The Myth of Passive Aggressive Behaviour

There is a lot of misinformation about behaviour and its causes in the general community.

This leads to many terrible things being done to people who should be given understanding.

One popular thing to accuse people of is being Passive Aggressive. The label is freely applied to people but there is extremely limited understanding of what passive aggressive behaviour actually is.

The source of the myth

This myth is not helped by the fact that there used to be a “personality disorder” listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). This “disorder” labelled Passive Aggressive was dropped 20 years ago.

Despite this no longer being accepted as a disorder, the community persists in applying this label to people. People who exhibit this behaviour have had trauma in their pasts and need understanding, not misguided judgement.

What behaviour you may see in someone labelled as Passive Aggressive

• Often a perfectionist with very high standards of their own behaviour.

• Difficulty identifying what they want.

• Difficulty asking for help.

• Difficulty setting boundaries and saying no.

• Low Self Esteem.

• Sensitive to criticism.

• People pleaser who seeks to accommodate other people’s wants.

• Hates to disappoint people and can become very distressed when think they will.

• Frightened of taking initiative in relationships.

• Finds it hard to say no so will instead say yes but try to communicate no by hints or cancelling at last minute, often in great distress.

• Withdraws when someone is angry with them.

• Doesn’t make feelings, needs and wants known to others.

• Saying no leads to feelings of guilt and great anxiety that have upset other person and that they will be rejected for that.

• Expresses feelings through behaviour rather than words.

• Seek to avoid conflict at all costs.

• Taken advantage of by others.

• Feels like a victim.

• Often unaware of feelings. Can be angry and not aware of it.

• May resort to more subtle behaviours to communicate message such as being sarcastic or even fantasising about getting revenge.

• Often feels resentful.

• Can’t understand why others can’t see their needs. Desperately wants other to see them because it is not safe to express them.

• May sub consciously adopt “unhappy” behaviour as non verbal communication.

• Procrastination, inefficiency, stubborness and sullenness are some behaviours that may be used.

Dispelling the myth: what passive aggressive behaviour is actually about

When a child is unable to express their needs safely they will adopt other ways to communicate their needs. This is not a deliberate thing. It comes about because their brain seeks ways to communicate that are safe.

One way to do this is through non verbal communication.

So you may see “unhappy” behaviour, sullenness, procrastination as behaviours that communicate unhappiness. These are not adopted deliberately.

When it is not safe to express needs openly, then passive aggressive behaviours become a safer way to express those needs. That is why you will notice people dropping hints, or being reluctant to do what you ask, or looking sullen.

Have you been accused of passive aggressive behaviour?

When you have learned it is not safe to express your needs you will frequently feel you do not have the right to have needs. This is why you will struggle to set boundaries and say no.

You will also notice you seek to avoid conflict. But underneath you may feel great distress at the way things are happening.

Internally, you may find it hard to even acknowledge what you are feeling. You may feel you are judged by others for the way you feel. In fact, you are judged because of ignorance about your behaviour.

The pressure cooker of denied needs

You may have learned as a child to push down your feelings. In adulthood you continue to do this. Over time this pushing down creates a pressure cooker situation where your feelings will explode and you may express them in a number of ways. For example by being angry, or bursting into tears, or running away.

How to be less passive aggressive

Ultimately you need to be honest with youself about your feelings and learn to express them more assertively. It is important to be aware that not everyone will accept you being more assertive. When that happens the other person is acting out their own insecurities. This doesn’t make you wrong. But it will feel uncomfortable.

Be honest about your feelings.

Learn to express yourself. This will help prevent misunderstandings, hurt feelings and resentment.

Do you need help?

It is not easy to learn to feel safe expressing your needs. Healing the past and learning to let go of the protective behaviours that kept you safe, but no longer serve you, is hard.

It is particularly hard to do on your own.

This is where counselling can help.

If you would like to talk to me about how I can help you to learn how to effectively meet your needs please contact me on 0409396608 or

If you would like to learn more, I write a regular newsletter with interesting information, tips, information on courses, and the occasional freebie. At the moment I have a free mindfulness meditation for anyone who signs up to my newsletter. This meditation offers a way to safely explore your feelings and learn to be okay with them. If you would like to subscribe please click on the link here: