At best, their behavior is dishonest. At worst, it’s abusive. But you may not have even noticed it. That’s because a passive-aggressive person can be so subtle you may not realize their supposed joke was really a hostile remark. Or their procrastination at getting something you need done is really their way of making you suffer. Or countless other covert behaviors.

When an abusive person hits you, you know you need to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Likewise, when a passive-aggressive (P-A) person pretends to behave lovingly toward you, but really causes you psychological pain, you need to make a change. And you can only change the way you behave, not the P-A. But before you can make a change, you need to identify the P-A.

Conflict Avoidance. It’s hard to spot a person who is always nice and gets along as someone with a problem. In the case of passive-aggressives, they find conflict of any kind so difficult that they avoid it at great cost to themselves and others. They are unable to express anger in a healthy way, so it foments. This may contribute to their low self-esteem, which, when combined with aggressive, domineering behavior, is a toxic mix. This toxicity builds up each time they say “yes” when they should have said “no.” Then their self-loathing and their resentment towards others increase. It’s a downward spiral.

Inability to Say No. This is the same side of the coin as conflict avoidance. A passive-aggressive person cannot say no to anyone or anything. He needs acceptance but when he capitulates it feeds his lack of self-esteem, which makes him feel worse. Still, he will tell you, Yes, he’ll be on the committee, and then he won’t show up for meetings. Or Yes, he’ll work on the project, but then he won’t have any work done on it when you need it. And when you ask him about it, he’ll be vague. Ambiguity is another hallmark of a P-A.

Propensity to Procrastinate. A P-A will find it hard to meet any deadline, even those he sets for himself. He’ll procrastinate and procrastinate until it’s impossible to meet any goal. In this way he sabotages the effort he’s involved in until you do it yourself. Or you decide to never ask him again because it’s easier to do yourself. And he gets out of performing any future tasks, which has been his secret goal all along.

The root causes of passive-aggressiveness are varied and complex. When you have to deal with a P-A it’s hard to know why the person is the way he is, let alone what to do about it. Next week we’ll talk about strategies for handling the P-A in your life.

Nancy Travers is an Orange County Counseling professional.  If you need safe, effective counseling services, please get in touch.  You can reach her here: