How to Spot Passive-Aggressive Behavior

by | May 10, 2020

When someone is aggressive, it’s easy to spot. If he’s in your face yelling at you, it may not be pleasant, but at least you know he’s mad. But when someone is passive-aggressive they aren’t quite as obvious, and it can be easy to miss. You might even behave in a passive-aggressive manner yourself without even knowing it.
Here’s how to spot passive-aggressive people:

1) They can’t say no. These are people who hate conflict and are unwilling to say they don’t agree, or say they won’t do something. Because it’s much easier to be a good sport and cooperate than to conjure up the courage to say no. So they go along with you until they don’t. When it’s time to show support or work on the project, they don’t come through. They find a way not to complete a task, leaving you in the lurch. They really didn’t want to do it in the first place. Their actions speak louder than words.

2) They just forgot. Possibly, but if forgetting is to their advantage maybe they didn’t really forget. Maybe they ‘forgot’ your birthday—yet again—to send you a message. You’re not important enough to them to keep your birthday on the calendar. You don’t deserve to be recognized. Or maybe they ‘forgot’ to do something because they didn’t want to do it in the first place. They ‘forgot’ to return your text or calls or emails because they really want to avoid you. This is akin to doing something ‘accidentally on purpose’ to deliberately get your goat without taking responsibility for it.

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3) They’re always late. This is another way to show you they’re more important than you and they’re in charge. When people are chronically late to keep you waiting, they’re trying to tell you something. This is even worse when they’re late to make you look bad. Like being late handing off a work assignment to you so you have less time to complete your part before the deadline. This is especially injurious to people for whom being late produces serious anxiety.

4) They give you the silent treatment. Surely this is a tactic people use when they’re just so mad at you that they can’t speak for awhile. But when the cooling off period is over and they still refuse to speak—even to the point of ignoring your presence—that is classic passive-aggressive. This can be made to hurt and confound you even more when they are inconsistent. They refuse to acknowledge you as they pass by you and then professing innocence later. If you’re unsure what their real intent is, follow your instinct. Chances are you know and they know too.

5) They sulk and complain. This is a way of punishing you. They said they’d do you the favor, then they complain what a pain in the neck it was to do it. You know the type, It’s easier to do it yourself than to ask for help because you’ll never hear the end of it. These people can’t say no to a request, but they can’t stop complaining about it either. They get a perverse pleasure out of sulking and making others around them miserable, even when you ask nothing of them. It’s their way of controlling the environment, and not in a good way.

Of course there are some pretty obvious passive-aggressive behaviors when you think about them. Like the mother who applauds her daughter’s weight-loss program and then brings home a gallon of triple chocolate ice cream. Or the woman who makes the decision to go to night school only to have her spouse bring his friends home with a case of beer during her study time. Next week we’ll talk about how to deal with friends, family and coworkers who are passive-aggressive.
Nancy Travers is an Orange County Counseling professional. If you need safe, effective counseling services, please get in touch. You can reach her here:

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