Signs You’re Being Passive-Aggressive

passive aggressive

We’ve all come across passive-aggressive behavior at some point — from the friend who compliments your “starter home” to the coworker who checks his phone while you’re talking. But while it’s easy to spot when it’s happening to us, it’s not always easy to know when we’re doing it.

Being passive-aggressive doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. Often it’s “a strategy we use when we think we don’t deserve to speak our minds or we’re afraid to be honest and open,” says psychotherapist Tina Gilbertson, LPC, author of Constructive Wallowing: How to Beat Bad Feelings.

Are you being passive-aggressive … but have no idea? Here are eight common signs.

Asking Threat-Based Questions

Asking Threat-Based Questions

Sometimes a passive aggressive-comment can come off as a confrontation-like accusation, says cognitive behavioral therapist Alex Hedger. One example is asking threat-based questions like, “Why on earth would you ever think that?” or even something as simple as, “Are you nuts?” (Unless, of course, the person you’re talking to says something truly off the wall, like she wants to go skydiving without a parachute.)

These questions are not only passive-aggressive, but they also put the other person on immediate defense. So it’s more than likely you won’t get the response you’re looking for.

Making Wistful Statements

Making Wistful Statements

Another passive-aggressive behavior happens when you want something but aren’t asking for it directly. “For instance, when a friend mentions she’ll be attending a party and you say, “I wish I could go,’” says New York City-based psychotherapist Janet Zinn, LCSW. “It’s better to ask, ‘Any way I could come?’ It’s more direct and doesn’t leave your friend feeling pressured or uncertain.”

Another, far less benign way this type of passive aggression can manifest is through small put-downs and insults, says clinical psychologist Dr. Ramani Durvasula. For example, someone comes to the office in beautiful new shoes and you say, “I wish I could get a new pair like that — but, sadly, all my shoe money goes to rent.”

Comments like these (perhaps intentionally) make the receiver feel guilty for getting or doing whatever it is that you can’t.

Doling Out Backhanded Compliments

Doling Out Backhanded Compliments

Sometimes jealousy and passive aggression combine. Instead of being able to react the way you might want to (happy for the person), you instead say something that just sounds, well, rude.

For example, if a friend gets engaged and you’ve been waiting years for your boyfriend to propose, you might call her new bling “cute” or say you thought the diamond would be bigger. If a friend buys a house and you’re nowhere near a down payment, you might call his place “cozy” or remark that it’s a good “fixer-upper.”

If you catch yourself doing this, take a step back and apologize. It’s better to acknowledge your misstep — even your jealous feelings, if you’re talking to a close pal — than mistakenly assume that no one caught it.

Ignoring or Saying Nothing

Ignoring or Saying Nothing

On the other end of the spectrum, sometimes saying nothing at all is passive-aggressive. According to psychotherapist Katherine Crowley, author of Working for You Isn’t Working for Me, checking your phone when a colleague is trying to speak with you or during a meeting are examples of passive-aggressive behavior.

Sound familiar? Try to break this habit ASAP by not bringing your phone into meetings or even sticking it in your desk drawer when a colleague approaches. (If you get a must-be-answered-now email, momentarily excuse yourself from the conversation or meeting to respond so your typing doesn’t come off as rude.)

Ignoring someone’s calls, emails, or texts as a way of sending a message that you’re upset with him or her is another way this behavior can manifest. “Instead of communicating clearly and honestly, you are dropping hints and waiting for the other person to pick up on them,” says psychotherapist Jessica S. Campbell, LCSW. “When she doesn’t, she is punished with the silent treatment, cold shoulder, or some other method of withholding.”



A more active form of ignoring is procrastination. Maybe you’re unhappy with your job or your role in a particular project, but instead of saying something (or doing something proactive), you take extra-long lunches or even a sick day as the deadline approaches.

Socially, this behavior typically comes in the form of backing out of an obligation at the last minute — like giving an excuse that you can’t make it when you really just didn’t want to go in the first place, says friendship expert Nicole Zangara — or denying knowledge of the event altogether.

“Passive-aggressive behavior has 100 percent deniability and zero percent accountability,” Gilbertson says. “You can always say you didn’t receive the invitation, you lost it, or it completely slipped your mind, while your true motive — to turn down the invitation — remains hidden.”

Leaving Someone Out

Leaving Someone Out

Perhaps you’re not fond of a certain colleague. Rather than address the issue directly, you go out of your way to edge her out of the office clique. You might do this by inviting everyone on your team to lunch, except her, or gossiping about her, says Crowley.

Another example of passive-aggressive behavior in this category, says counselor Michael Diettrich-Chastain, is when “it’s your day to go on a coffee run for work and you ask everyone in the office except the coworker you don’t like.”

Sabotaging Someone

Sabotaging Someone

A more extreme move related to leaving someone out is downright sabotaging her. Instead of just excluding someone socially, you purposely leave her off email chains or meeting invites, or even “forget” to tell her when a deadline has been changed. If someone points it out, you make statements like, “Oh, I had no idea,” “I’m so sorry,” or, “I wonder how that happened,” says clinical psychologist Dr. Ben Michaelis, to absolve yourself of blame.

In personal relationships, sabotaging could come in the form of “innocently” bringing your friend a cupcake when you know she’s trying to lose weight or pressuring a pal to hit the mall when she’s struggling to save money. In both cases, you might feel, however subconsciously, jealous or that you lack her discipline or willpower.

Keeping Score

Keeping Score

When someone misses an important life event of yours, whether it’s not attending your birthday party or not making the effort to go to your wedding, it’s natural to feel disappointed. In many cases, however, instead of confronting the person directly (or letting it go), we tend to fall into a tit-for-tat sort of pattern — which is passive-aggressive.

