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The NYU Medical Center defines a passive-aggressive individual as someone who "may appear to comply or act appropriately, but actually behaves negatively and passively resists." Common examples of passive-aggressive behavior include:

Disguised Verbal Hostility – Negative gossip. Sarcasm. Veiled hostile joking. Repetitive teasing. Negative orientation. Habitual criticism of ideas, solutions, conditions, and expectations.

Disguised Relational Hostility – The silent treatment. The invisible treatment. Social exclusion. Neglect. Backstabbing. Two faced. Mixed messages. Deliberate button pushing. Negative or discomforting surprises. Overspending. Sullen resentment. Indirectly hurting something or someone of importance to the targeted person.

Disguised Task Hostility – Procrastination. Stalling. Forgetting. Stonewalling. Withholding resources or information. Professional exclusion. Denying personal responsibility. Excuse making. Blaming. Broken agreements. Lack of follow through. Resistance. Stubbornness. Rigidity. Avoidance. Inefficiency, complication, incompletion or ruination of task.

Hostility Towards Others Through Self-Punishment (“I’ll show YOU”) – Quitting. Deliberate failure. Exaggerated or imagined health issues. Victimhood. Dependency. Addiction. Self-harm. Deliberate weakness to elicit sympathy and favor.

In short, passive aggressiveness is anger, hostility, and/or learned helplessness in disguise, expressed in a covert, underhanded way to "even the score," and with the hope of "getting away with it." The perceived payoffs for the passive-aggressive are greater power, control, and negative emotional satisfaction.

Root causes for chronic passive-aggression are complex and deep-seated. Passive-aggressiveness can originate, either from a past or present condition, as a survival/adaptive mechanism to cope with a difficult human environment, especially where one lacks relative power and control. It’s often difficult to gain a full picture of why a passive-aggressive behaves as she or he does. However, even a partial understanding can help increase awareness and improve communication.

Below are six possible root causes of passive-aggressive behavior, with excerpts from my book (click on title): “How to Successfully Handle Passive-Aggressive People”.

1.  One’s family history. Was there a strong and possibly domineering parent or sibling in the passive-aggressive’s life? Was there competition for attention, affection, and approval? Was there a power struggle over obedience, conformity, and individual identity?

2.  If there's a dominant individual in the passive-aggressive’s family, did the passive-aggressive witness/observe others in the family using passive-aggressive tactics to resist (fight), avoid (flight) or stonewall (freeze)? Were difficult emotions, such as anger, frustration, hurt, defensiveness, or resentment kept hidden but simmering?

3.  Was/is there a dominant figure of the opposite sex who exerted an inordinate degree of influence? This can be a parent or sibling. It can also be a teacher, friend, community leader, romantic partner, or colleague. Observe the power dynamics of how the passive-aggressive interacts with a strong woman or man. Does the passive-aggressive Fight and resist subversively? Flight and avoid important problems? Or Freeze and go into denial?

4.  For a female passive-aggressive, was she influenced by one or more domineering male figures growing up? Did or does she have to deal with male-dominant environments such as family, school, or work? Was/is her experience with other women competitive (i.e. jealousy) rather than cooperative or supportive?

5.  Did the passive-aggressive experience any social weaknesses and/or disadvantages during her or his formative years? This may include being judged or made fun of due to appearance, or perceived lack of intellectual, speech, social or physical ability. What about presently?

6.  Were there any societal constraints that inhibited the passive-aggressive’s freedom of expression? This may include being the target of gender bias, cultural discrimination, class difference, homophobia, religious conformity, attitudinal correctness, and/or other socio-cultural restrictions.

Passive-aggressive behavior often arises when an individual feels powerless and lacks a strong voice in a challenging environment. If the negative life experience is salient enough to be psychologically anchored, one’s passive-aggressive instinct may emerge repeatedly in other, approximating dynamics (such as a husband who unconsciously deals with his mother issues through his wife). The passive-aggressive, out of the fear of being dominated once more, may utilize a set of survival and resistance strategies to avoid (in his or her perception) being victimized again.

Although passive-aggression may derive temporary, PERCEIVED benefits in the short-term, it can cause significant personal and/or professional damage in the long run. The strong alternative to passive-aggressiveness is to exercise incisive self-awareness, and practice highly effective communication and relational skills.

For tips on how to deal with Passive-Aggressives, see (click on title): “How to Successfully Handle Passive-Aggressive People”.

For tips on how Passive-Aggressives can attain greater emotional and relational maturity, see (click on title): “A Practical Guide for Passive-Aggressives to Change Towards the Higher Self”. 

Preston Ni, M.S.B.A. is available as a presenter, workshop facilitator, and private coach. For more information, write to commsuccess@nipreston.com, or visit www.nipreston.com.

© 2016 by Preston C. Ni. All rights reserved worldwide. Copyright violation may subject the violator to legal prosecution.

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