A passive-aggressive personality can involve hinting at insults without actually saying them. But is it just a trait or a type of personality disorder?
Being passive-aggressive suggests that you’re using indirect or nonconfrontational means to convey your feelings of negativity.
Instead of yelling and waving your hands, for example, you might make sarcastic comments, give backhanded compliments, or deliberately take extra time on projects to “get back at” someone.
Passive aggression is a behavioral expression of hostility, and it can be both a personality trait and part of a broader personality disorder.
Most people experience passive-aggressive traits once in a while. Snapping at your boss with a snide comment, for example, may be your way of begrudgingly taking on an assignment you didn’t want.
A passive-aggressive personality, however, is one where negative feelings are regularly expressed through patterns of indirect, often hostile behaviors.
Always meeting conflict with procrastination, for example, can be a behavioral pattern seen in a passive-aggressive personality.
There are many reasons why you may not be comfortable directly communicating negative emotions.
“Passive-aggressive behavior may arise when the person utilizing it feels they cannot communicate their needs and feelings directly, or when someone wants to avoid taking responsibility for the impact of their words and actions,” explains Ileana Arganda-Stevens, a licensed marriage and family therapist from Sacramento, California.
Bognar says this need to bottle up emotions is often a learned behavior from childhood, when you realize at an early age your needs won’t be met by asking in a straightforward way.
“A passive-aggressive person learns at an early age that the most reliable way for them to get what they want and need is through manipulation, and they do this often through the use of guilt and/or shame,” he says.
Characteristics of passive-aggressive personality can include patterns of:
- passive resistance to social and occupational task completion
- feeling misunderstood or unappreciated
- frequent arguing
- acting sullen or grumpy
- bitterness and scorn toward authority
- resentfulness toward the success of others
- excessive vocalization and complaining about personal misfortune
- low self-confidence
- feigned forgetfulness
- blame shifting
These characteristics can emerge in a number of behaviors, like bad-mouthing a coworker who recently got a raise or “forgetting” to call the pet shelter for your sister because you feel bitter about her getting a new dog.
Arganda-Stevens says: “One example might be, instead of telling your partner that you’d like to feel more connected to them, you might say something like ‘Oh, so you want to hang out with your friends but not me.‘”
Passive aggression can be challenging to meet head-on, but there are ways to help you navigate past covert hostility.
Uncovering the hidden with conversation
Passive aggression isn’t always intentional. It may be someone’s go-to method of dealing with negative feelings.
Asking questions to fish out details and underlying intent can help both parties find clarity, Arganda-Stevens says.
She says this process can easily begin by asking one question: “Whether you’re the one who’s being passive-aggressive or you’re on the receiving end of passive-aggressive behavior, it can be helpful to ask ‘What do you need?’”
Familiarizing yourself with someone’s life
Understanding those around you on a more intimate level can also help you get past passive aggression when it happens.
Arganda-Stevens suggests learning about basic needs like love, safety, boundaries, food, and sleep, so you can use that knowledge when helping someone open up in conversation.
“Did the dog keep you up all night again?” is an example of a question that might reveal why someone seems more snappish than usual.
These questions can not only help bring that person’s awareness to their behavior, but they can also help you focus on concern and empathy, which may help address passive aggression.
When someone is passive-aggressive, it may feel easier to ignore whatever behavior they use to get under your skin.
Ignoring passive aggression, however, doesn’t solve anything or help instill more helpful habits of communication.
“In the case of passive-aggressive actions, it can be good to talk about what’s going on,” says Bognar, who gives this example: “‘I noticed that you moved my placeholder. Was it bothering you that I set that there?’”
He says this does two things:
- It stops the situation from escalating into other behaviors.
- It can be an effective way of removing passive aggression from the conversation.
It’s natural to be passive-aggressive occasionally. Not every situation may feel like it warrants a full-scale outburst, but you still want someone to know you’re upset.
Bognar and Arganda-Stevens point out passive-aggressive personality may be negatively impacting your life if you:
- find interpersonal relationships don’t last
- never establish employment longevity
- often think “that person should have just known”
- strategically plan even small interactions to avoid dealing with someone
- feel afraid of conflict
- have people tell you you’re a pessimist
- are reprimanded at work for procrastination or group project delays
- feel envious or resentful toward your closest friends
- look for ways to bring someone “off their high horse”
- desire bad luck for someone who hasn’t wronged you
Passive aggression is a personality trait that anyone can display. Like many other traits, it exists on a spectrum of severity, emerging as minor, infrequent behaviors or in abrasive patterns of veiled hostility.
Persistent and impairing levels of passive-aggressive behavior were once classified as passive-aggressive personality disorder (PAPD), or negativistic personality disorder, in early versions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).
Even though PAPD isn’t a formal condition, you may still receive a PD diagnosis if you experience impairing levels of passive-aggressive behavior.
Under the current DSM-5-TR, you may meet criteria for “other specified personality disorder,” “unspecified personality disorder,” or “general personality disorder.”
But excessive patterns of passive aggression don’t always indicate a disorder.
Even when behaviors are intrusive, Nick Bognar, a licensed marriage and family therapist from Pasadena, California, suggests they don’t necessarily indicate the character deficit that’s present in other recognized PDs.
“Passive-aggressive behavior is present among virtually all of us at some point,” he says. “It might be considered pathological if it is a person’s main way of interacting with others.”
Bognar adds: “In any circumstance, I would emphasize looking at those behaviors as a set of maladaptive behavioral mechanisms rather than a characterological deficit in the person.”
Mental health and passive aggressiveness
Sometimes passive-aggressive personality behaviors are the result of underlying mental health factors.
Multistudy research from 2021 found passive aggressiveness was linked to symptoms of:
- generalized stress
- somatic symptom disorder
In 2022, depression was found in cross–sectional studies to correlate with self-directed passive aggressiveness, a form of passive aggression characterized by harmful inactivity, a form of self-punishment.
Other formal diagnoses may feature behaviors that may appear passive-aggressive. Before the elimination of PAPD as a diagnosis, research had linked it to conditions such as:
Even though PAPD is no longer recognized, passive aggressiveness may still be a prevalent trait for people living with these conditions.
The DSM-5-TR indicates that many conditions, such as conduct disorders and substance use disorders, may overlap with personality disorders and may feature various presentations of aggression.
If passive aggression is affecting relationships or interfering with your daily life, it may be helpful to speak with a mental health professional.
PAPD may no longer be a clinical diagnosis, but there may be underlying conditions contributing to passive aggression. A therapist can help you explore why you might not feel comfortable with direct communication and can determine if another disorder is involved.
If you’re looking for a therapist but aren’t sure where to start, check out Psych Central’s guide to finding mental health support.
Living with a passive-aggressive personality can mean preferring indirect ways of communicating negative feelings in your daily life.
Whether it’s deliberate procrastination as a subtle form of punishment or snide comments that make someone feel bad about their decisions, passive aggression can affect interpersonal relationships.
Finding ways to clearly communicate your needs and discovering the needs of others can help prevent passive aggression from covering over conflict.