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Defiant? Passive-Aggressive? Learn How to Tone It Down

When people envision a defier’s stance, they typically imagine a hostile person staring you down, barking out refusals, clenched fists shaking in the air. And it’s true. Some deifiers do present that type of body language. Others, however, present quite contrasting images: a pleasing face, open arms suggesting cooperation, a nodding head communicating agreement. This passive form of defiance we call passive-aggressive. And it can drive people nuts.

Why? Because passive-aggressive people say “yes” but make little or no effort to follow through on their agreement. They shake on it but don’t act on it. Rather than owning up to their defiance, P-A personalities cast themselves as innocent victims stuck in demanding jobs or hard-to-please relationships, remaining blissfully unaware of how their lack of action rouses anger in others. Both types of defiers (active and passive) relish their independence. Hence, they’re inclined to consider demands on their time as unfair or unjust; “…But why should I do it?”

If you recognize yourself as a defier, congratulations for acknowledging this tendency! Many just seek to put the blame on others or view their defiance with pride. Once you’re aware that your defiance is not helping you advance your career, improve your relationships or achieve your objectives, here are ideas to help you change the pattern:

    1. Tone down your oppositional reaction. Though you won’t always be the quarterback calling the plays, you are a member of a team (family, work group, community). And it’s often in your best interests to cooperate with your team to get the mission accomplished.  Does this mean that you can’t negotiate or compromise or suggest alternative ways to do a task? Of course not. But you won’t be able to do that if you’re so wrapped up in your defiance. So, think creatively, not rigidly about alternative methods to accomplish a task that might be acceptable to you and to others.
    2. Choose your battles carefully, weighing what’s worth fighting for. Reserve your acts of rebellion for important issues. Maybe there’s a situation in which you truly are being taken advantage of. Or, a rule that’s clearly discriminatory. Or, an environmental issue that’s offensive to your morality. For these types of situations, be a rebel. But don’t be a rebel without a cause. Though you may view yourself as a trailblazer, be careful you’re not fooling yourself, basing your dissent on nothing deeper than, “I don’t want to do what I don’t want to do.”
    3. Mean what you say and say what you mean. Don’t say what others want to hear just to appease them. Don’t commit to doing a task you don’t intend to do. If you do commit, then change your mind, take responsibility for the change and tell the person involved.
    4. Apologize if you haven’t done what you said you would do. Some people hate making apologies, equating it with an admission of failure or incompetence. No need to go from one extreme (no apology) to the opposite extreme (self-flagellation). Simply express your regrets. An apology is a courtesy, a way to show that what you did (or didn’t do) adversely affected the other person. But make sure your apology is followed up by appropriate action; otherwise, it will be viewed as a phony apology that will create even more dissension.
    5. Polish up your Assertiveness and Conflict Resolution Skills. It may seem counterproductive to become more assertive if you’re already a defier. Isn’t assertive training for passive people who can’t speak up for themselves? Yes and no. Yes indeed, passive people need to learn the skills and strategies of assertiveness but so do aggressive people. Being aggressive and being assertive are not the same thing. Assertiveness training and conflict resolution programs teach you to become more empowered by initiating ideas, eliciting information, expressing concerns, proposing changes, clarifying misunderstandings, forging compromises, motivating others and more.

I hope you recognize that becoming proficient in the above skills can have a huge payoff in your relationships and self-esteem. Here’s hoping you honor your commitments, then rejoice in your new, improved sense of self!


Defiant? Passive-Aggressive? Learn How to Tone It Down

Linda Sapadin, Ph.D

Dr. Linda Sapadin, psychologist, success coach and author is proud to announce the publication of her new book, Overcoming Your Procrastination: College Student Edition – Advice for 6 Personality Styles available on Amazon. Now more than ever with remote learning, this book is a must-have. If you’re a perfectionist, dreamer, worrier, crisis-maker, defier or please, grab your copy. No longer a student? Get my book How to Beat Procrastination in the Digital Age – 6 Change Programs for 6 Personality Styles. Visit to subscribe to my free e-newsletter. Contact her at

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APA Reference
Sapadin, L. (2018). Defiant? Passive-Aggressive? Learn How to Tone It Down. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 24, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 13 May 2018)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.