Passive-aggressive behavior

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Editor-In-Chief: C. Michael Gibson, M.S., M.D. [1]


Passive-aggressive behavior refers to passive, sometimes obstructionist resistance to following authoritative instructions in interpersonal or occupational situations. It can manifest itself as resentment, stubbornness, procrastination, sullenness, or repeated failure to accomplish requested tasks for which one is assumed, often explicitly, to be responsible. It is a defense mechanism and, more often than not, only partly conscious. For example, people who are passive-aggressive might take so long to get ready for a party they do not wish to attend, that the party is nearly over by the time they arrive. Alternatively, leaving notes to avoid face-to-face discussion/confrontation is another form of passive-aggressive behavior.

Passive-aggression as a personality disorder

Passive-aggressive personality disorder (also called negativistic personality disorder) is a controversial personality disorder said to be marked by a pervasive pattern of negative attitudes and passive, usually disavowed resistance in interpersonal or occupational situations. It was listed as an Axis II personality disorder in the DSM-III-R, but was moved in the DSM-IV to Appendix B ("Criteria Sets and Axes Provided for Further Study") because of controversy and the need for further research on how to also categorize the behaviors in a future edition. On that point, Cecil Adams writes:

Merely being passive-aggressive isn't a disorder but a behavior — sometimes a perfectly rational behavior, which lets you dodge unpleasant chores while avoiding confrontation. It's only pathological if it's a habitual, crippling response reflecting a pervasively pessimistic attitude.[1]

When the behaviors are part of a person's disorder or personality style, repercussions are usually not immediate, but instead accumulate over time as the individuals affected by the person come to recognize the disavowed aggression coming from that person. People with this personality style are often quite unconscious of their impact on others, and thus may be genuinely dismayed when held to account for the inconvenience or discomfort caused by their passive-aggressive behaviors. In that context, there is a failure to see how they might have provoked a negative response, so they feel misunderstood, held to unreasonable standards, and/or put upon.

Treatment of this disorder can be difficult: efforts to convince the patient that their unconscious feelings are being expressed passively, and that the passive expression of those feelings (their behavior) inspires other people's anger or disappointment with the patient, are often met with resistance. Individuals with the disorder will frequently leave treatment claiming that it did no good. Since the effectiveness of various therapies have yet to be proven, these individuals may be correct.

Passive aggressive disorder is said to stem from a specific childhood stimulus (e.g. overbearing parental figures, or alcohol/drug addicted parents).


The term "passive-aggressive" was first used by the U.S. military during World War II, when military psychiatrists noted the behavior of soldiers who displayed passive resistance and reluctant compliance to orders. [2]

Common signs of passive-aggressive personality disorder

There are certain behaviors that help identify passive-aggressive behavior. [3]

A passive-aggressive may not have all of these behaviours, and may have other non-passive-aggressive traits.

Interpretation in Transactional Analysis

In the psychoanalytic theory of transactional analysis, many types of passive-aggressive behavior are interpreted as "games" with a hidden psychological payoff, and are classified with names like "Why Don't You...? Yes, But...", "See What You Made Me Do", "Look How Hard I've Tried", and "I didn't do it on purpose, I forgot or it was an accident" into stereotypical scenarios.[citation needed]

See also


  2. ""Definition of Passive-aggressive"". Retrieved 2006-06-15.
  3. Scott Wetzler, Ph.D. ""Living with the Passive-Aggressive Man"". Retrieved 2006-06-15.

"Overcoming Passive-Aggression: How To Stop Hidden Anger From Spoiling Your Relationships, Career and Happiness" by Tim Murphy, PhD and Loriann Hoff Oberlin, MS (Marlowe, 2005) -- a book that explores characteristics we have all seen at home, work, school, in relationships -- virtually everywhere. It has the capacity to leave us holding the angry person's frustration or rage without our even knowing it because we've learned to grant "free passes" to these people and to this behavior, without realizing it. Additionally, there's much research in the scientific and consumer-based literature that hidden anger harms your health. This book offers an entire chapter about this.

Read more about passive-aggression and hidden anger that this book unravels, at the author's website:

You have my permission, as one of the book's authors, to use this on Wikipedia -- We reference Scott Wetzler's book and have quoted him. Both men and women experience passive-aggression. "Overcoming Passive-Aggression" is much more current -- worth mentioning since this is an all-encompassing book for both genders and for both the one who is angry/passive-aggressive and the person coping with such behavior.

Loriann Oberlin, MS

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