Do Passive-Aggressives Know When They’re Passive-Aggressive?

Four levels of passive-aggressive self-awareness (or lack thereof).

Posted Nov 24, 2019

Source: Shutterstock

Psychiatrist Daniel Hall-Flavin describes passive-aggressive behavior as “a pattern of indirectly expressing negative feelings instead of openly addressing them. There's a disconnect between what a passive-aggressive person says and what he or she does.”

In our highly competitive, pressure-filled, and stressful society, passive-aggression is a prevalent and disempowering phenomenon, both for the passive-aggressor and their intended targets.   

Examples of passive-aggressive behavior include negative gossip, sarcasm, simmering anger, sullen resentment, silent treatment, backstabbing, mixed messages, pretend ignorance, phony compliance, willful neglect, procrastination, excuse-making, blaming, deliberate sabotage, and broken promises, to name just a few.

Do passive-aggressive know when they’re being passive-aggressive? It depends. Following are four levels of passive-aggressive self-awareness, with references from my books How to Successfully Handle Passive-Aggressive People and A Practical Guide for Passive-Aggressives to Change Towards the Higher Self.

1. No Awareness. The passive-aggressive is “blissfully ignorant" and oblivious to his or her socially conditioned but unconsciously passive-aggressive actions. For example, a passive-aggressive individual may habitually but unintentionally avoid unpleasant tasks or conversations simply because, growing up, that’s how he or she observed family members deal with uncomfortable situations. To him, this is simply a “normal” way of handling difficult issues.

2. Limited Awareness. The passive-aggressive is somewhat aware of the fact that she or he is resisting but does not recognize it as passive-aggressiveness per se; they just do what they do. They are not cognizant of, or concerned with, the destructive impact of passive-aggression. For instance, an employee who negatively gossips about a co-worker out of professional jealousy may reluctantly acknowledge her covert hostility, but conveniently chalk it up to "water-cooler conversation."

3. Reluctant Awareness. The individual is aware of his or her own passive-aggressiveness, doesn’t like being so, and wishes his actions could be different. In this case, the individual desires better ways of handling the situation (i.e. effective communication instead of passive-aggression) but doesn’t know how. For example, a partner in an unhappy marriage may employ prolonged silence in response to a spouse’s criticism. He or she realizes the silent treatment is passive-aggressive, and would like to communicate more constructively, but doesn’t have the ability to do so.

4. Hostile Awareness. In the final scenario, the passive-aggressor knows that he or she is being passive-aggressive, and understands its destructive impact on tasks and relationships, but simply doesn’t care. He continues to behave willfully and toxically, for the covert hostility gives the passive-aggressor a sense of twisted control and underhanded power, without which he may feel like a nobody.

Regardless of the level of awareness, many passive-aggressives struggle, and suffer significant personal and/or professional setbacks. Dysfunctional communication, professional and social alienation, ruined credibility, and relational estrangement are just some of the destructive consequences of chronic passive-aggressiveness.

For tips on how to deal with passive-aggressive people, and how passive-aggressive individuals can change for the better, see references below.

© 2019 by Preston C. Ni. All rights reserved worldwide. Copyright violation may subject the violator to legal prosecution.


Bursten, Ben. The Manipulative Personality. Archives of General Psychiatry, Vol 26 No 4. (1972)

Buss DM, Gomes M, Higgins DS, Lauterback K. Tactics of Manipulation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 52 No 6. (1987)

Johnson, N. Passive-Aggressive Behavior and Leadership Styles in Organizations. Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies 14(2). (2007)

Long, J., Long, N. & Whitson, S. The Angry Smile: The New Psychological Study of Passive-Aggressive Behavior at Home, at School, in Marriage & Close Relationships, in the Workplace & Online. The LSCI Institute. (2017)