Why You May Be Passive-Aggressive, and Not Even Realize It

Consider how you deal with your own anger, and how you can do it better.

Posted Nov 03, 2014

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We tend to overuse the term passive aggressive.

Real passive aggressive behavior is a coping mechanism we use when we are afraid of displaying anger, often when we feel powerless. You may have called partners, family members, coworkers, or friends "passive aggressive" while in a conflict, but have you ever stopped to wonder if you yourself could exhibit passive aggressive behaviors, too?

Sometimes, those whose anger is expressed passive aggressively don't even realize they have an issue with anger, so you may be a passive-aggressive person and not even know it. How can you tell if your anger style is passive aggressive—and, if it is, what can you do about it?

If you are a passive-aggressive person you are probably a master of avoidance.

You may act compliant and agreeable, you may shy away from giving a straight answer, and you may withhold information or even lie. This isn't because you're a bad person or intrinsically a liar, it's because you were taught as a child that displaying or expressing anger is wrong and that anger should be suppressed. Passive-aggressive people have affairs and display other types of addiction – to food, alcohol, drugs, technology, etc. – because those are "easier" means to deal with feelings of anger than confronting the person or situation that is making you angry or resentful.

These are a few of the strategies you may be using to cover-up your anger:

  • Sarcasm
  • Unreliability
  • Victimhood
  • Sulking, pouting, or withdrawing
  • Withholding intimacy
  • Sabotaging behaviors 

If you suspect you may express your anger in a passive-aggressive way, the first step to learning how to express it in a healthier way is to identify what anger feels like.

It may sound simple, but if you've spent your life covering up your angry feelings and "putting a lid on it," this may be difficult, but not impossible. Remember, an impulse always comes before a reaction. If you can recognize the impulse, you can begin to identify the feeling of anger building inside you. Then, once you recognize the signs of hidden anger, you can have more freedom in responding to it.

How can you recognize your anger? There are physical, emotional, behavioral, and mental clues that you are angry. Browse this list for some of the common ones:

  • Your body feels tense
  • You feel like your heart has "dropped"
  • You're shaking or trembling
  • Your face or neck feel hot
  • You can't sit still
  • You're clenching your fists
  • You've raised your voice or changed its tone
  • You feel depressed, irritable, and/or guilty
  • You feel anxious
  • You want to flee your current situation
  • You think or say overly critical or sarcastic things
  • You fantasize about aggression or revenge
  • You obsess about what's made you angry 

If you want to transform your unhealthy, passive-aggressive anger into the kind of anger that leads to open conversations and resolution, you need to learn how to tell when you're angry:

Identify the situation that triggered you and your primary anger clue (or clues). Try this exercise:

  1. Review the anger clues we've already gone over. Consider all of them, even the ones you think don't apply to you.
  2. Think of a situation when you felt angry and try to remember it in detail. At the time, how did you know you were angry? Does recalling the event trigger any sensations, feelings, or thoughts? Does your face feel hot? Do you feel like giving up?
  3. Write down these responses—they're your clues.
  4. Think of other times when you were angry and repeats Steps 1 through 3, writing down clues as you remember them.

Finding your triggers and primary anger clue is the cornerstone in the process of taking charge of your anger. As you go through your week, take a minute when you can to observe what's happening in your body and to your thoughts and feelings, without judging yourself. This process is called mindfulness. When you are mindful, you are intentionally focused on the present.

The next time you're in conflict with someone and you start to feel your neck grow hot or get the sudden urge to run away, try staying in the present moment. Running away from anger or trying to cover it up won't make you less angry; it will just make you less happy in the long-term. By practicing identifying your anger clues and being mindful, you'll get better at recognizing when anger is rising inside you and then you can start practicing healthier ways of addressing it.

For more in-depth details on my 5-step approach to releasing anger, purchase my book Mindful Anger

Photo by © Federico Marsicano