are talking, or enjoy the fact that they manipulate others. They may find this form of communication convenient and even effective. After all, honest and emotionally open communication is not always easy.

How to Know if You’re Passive Aggressive

Psychologists and psychotherapists interviewed by The Washington Post identify the following signs of passive aggression. Assess if you have noticed similar behavior in yourself.

1. You are trying to put pressure on the interlocutor and make him feel guilty. That is, you resort to passive aggression when you want something, but are not ready to talk about it directly. For example, your friend is going to a party, and you sigh: “I wish I could go too.” You do not declare your desire openly, and the interlocutor feels tension. Psychotherapist Janet Zinn recommends instead asking honestly and bluntly, “Can I get into the party somehow?”

Self-deprecation can also be a form of passive aggression. This is what clinical psychologist Ramani Durvasula says. For example, your colleague came to the office in new shoes, and you say: “I would also like to buy one, but I only have enough money to pay for the apartment.” Such comments can make a person feel guilty even though they did nothing wrong.

2. You give ambiguous compliments. It happens that passive aggression is caused by the fact that the aggressor experiences pain or a feeling of envy. For example, your girlfriend got engaged, and you have been waiting for a proposal for a long time. So instead of praising the ring, you call it cute and then add that the diamond could be bigger.

3. You ignore the interlocutor. According to psychotherapist Katherine Crowley, if you are on the phone during a face-to-face meeting, you are acting passive-aggressively. Another form of passive aggression is if you get hurt and deliberately ignore calls and messages to show how angry you are at the sender. Psychotherapist Jessica Campbell emphasizes that a person seems to be waiting for the offender to take the hint himself. This is a kind of punishment for hurt feelings.

Family therapist Andrea Brandt is convinced that if a person constantly glosses over problems and does not voice them directly, then he suppresses his anger. Instead of openly expressing emotions, he begins to use sarcasm, lie, or deliberately withhold intimacy in order to show his anger and punish the offender.

4. You procrastinate and delay talking directly about the situation. This is a more active form of neglect. For example, instead of openly declaring discomfort at work, a person takes sick leave right before the deadline. In his personal life, he can refuse obligations at the last minute, come up with a reason why he cannot meet, covering up his unwillingness. Or he may completely deny that he knew about the meeting.

5. You “forget” others or even sabotage others. According to clinical psychologist Ben Michaelis, a passive aggressor may deliberately not invite an unpleasant colleague to work meetings or “forget” to tell him important information. If a person is asked what the matter is, he pretends that all this is accidental, pretends to be sympathetic, or even apologizes to get rid of the accusations.

6. You seek to settle scores. Feeling frustrated if someone offended you, such as missing a birthday or other important event, is normal. But if, instead of an open dialogue, a person begins to deliberately offend the other in response and compete, who will outplay whom, this is passive aggression. For example, you don’t go to your friend’s party if he doesn’t come to yours.

Clinical psychologists and psychotherapists at the University of Saarland, together with the MediClin Bliestal clinics, have created a test that helps you understand how prone you are to passive aggression. The more yes answers you collect, the more likely you are to have passive-aggressive tendencies.

There are 36 statements in the test in total. Here is some of them:

1. If someone hurts my feelings, I refuse to support this person in difficult situations.
2. If I could help a person I don’t like, I would refuse to do so.
3. If I feel down, I don’t allow myself to do things that would actually be good for me.
4. If I want to teach someone a lesson, I do not respond to his or her contact attempts and ignore messages.
5. If someone annoys me at work, I reduce my participation in our joint activities.
6. If I am dissatisfied with someone’s behavior, I do not address him directly and react coldly or indifferently to his behavior.
7. If my partner does not notice my needs, I take revenge on him or her. For example, I cook food or buy something just for myself.
8. If I’m upset with someone at work, I don’t praise that person, even if they really deserve it.
9. If a friend has disappointed me, I wait until he or she makes the first move.
10. If I get angry at someone, I ignore that person and their needs.

How to learn to manage your anger

1. Learn to recognize negative emotions. According to family therapist Andrea Brandt, this is the first step to learning how to express anger in a healthy way.

Anger can be recognized by physical, emotional, and behavioral signs. You are most likely angry if:

  • Your body is tense.

  • You are trembling.

  • Your face or neck is hot.

  • You cannot sit still.

  • You clench your fists.

  • You raised your voice or changed its tone.

  • You feel depressed, irritable, or guilty.

  • You feel anxious.

  • You want to run away from the situation.

  • You say sarcastic things or think about it.

  • You are thinking about revenge.

2. Determine what exactly causes anger. Think of a time when you showed signs of anger.

Try to reproduce the memory in detail. How exactly did you know that you were angry? What feelings does this memory evoke? Is your face on fire? Do you feel like running away?

The answers to these questions are your clues. You can write them down, and then remember the situations that caused such emotions.

When you memorize the signs of anger, it will be easier to manage. During the week, take at least a minute to go back to your memories and monitor how you feel. This is how you learn to focus on your emotions.

3. Try not to run away from conflict. The next time you are angry, you may notice the signs of anger that you identified earlier. You may want to run away from the conflict, but try to stay in the present. After all, running away from anger or trying to hide it will not make you calmer. Try to live the feeling and directly tell the interlocutor what you feel.

Gradually, you can get used to openly declare your emotions without hidden reproaches.

Cover collage: Anika Turchan