Passive aggression is a term that we hear often to describe behaviors, but we may not fully understand what it actually means. Passive aggression is a behavioral expression of hostility where you use indirect or non-confrontational means to convey your feelings of negativity — hinting at them, rather than saying them outright. It can actually be both a personality trait and part of a broader personality disorder. Sometimes passive-aggressive personality behaviors are the result of underlying mental health factors.

What’s the difference between passive aggression as a trait and passive-aggressive personality? Most of us have been passive-aggressive at some point in our lives, whether we respond with a sarcastic comment like, “great, thanks a lot” when given a less-than-desirable work project or spend extra time on a typically quick task to “get back at” the task-giver. However, passive-aggressive personality is different, following a pattern of behaviors. This is characterized by a number of patterns, including:

– passive resistance to task completion

– complaining

– feeling misunderstood or unappreciated

– frequent arguing

– acting sullen or grumpy

– bitterness and scorn toward authority

– resentfulness toward the success of others

The causes of passive-aggressive personality are often linked to early childhood, when bottled up emotions become the norm as young people learn that the most reliable way for them to get what they want and need is through manipulation. This pattern of using guilt and/or shame to get what they want follows them through adulthood.

It can be difficult to know how to meet passive aggression successfully, but there are ways to do so:

1. Understand the behavior is not always intentional. Ask questions to find out what the needs are, and how you can meet those needs with direct inquiries. Keep in mind that you’re aiming to understand, not enable the behavior.

2. Get to know the person. Learning about basic needs like love, safety, boundaries, etc., can give you the knowledge to use to help someone open up, and also show you’re concerned and empathetic, which can build trust.

3. Don’t ignore passive aggression. It may feel easier to just ignore passive aggressive behaviors, but this actually won’t help the situation or the person. Noting the behavior and asking the reason behind it can stop it from escalating and help the person understand your intentions to connect, rather than accuse.

Understanding and recognizing the causes of passive-aggressive personality, and finding ways to not enable it are key pieces to help us all lead more direct, happier lives.

Understanding passive-aggressive personality