Identifying Passive Aggressive Behavior

Louis Laves-Webb

September 28, 2017

Passive aggressive behavior can range from subtle innuendos to intense moments of quiet expressions. It can be difficult to identify passive aggressiveness at first glance. What can initially seem like an innocent remark or action can suddenly lead to anger, hostility, and hurt that can impact relationships or other areas of life.

Aggression begets aggression, and whether it takes a passive form or more active modality, it can easily lead to an overall increase in aggressive experiences, interactions, and exchanges. When unintended, this can lead to confusion, stress, and challenging mental anguish. However, with the proper steps, guidance, and insight one can develop a better means of handling their innate aggressive instincts and ultimately create a better experiences and smoother interactions for themselves and those they care about.

What is “passive psychological aggression”?

Passive psychological aggression is a means of protecting an individual’s vulnerable or unconscious emotional lives through non direct emotional, verbal, or mental means.

Passive aggressive behavior can be blatantly obvious at times, although it’s commonly expressed in a more subtle manner. This can include:

  • Avoiding direct communication
  • Procrastination
  • Making excuses
  • Non-responsiveness
  • Performing jobs poorly on purpose
  • Playing the “victim”
  • Placing the blame on others
  • Sarcasm
  • Backhanded compliments
  • Silence

Passive aggressiveness is not just a mild form of aggression, but can be considered “aggression ” in and of itself; carrying with it hurt, pain, and potential emotional injuries.

Aggression according to good old Freud

Sigmund Freud touched on passive aggressive behavior in his theory of psychoanalysis. According to this theory, aggression is an unavoidable part of human life and is instinctive and not just situational.

Freud theorized that because aggression is an integral part of our human experience, the need to express these feelings rests in our subconscious. According to this theory, aggression is something that cannot be eliminated and is in fact something that lives within all humans. Therefore, as humans, each one of us is tasked with the work of finding productive ways to incorporate this emotional state into our lives.

In positive expressions, this can manifest in: advocating, sublimation, or more direct expression of our aggressive instincts. However, when these aggressive instincts are repressed or disavowed then this “aggression” can express itself in more subtle or destructive ways, such as: passive aggressiveness, projection, micro-aggressions, and righteous indignation.


Some forms of passive aggressiveness can be hard to identify since they’re not explicit. Micro-aggressions are a form of projective aggression seen as a comment, statement, or action that is indirectly or unconsciously demeaning or hostile towards a member of “another” group. Often directed towards marginalized cultures, orientations, or genders, these aggressions are so subtle that they often remain out of the conscious awareness of those making the remarks.

Reflect on your own aggressive feelings or responses

While it’s often easier to identify passive aggressive behavior in others, it can be hard to do the same in ourselves. The reactions we have or the responses we show in certain situations can feel as though they are ingrained in our personality. However, by identifying our own passive aggressive tendencies, we can create more emotional bandwidth within ourselves. Through identifying and understanding, we can change aggressive behaviors and feelings that at first glance may have appeared like fixtures of our persona.

What do I do now?

  1. Get assistance, so that you can access the deeper, more raw emotions within yourself. A true friend, a solid therapist, or a loving partner can offer this sort of support. Whomever you choose needs to be capable of standing with you in the midst of your own aggression, resistance, and rawness.
  2. Once you get truly in touch with these often neglected parts of yourself, learn to increase your emotional capacity. By accepting all of your emotions, especially the “ugliest” ones, you’re less likely to have them “play out” in passive aggressive ways.
  3. Lastly, learn to recognize it, manage it, and deal with it when you experience aggression from others. You’ll need to have some resources at your disposal to help diffuse or address it when you experience it in the world.

Learning how to access and accept the most vulnerable and aggressive parts of ourselves while we balance productively managing aggression from others in the world takes resiliency and courage. Doing so can create deep personal changes that are truly rewarding and life changing. I recently had a client share with me, that he “simply does not engage in self-destruction anymore”. This is an example of the reward I’m speaking of.

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