How To Deal With Passive Aggressive Behaviour

In the modern world, being passive aggressive is easier than ever before. In a few minutes, you can subtweet, throw shade with a tea-sipping Kermit meme, and finish off a bitchy Whatsapp message with a cheeky trio of see no, hear no, speak no evil monkeys.

But passive aggression – real, true passive aggression – is a lot more serious and a lot less obvious than a few bitchy statuses. It is technically defined as indirect hostility, negativity and resistance to demands. And it's much more complicated than the old cliché of a post-it note on your housemate’s unwashed dishes, as more often than not, it’s actually non-verbal.

So what, right? We’re all passive aggressive from time-to-time, and what’s the real harm of a dirty eye-roll in the direction of Janet from accounts? Well, according to psychologist Dr Elle Boag, a senior lecturer in Social Psychology at Birmingham City University, passive aggression can lead to the breakdown of relationships, social anxiety, and depression.

Here are six warning signs of passive aggressive behaviour, and how to deal with it in others and yourself.

Procrastination and failure to meet deadlines
“Passive aggression is historically known as ‘wilful incompetence’,” says Dr Boag, noting that deliberately procrastinating, failing to complete tasks, and missing deadlines are sure-fire signs of passive aggressive behaviour.

“I got passed up for promotion last year,” says Lucy*, a 26-year-old marketing executive from London, “so I thought, I’d just work the bare minimum. Also, if my boss asked me to do a stupid task, I’d do it quickly in ten minutes to show I thought it was dumb and didn’t deserve my time.”

It’s pretty clear why Lucy started acting this way, and Dr Boag says the first step to combating your passive aggression is to deal with the event or experience that underlies your behaviour. “Resentment is a powerful, emotive response to self-perceived inequality,” she says, “thus, passive aggression is a means of reducing negative self-concepts derived from self-perceived unfair treatment.” Recognising this perceived inequality as the root of your passive aggression is the first step to combating it, she says.
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Blaming others
Not only do passive aggressive people fail to do what’s asked, they also struggle to accept responsibility for their actions. If you find yourself blaming your boss, bae, or best mate for your inability to file a spreadsheet/have sex/meet up, you might be the problem.

“Sometimes, passive aggressive people simply can’t accept that they are able to resolve tasks themselves,” says Dr Boag. This is called “learned helplessness” and it’s when you become conditioned to think you can’t change a situation. You act helpless and therefore overlook any changes you can actually make.

One of the first steps in changing this negative behaviour is simply recognising how damaging it is. Consistently acting passive aggressively can be really harmful for your relationships. Friends might get sick of you, bosses won’t trust you, and people will respond in kind to your negativity.

Dr Boag says that this becomes a cycle, where your negativity causes people to be negative towards you, leading you to be more negative, and potentially then causing social withdrawal.
Exaggerating your own misfortune and expressing envy to those apparently more fortunate
We all have this friend, don’t we? The one that always wants to one-up you in the misery stakes. “I have the flu,” you say. “Yeah, well, once in 2008, I NEARLY DIED from the flu,” they shout back.

It’s easy to see when others are doing this, but a lot harder to identify in ourselves. Sit down and think about it. If you find yourself actively resenting people for their good fortune and this affects the way you act around them, that’s a sign of a passive aggressive personality.

There’s no simple solution for curing envy, but the first step is to stop comparing yourself to others. Spend less time on social media and more time reflecting on what you want from your own life.
Avoiding responsibility, ignoring people, and refusing to speak up
Ever passed up a task at work by claiming that Carol on the second floor would be better for the job? Ever been so pissed off at the shambolic organisation of your 2015 gals’ holiday that you refused to print off Beth’s tickets? Yep, both examples of passive aggression.

“I started avoiding tasks at work that I felt were above my job description,” says Lucy. “They were things I used to do, but I stopped doing them because I felt I didn’t get any recognition. Sometimes I’d also look at my phone in meetings as a way of saying I didn’t give a shit.”

Dr Boag says that to truly let go of passive aggressive behaviour, you have to accept that conflict is inevitable. Ergo: shit happens. Life is full of disagreements and it’s important to recognise that this isn't necessarily a bad thing. Conflict can actually help you move forward in a situation and change things for the better, so embrace it.
Complaining about being misunderstood and unappreciated by others
According to Dr Boag, we’re all a bit passive aggressive (duh, doc). But there are other signs that passive aggression might be more of a permanent personality trait. These involve complaining about being misunderstood and unappreciated, as well as falling into sullen and argumentative moods. It’s pretty obvious how this holds you back. If you want people to understand and appreciate you, you’re not really supposed to be a dick.

You might think that no one really knows how you really feel, but passive aggression is often just as obvious as outright aggression.

Of course, sometimes it’s not all your fault. You might be being passive aggressive because the people around you genuinely are dicks who won’t listen to you or respect you. Ditch ‘em. Once you start to feel more valued, you’re naturally going to have less cause to be passive aggressive in the first place.
Gossiping, criticising and giving backhanded compliments
How many times have you been pissed off that a friend flaked on a party, and moaned about it to another friend, not the flaker themselves? Sat in a meeting and made a snide remark about the quarterly plan instead of voicing your concerns? Dr Boag also says passive aggression is “often a retaliatory response to a self-perceived lack of ‘voice’” so you’ve got to start finding yours. Speak up in meetings, tell your partner why you’re angry, and just start telling the truth.

Not suppressing your emotions means you won’t have to find an outlet for them in passive aggressive behaviours. Plus, big secret: sometimes outright aggression is LESS harmful to you than passive aggression.
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