9 signs someone is being passive-aggressive, according to psychology

The very nature of passive-aggression is hard to deal with because it relies on hiding true motives and intentions.

But energy never lies, making it hard to be on the receiving end of it.

A lot of emotionally immature people resort to this because in their eyes, it’s better to be passive than double aggressive.

But that’s just a false dichotomy to excuse their lack of emotional maturity.

Healthy people don’t need to express their aggression in a black or white manner. They work through their own emotions so they can express it without spreading unnecessary negativity.

With that out of the day, here are 9 signs someone is being passive-aggressive, according to psychology.

1) Sarcasm

This is when a person will mask their snide and mocking comments behind humor.

Usually followed by a “I was just joking” if they call you out on it.

I’ll admit, some people just have a weird sense of humor and sarcasm is a way for them to point out the ironies in life.

So if you want to distinguish them from the truly passive-aggressive, notice how they treat you in other settings.

Is there tension between you on the regular? How do they treat your belongings?

People who hide behind sarcasm will rarely show their negativity around other people.

And context definitely matters, so pay attention to how you feel around them and who is around when these interactions happen.

2) Backhanded compliments

Similar to sarcasm, this is another way a person will throw shade without being completely obvious.

These are comments that are seemingly positive and uplifting. Until you get home and think about it.

And it makes you go “hmmm…”

For example, if you get a new haircut and someone tells you how it makes your nose look smaller! Like what?

And again, I was doing my research for this article when I saw a bunch of examples. I thought to myself how I’ve said certain ones before but meant them as genuine compliments!

So really pay attention to how you might be projecting your own insecurities onto other people’s words because passive-aggression goes both ways.

When there are negative intentions, that’s what we would call “negging.”

To put it simply, it’s what a lot of boys do when they like a girl and are mean to her. As if that makes sense.

In either case, the best way to respond is to simply laugh it off, ignore their negativity, and make a mental note to yourself about the person’s character.

3) Playing the victim

When a person has a chronic victim mindset, there are two sides to this. 

Every time they automatically take on the victim role, they automatically make those around them the rescuer, or the perpetrator.

For example, this is your coworker who always tells you about something that went wrong from their perspective to avoid being blamed for something.

Meaning they weren’t just trying to express or vent their frustrations. They were trying to manipulate the crowd into believing their side.

So sometimes, passive-aggression isn’t just the negativity that’s being thrown out there. It’s also dusting your hands off of it and shifting the weight of it to someone else.

Basically avoiding any and all responsibility at all costs.

4) Avoidance

We’ve all met that person who does not deal with their problems.

It’s out of sight, out of mind for them. And they just sort of hope it goes away because they’ve weaponized their incompetence by doing this for so long.

But if you analyze them psychologically, the negativity and aggression is so evident in the way they try so hard to avoid it by avoiding accountability!

As well as it’s a coping mechanism to avoid feelings that evoke stress or anxiety. However, while they might be avoiding conflict, that’s just making it grow that much bigger.

A way to break the cycle is to provide a safe space for open dialogue to happen. It’s likely the passive-aggressive person lacked that growing up and are now perpetuating this pattern.

Not to mention, becoming more emotionally mature is a practice that comes from facing challenges – so you won’t get better at it unless you practice it for real.

5) Silent treatment

signs someone is being passive aggressive according to psychology 9 signs someone is being passive-aggressive, according to psychology

This is like if you weaponized avoidance and then struck it with lightning.

It’s a manipulation tactic in order to punish or control the other person for trying to keep them accountable, all without actually communicating any of it.

Almost like they’re trying to train the people around them what’s okay and what’s not okay to do by hiding their aggression behind some aggressive silence.

Resulting in a toxic environment that makes the people around them feel emotionally or physically abandoned. If not that, then on some very fragile and sharp egg shells.

Most likely the passive-aggressor will act like nothing happened once enough time has passed, which only confuses and mentally corrodes the people around them.

Leaving no room for any sort of conflict resolution to occur. 

6) Indirect communication

Imagine a subtweet, personified.

These are the kinds of people that will talk to everyone about you, but you.

And a lot of these circumstances will be dictated by what’s acceptable and unacceptable to express in certain spaces.

For example, it might be easier to complain about someone on Twitter versus to their face at work.

If you’re wondering if someone is indirectly communicating with you, that’s a sign for you to stop in your tracks and save yourself some trouble.

Because it’s another form of conflict avoidance where a person is uncomfortable being vulnerable to raise problems and find solutions to them with you.

When you’re dealing with passive-aggressive people, it’s important you don’t stoop to their level. So don’t read into anything and start taking things at face value.

And once they realize that their efforts to communicate with you subliminally aren’t working, they’ll likely begin to sulk.

7) Sulking

This is another form of indirect communication, where a person tries to get what they need emotionally without actually saying what that is in a healthy way.

Usually when things don’t go as planned and there’s disappointment present.

Some people have a hard time expressing anger because it might not have been modeled for them in healthy ways growing up.

So rather than being angry, they might respond to that emotion by being sad or disappointed.

And with a combination of all the other passive-aggressive tactics, they may shut down and be void of any healthy communication skills.

Or imagine a person who talks a lot about how upset they are on social media. But once you ask them what’s wrong, they refuse to talk about it.

That’s an example of how people express their emotions and make it everyone’s business to receive validation.

However, because they lack the maturity to process it, it never goes beyond that point.

8) Excessive criticism

Aggression is associated with calling people names and being particularly irrational in the way you treat someone.

So when that negativity becomes passive, it may translate to being excessively critical.

For example, you might not call your coworker stupid. But you might as well if you’re going to nitpick at everything that they do.

And it’s a form of projection where a person will likely nag you on things that they are insecure about.

So they can reaffirm the negative perceptions that they have toward the world and themselves.

What ends up happening is that the constant criticism will erode relationships and create a lot of tension that is hard to come back from.

Unless one person is willing to be the aggressive one and call them out on it – but that raises a whole new problem.

Creating a whirlwind of second-guessing and blame games, all because somebody decided to hide what they were truly feeling.

9) Blame games

Another facet to being overly critical is shifting the blame.

What they might do is explain themselves for why they did something, but what they’re really trying to say is that you misunderstood their intentions.

Because how could they possibly be wrong if their intentions weren’t to be wrong? Sounds silly when you put it that way, doesn’t it?

Or take a toxic household for example, where the children are constantly blamed every time something goes wrong between the adults or whatever else for that matter.

Psychologically, this is a defense mechanism to maintain a facade of control and superiority.

What ends up happening is that this kind of behavior leaves no room for trust to form – with yourself or others. 

And greatly affects the self-esteem of the people who receive this type of verbal abuse.

Leading them to not stand up for themselves! And especially for children, keeping them from fostering healthy relationships down the line.

When you’re passive-aggressive, you rob yourself of the opportunity to create genuine relationships.

Because no healthy relationship should have you second-guessing yourself and constantly guessing what the other person is truly meaning to say.

While it’s not always the case that a person is irreparably abusive if they’re passive-aggressive, it does signify a need for personal and emotional growth.

Understanding how you can perpetuate these kinds of behaviors as well will help you navigate your relationships as well. 

Leading to more fulfilling, honest, and meaningful connections. So when in doubt, just be honest. 

Because with the right people, you’ll figure it out as you go.

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Tina Fey

I've ridden the rails, gone off track and lost my train of thought. I'm writing for Ideapod to try and find it again. Hope you enjoy the journey with me.

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