Understanding Passive-Aggressive Behavior

by Mike Veny Patient Advocate

She told me that she never liked her smile. I thought she had the most beautiful smile in the world. In fact, that’s one of the things that I remember about her the most: her beautiful smile. Although our relationship was far from ideal, she seemed happy whenever she was with me.

After our relationship ended, I learned that she was angry at a lot of things that I did during our relationship. This news took me by surprise, and I couldn’t understand why she never spoke up and said anything to me.

“Out of respect for you,” she said.

Although in one sense, I appreciated that gesture on her part, I also felt slightly deceived.

As I reflected back on our relationship, I remembered moments where she seemed upset or angry, but I wasn’t sure. I often felt like she was good at managing her anger because she came back to smiling so quickly after being upset. She sometimes made sarcastic remarks about things she was unhappy with, but I didn't think about it as anything more than conversation.

In retrospect, I realized that she was exhibiting classic passive-aggressive behavior.

Signe Whitson, a co-author of the book, The Angry Smile: The Psychology of Passive-Aggressive Behavior in Families, Schools, and Workplaces, told me in a phone interview that "passive-aggressive behavior is a deliberately hidden way of getting back at someone else without that person knowing."

How people develop passive-aggressive behavior

"It comes from one of two things," Whitson says. "It can manifest from growing up in a home where expressing anger was feared or growing up in a home where everyone is expected to look perfect to the world. In both cases, expressing anger is seen as a negative thing."

Young girls, for instance, are often taught that "good girls don't get angry." Regardless of where it comes from, people who behave passive-aggressively have hidden anger. They also frequently have:

  1. Trouble being assertive

  2. No close, authentic, or genuine relationships

  3. An inability to be emotionally honest

Whitson then went on to describe two types of passive-aggressive behavior: Situational passive-aggressive behavior, which occurs during a conflict, argument, fight, or disagreement; and hidden revenge, which occurs through subtle power moves to manipulate others into acting out their anger.

How to defuse passive-aggressive behavior

For those on the receiving end, it can feel like an emotional roller coaster: you never know what to expect. In many instances, you end up questioning yourself. Here are some steps you can take to avoid that roller coaster:

  1. Awareness: Learn the symptoms and red flags. Also remember that when you explode on someone who is behaving passive-aggressively towards you, you confirm that person's belief that anger is dangerous.

  2. Stay calm: This is much easier said than done

  3. Be assertive and direct: It’s important to name the emotion. For example, say “I’m wondering if you’re angry with me right now." Remember to be gentle and non-confrontational.

“When you follow the above steps, keep in mind that the person exhibiting the behavior may deny it at first,” says Whitson. “Expect this because they have spent their whole life doing it.”

If you are consistent with this process, you validate the idea that expressing anger is okay. Repetition will also help the person build a relationship of honesty and authenticity with you.

Why it’s important to learn about this

Here are three reasons why you should find out more about passive-aggressive behavior.

  1. It exists everywhere

  2. It crosses cultures, race, and socio-economic backgrounds

  3. Everyone exhibits it at some time or another

That third point is critical and bears repeating: we all do it.

As I finish up writing this article, I am thinking about the relationship that I mentioned at the beginning. In the spirit of transparency, I have to admit that I behaved passive-aggressively toward her as well. There were a lot of things that she did that made me angry that I never expressed to her. In fact, I subtly did mean things, perhaps unconsciously, to let her know that I was mad at her.

Why didn’t I express my anger?

I didn’t express it because she was the love of my life and in my mind, true love didn’t have moments where you express anger. It wasn’t until after the fact that I realized how naive I was. What I have learned since is that being able to express anger is an important part of a healthy relationship.

I often wonder if we would still be together if we had both felt comfortable expressing our anger.

One thing, though, I know for sure: I miss her smile.

Mike Veny
Meet Our Writer
Mike Veny

Mental health speaker and best-selling author Mike Veny delivers engaging presentations with raw energy and a fresh perspective on diversity and inclusion. He shares how he went from struggling with mental health challenges to being a thought leader that travels the globe telling his story to help transform stigma. He is a highly sought-after keynote speaker, corporate drumming event facilitator, author, and luggage enthusiast. Seriously, you’d completely get it if you did all the traveling he did! Mike is the author of the book Transforming Stigma: How to Become a Mental Wellness Superhero. As a 2017 PM360 ELITE Award Winner, he is recognized as one of the 100 most influential people in the healthcare industry for his work as a patient advocate.