Home » Blog » Learning to be Assertive Instead of Passive-Aggressive

Learning to be Assertive Instead of Passive-Aggressive

It’s so frustrating. It’s mind-boggling. It’s anger-provoking. It’s disingenuous. Passive-aggressive behavior is all of these things and more. So why do good people resort to such relationship-damaging behavior? And why is it so hard for them to change?

Here are three reasons why passive-aggressive behavior continues to thrive:

  1. People have learned to express opposition indirectly.
    It’s not unusual for kids to be passive-aggressive when asked to do something they don’t want to do. When a parent asks, “Did you do your homework?” they could say
    “No, stop pestering me, I hate homework,” but then they’d be subject to a barrage of disciplinary lectures. It’s so much easier to say, “I’ll get to it in a minute, Ma.” or “Don’t worry. I’ll take care of it as soon as I finish this program.” On occasion, these responses may be true. But if the kid is using them to get a parent off his back, he’s honing his passive-aggressive skills.
  2. It’s considered “good” to squash anger and resentment.
    Hide your angry feelings. Don’t feel resentful. Put a smile on your face. From a young age, we’re taught to express our negative feelings in socially acceptable ways. It’s not a bad message, but some people take it too far. Rather than say what they mean and mean what they say, they say what they think others want them to say. The trouble begins when their actions don’t fall in line with their words: “Yes, hon, I’ll take care of cleaning up this mess.” “Yes, I said I’d do it.” “Yes, I’ll do it shortly; I’m busy now.” “Get off my back, will you? I’ll do it in my own damn time, not yours.”

    Passive-aggressive behavior often begins with a “yes” and a “no problem,” ending up with endless excuses and angry blowups.

  3. Passive-aggressive people often play the victim.
    If you’re part of a family, work group, or sports team and don’t take care of your responsibilities in a timely way, others will be annoyed with you. Rather than owning up to your obligations or renegotiating your responsibilities, the passive-aggressive approach is to view yourself as being persecuted by others: “Why do I need to take out the garbage?” “These rules are ridiculous; the coach doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about.” Rather than working as part of the team, you keep yourself apart from the team, and wonder why you feel so alienated.

    Few passive-aggressive people know much about conflict resolution skills. Hence, they just keep on doing what they’ve always been doing. Resentment and rancor keep ruining relationship after relationship. Too bad. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Many people believe that the only alternative to passive-aggressive behavior is being nice and giving in to what others want. Not true. Being assertive is a much healthier alternative.

What does being assertive mean? Here are 5 key points:

  • Know your own mind. Be active vs. reactive. Reflect on what you’re willing to do. Weigh in on what decision you want to make before you’re influenced by others.
  • Reflect on your options. At times, you may choose to modify your plans to accommodate another; other times, you won’t. Make a choice rather than believing you’re powerless. Your choice does not have to always be his way or your way. Be creative; suggest a third option or a blending of both of your ideas.
  • Reflect on your obligations. Things don’t get done magically. They get done because people, often in groups, work toward a common goal. Hence, be an active part of your group rather than just waiting for others to tell you what to do.
  • Learn how to say no graciously. Saying no can help you create limits, establish priorities, build character and make your yes more meaningful. You can respond with a polite no, a no with an alternative suggestion, or a no with an explanation.
  • Become more self-confident.Of course, this is easier said than done. But the more assertive you become, the more confident you will feel. The more confident you feel, the more you’ll be able to speak your mind, share your feelings and express your opinions in a comfortable and carefree manner.


Grumpy woman photo available from Shutterstock

Learning to be Assertive Instead of Passive-Aggressive

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

No comments yet... View Comments / Leave a Comment
APA Reference
Sapadin, L. (2018). Learning to be Assertive Instead of Passive-Aggressive. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 25, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 22 Oct 2015)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.