What Does Passive-Aggressive Mean?

The term passive-aggressive is defined as the “unassertive” expression of negative sentiments, feelings of anger, and resentfulness. So instead of verbally or physically expressing frustration or anger — or even simply saying “no” when asked to complete a task — someone described as passive-aggressive might simply act agreeable but then not follow through with completing the task.

Passive-aggressive personality can sometimes seem pretty easy to recognize. In fact, these behaviors were once known as a personality disorder of the same name — passive-aggressive personality disorder.

Today, passive-aggressive personality disorder is no longer considered a mental health condition and the diagnosis is not recognized. But that doesn’t mean that these personality traits no longer exist.

Passive-aggressive behaviors can be truly troubling and may still require medical treatment and help to cope with them. People with passive-aggressive personality traits also tend to, over time, develop feelings of anger.

Symptoms of Passive-Aggressive Behavior

It’s not understood why some people behave in a passive-aggressive manner or have chronic passive-aggressive personality characteristics. But it’s thought that genetics could play a role, in addition to environment.

Some identifiable signs and symptoms of passive-aggressive behaviors include:

Putting off responsibilities
Carrying out responsibilities late, not at all, or inefficiently
“Forgetting” to do things or using forgetfulness as an excuse not to do things
Being reluctant to accept others’ suggestions
Being afraid of those in positions of authority
Having pent-up feelings of anger
Resenting and blaming other people
People with passive-aggressive personality typically don’t disagree or voice their resentment; it’s their behaviors that indicate that they’re passively ignoring a request or responsibility, or doing it only with resentment.

Diagnosing and Treating Passive Aggression

A mental health professional, such as a psychologist or psychiatrist, may perform a psychological evaluation to diagnose passive-aggressive behaviors. He will also do some careful questioning and review a history of symptoms in order to recommend the appropriate course of treatment.

Passive-aggressive personality disorder was considered a chronic condition, meaning that it had no chance of improving. But people with passive-aggressive behaviors can learn to deal with those behaviors and learn ways to cope with their symptoms.
Therapy and counseling can help people with passive-aggressive behaviors learn to understand their behaviors and react more appropriately. They can learn to better express their feelings before they develop hostility or resentfulness. Treatment can be effective, and the prognosis for overcoming passive aggression is generally considered good.

It’s also important to avoid dependency on drugs or alcohol, and any substance abuse problems or dependencies should be brought under control as part of managing passive aggression.

So perhaps that friend who conveniently “forgets” her promise to help you clean out your closets didn’t really want to do it in the first place. Or maybe you realize that you yourself miss deadlines when you dislike the project you were assigned at work. If you exhibit these behaviors and symptoms repeatedly over time, it may be a good idea to seek guidance from a mental health professional to determine if you might have a passive-aggressive personality — and learn how to better handle situations that cause frustration.

By Diana Rodriguez

Published by

Dr. Gnap

Dr. Gnap is a family practice physician and behavioral medicine specialist in suburban Chicago.  Dr. Gnap developed the Inner Control™ Program in 1970 and has worked with thousands of people to improve and correct medical, emotional, behavioral and learning problems including performance.  He started the Inner Control program because so many patients asked, “what more can be done along with traditional treatment methods?”

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