Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Why Are People Passive Aggressive?

3 main reasons why some people use passive aggression.

Key points

  • Some people learn passive aggression in childhood.
  • Some individuals lack the skills and awareness needed for direct communication.
  • Some people use passive aggression because they have found it to be effective.
Pexels: Shvetz Production
Source: Pexels: Shvetz Production

Few things are more frustrating for an open communicator than passive aggression. But where does it come from?

1. How They Were Raised

  • A child learns that outward signs of emotion aren’t safe to express and adapts by using passive aggression.
  • Caretakers ignore or disregard a child who then learns to communicate indirectly to get needs met.
  • A child learns that expressing anger means that they themselves are bad and so begins finding covert forms of anger.
  • Caretakers model the use of passive aggression and/or struggle with open, honest communication.

Many of our most ingrained patterns were learned young from our caregivers. On the bright side, that means caregivers can effectively pass on positive qualities like kindness, resilience, humor, and empathy. But caregivers can also intentionally or unintentionally teach an unhealthy relationship to anger.

If parents shut down their children’s anger, for example, the child may find covert, more passive ways to express it. If parents act passive-aggressively toward one another or toward their child, as in using the silent treatment or denying their anger despite clear signs of it, the child may adopt the same techniques. If parents fail to meet their child’s needs, or they punish the child for stating more needs, the child may act out in covert, “passive” ways.

In these instances, passive aggression becomes a learned survival skill. It may be the only way the child can safely and effectively express themselves. For those adults who learned passive aggression in this way, unlearning this way of being should combine self-compassion for how these techniques served them with accountability.

2. Lack of Awareness and Skills

  • The individual lacks awareness that they’re acting passive-aggressively.
  • The individual lacks the skills to have open, meaningful conversations.
  • The individual gets completely overwhelmed by direct conflict and opts for indirect forms of expression.

Some develop passive aggression from a lack of awareness and skills. They may fail to understand what open, meaningful conversation looks like. They may lack the skills to have difficult conversations and revert to blunter tools. Those who struggle to self-regulate may resort to huffily taking out their frustration on others instead of managing their emotions effectively.

These passive-aggressive individuals must start to grow their awareness, building the muscle of noticing their own patterns. They may also seek out the help of a therapist to start to learn new, healthier ways to cope with anger.

3. Finding That It Works

  • The individual finds passive aggression satisfying.
  • The individual uses passive aggression to evade consequences.
  • The individual gains subtle power by avoiding confrontation.
  • The individual doesn’t want to have a direct conversation.
  • Passive aggression has worked, and so the individual continues utilizing it.
  • The individual doesn’t believe that the other person deserves the time and respect needed to have direct communication.

Some who use covert forms of anger may know better and be fully aware of their patterns but do it anyway. Why do they turn to these tools?

Passive aggression can make a person feel powerful. It may be harder for others to call out subtler forms of acting out, leaving the aggressor to evade consequences at work and at home. The passive-aggressive person may see how effective covert aggression is and find that turning to more complicated, emotionally honest forms of conflict resolution is incredibly difficult in comparison. Some may not respect the person they are speaking to, or enjoy the power of manipulating somebody in a way that can be hard to pinpoint. In these situations, learning direct conflict is a tough ask because the person may not be motivated to change.

While it is hard to analyze somebody else’s use of passive aggression, we can interrogate our own. If you notice yourself being passive-aggressive, dig into your own origin story. Have I always turned to this way of communicating? When do I think this started? In what ways does passive aggression serve me? In what ways does it fail me? Through that analysis, change can begin.

More from Psychology Today

More from Sarah Epstein LMFT

More from Psychology Today