“For example, you aren’t going to their birthday party because they didn’t come to your baby shower. Or you aren’t inviting them to your dinner party because they couldn’t attend your last one,” Campbell says. “Either way, you are keeping score and not creating a supportive relationship.”

This piece originally appeared on DailyWorth on April 7, 2015


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Join the Discussion

14 Responses to “Signs You’re Being Passive-Aggressive”

  1. treesing247

    I feel confused by some of the things. A lot of these questions or sayings seem innocent. Perhaps clarify that the intention is what makes someone passive aggressive.

    • Lacey Michelle Powers

      Many people pick up their style of communication by osmosis. Just being around someone, a parent, spouse or educator would be my best example of picking up the tendency to appear, passive/aggressive. However, I realize when someone crosses the line in conversation with me, by zeroing in on one major thing. Are you able to discern that the persons statement, that could be suspect was said with malice, ridicule and intentionally said to hurt or harm you? If you know it was said with that meaning, then the person is INSIDIOUS! STAY AWAY! This person is out to break your, SPIRIT, HEART, PERHAPS BOTH! The more dangerous version will say things to you and behind your back to indicate, oh so subtly, that you are dishonest, a liar, incapable, unreliable and a whole host of other derogatory statements, none of which may even/ever be true. That is the reality of the deliberately, wicked, ugly, nasty, indirectly, constantly complaining, PASSIVE/AGGRESSIVE PERSONALITY DISORDER! We all have a God given right to walk away from these type of people, even if they are your parent, adult child or spouse. Many times doing this can be extremely painful, monetarily costly and even dangerous in extreme situations. Seek quietly, a trusted friend or anyone that you believe will understand. DO NOT CHOOSE ANYONE THAT STANDS TO GAIN ANYTHING BY KNOWING YOUR PAIN OR WOULD EVEN REMOTELY USE YOUR CIRCUMSTANCES AGAINST YOU! Stay healthy, stay strong, stay faithful to yourself and only use your good judgement. Remember, you may not believe you still have any good judgment, if you have been whittled down to nothingness as a human being. Do not attempt retaliation, even if you believe it is justified. It will come back to bite you! DO NOT ACCEPT THIS WAY OF LIFE! IT CAN KILL YOU! REALIZE & REMEMBER THAT I RESPECT YOU! NOW IS YOUR OWN SPECIAL TIME, TO RESPECT & SAVE YOURSELF! YOU HAVE MY EVERY BLESSING!!! YOU WILL RISE AND SHINE!!!

  2. CateB

    Tree, I am a psychotherapist, and I too agree that some of these examples and explanations are confusing. Some clarification would be very helpful.

    • Andy

      more and more i see mental health workers ,no matter what title,are defending ,validating, and rationalizing passive aggressive behavior. you are most likely passive aggressive yourself and cant or wont admit it.Have you ever finished your transaction at the check out counter and took your sweet ass time moving so someone else can be waited on? have you ever took your time leaving a parking spot knowing that someone else would like it,even though you had no more business being there.I dont think you have any business being a therapist.

  3. Don Ismail

    It’s interesting because getting reactions from someone about these actions as coming across passive they just become agressive.

  4. Singer

    I have been accused of being passive aggressive when my only intention was not to hurt people by being truthful and direct. If someone is overweight isn’t it kinder to suggest they need to look at a larger dress size rather than say ‘you are too fat for that dress’? I have been hurt by this accusation and would respond by saying ‘whatever’ to hide my own feelings! So, in that circumstance, who is being passive aggressive?

  5. Skitzoidlady

    Here is the issue in my 36 years of married relationship. Often I shut down and say nothing at all because to be forthright and honest only triggers additional hostility in my husband. It turns into a huge fight. He has to be right all the time. Even when he apologizes, it comes with a “but the reason I acted that way is because of you.” When I apologize, I say to him that I think he misunderstood me, and what I really meant was x. So a lot of the time I stuff my emotions, or better stated, pick and chose when to be confrontational. He constantly asks me why I’m so mean to him. I’m only “mean”, meaning I don’t put up with his crap when he provokes me. He starts almost every adversarial moment in our life, and it is often.

    • CountessJax

      Pretty sure our husbands are brothers, or at least studied at the same school of thought. Ugh!

    • ShinyAeon

      Ouch. That’s not cool at all. Have you considered some kind of “communication counseling” for couples?

  6. ShinyAeon

    I disagree that the “wistful question” is passive-aggressive. “Passive,” yes – aggressive, no. It’s certainly an indirect way to ask for something, and less than completely honest, but it’s not angry or hostile.

    In fact, some might call it polite, as it saves the recipient from having to outright turn you down. It’s a face-saving maneuver for both parties.

  7. penny moran

    how would you except less from someone that is saying they like something? I don’t understand this reply I received after telling someone I liked there hair. she had posted a pic of herself with a new hair color. i committed “I love it” she replied with “…although, if you didn’t like it, I would listen, but still keep it anyway…and I would expect nothing less from you.” what is she really saying to me? others made comments and her replys were thank you, it’s a fun hair style, I wasnt sure i would like it but i do, and they all started out with thank you except mine ??

    • penny moran

      Wasn’t sure what to think of her reply so I just repeated “I love it”

    • Shavon Forrest

      Hi Penny, I am sorry that this person responded to you that way. Sounds like they have some underlying issue with you. Maybe an exclamation point would have helped?? Not sure but sometimes people misread text messages/emails/comments. That’s why I personally feel technology can cause miscommunication. But wow, it was only 3 words.

  8. Joseph Green

    this just makes it feel like everybody is passive aggressive