Dr Judith Orloff's Blog

How to Deal with Passive Aggressive People

Judith Orloff - Thursday, April 02, 2015

(Excerpt from Dr. Judith Orloff's national bestseller The Power of Surrender: Let Go and Energize Your Relationships, Success, and Well-Being)

Passive aggression is a form of anger, except the anger is expressed with a smile instead of the typical expressions. Passive aggressive people are experts at sugar coating hostility. They often use procrastination, bumbling inefficiency, and the exasperating excuse of “I forgot” to avoid commitments or let you down. They appear eager to please, but know exactly how to make you mad. They can be infuriating because of their seductive or innocent veneers.

Here are some examples:

  • Your spouse brings home yet another gallon of ice cream after you've specifically asked him or her not to do this because you are trying to lose weight.
  • A friend keeps arriving an hour late for a dinner date leaving you waiting over and over again.
  • co-worker keeps promising to help with a project but never comes through.
Passive aggressive behavior ranges from simply irritating to manipulative and punishing. This is different from occasionally being absent-minded, lazy, or busy. Passive aggression is repetitive and has a covert angry edge to it. Passive aggressive people promise anything, then do exactly as they please. They hide anger beneath a compliant exterior. They don’t give straight answers and have vague responses such as “I’ll get back to you.” Then they don’t follow through so you must keep reminding them. Sometimes their remarks can be hurtful, especially so because they come at you sideways--you don’t know what hit you.

Why do people become passive aggressive?

They’re typically raised in families where it’s not safe to express anger--they’re never taught to communicate it in a healthy manner. They adapt by channeling these feelings into other less obvious behaviors; this gives them a sense of power and control. They’re masters at shirking responsibility by hurting you in ways that appear unintentional or unavoidable. Passive aggressive people operate by stuffing anger, being accommodating, and then indirectly sticking it to you. When confronted, they’ll drive you crazy with a variety of “the dog ate my homework” excuses, blaming others, or yessing you to death without changing. Since many are unaware of their anger, they feel misunderstood or that you’re holding them to unfair standards.

Here are tips on how to communicate with passive aggressive people from my book The Power of Surrender. To learn about other types of draining people read my article The Emotional Vampire Survival Guide

Learning to Communicate With Passive Aggressive People

1.Trust Your Gut Reactions

With these types you may question yourself since their anger is so masked. It’s important to recognize the pattern. Their mixed messages will test your patience. So when you doubt yourself, take a breath and try to let the doubt go. Tell yourself, “I deserve to be treated more lovingly. I will trust my gut reaction when I feel jabbed.” This affirmation helps you release doubt so you’d don’t convince yourself you’re imagining things. Then move forward to improve communication. You must surrender the idea that these people will change without you speaking up. They aren’t motivated to change unless someone calls them on their behavior. When it’s not appropriate to be direct, such as with a boss who might retaliate or fire you, keep letting the zingers go by accepting your powerlessness to change him.

2. Address the behavior

Focus on one issue at a time so people don’t feel attacked or overwhelmed. Let’s say a friend is always late. In a calm, firm tone say to her, “I would greatly appreciate it if you can be on time when we go out to dinner. I feel uncomfortable waiting in a restaurant alone.” Then notice her reaction. She might say, “You’re right. I’m always running behind. I’ll try to be more organized.” Then see if the lateness improves. If she is evasive or makes excuses, request clarification about how to solve the problem. If you can’t get a straight answer, confront that too. Being specific pins down passive aggressive people. If nothing changes, keep setting limits or stop making dinner plans. With a close friend who continues to be late, it’s always an option to accept and acclimate to his or her shortcoming when the pros of the relationship outweigh the cons.

As a psychiatrist I teach my patients to address passive aggressive behavior directly as the person may not be aware of the impact on you since they are short on empathy. Hopefully you won’t have many passive aggressive people in your life, but if you do, clear communication is a form of empowerment.

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Judith Orloff, MD is author of The Empath's Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People, upon which her articles are based. Dr. Orloff is a psychiatrist, an empath, and is on the UCLA Psychiatric Clinical Faculty. She synthesizes the pearls of traditional medicine with cutting edge knowledge of intuition, energy, and spirituality. Dr. Orloff also specializes in treating empaths and highly sensitive people in her private practice. Dr. Orloff’s work has been featured on The Today Show, CNN, the Oprah Magazine and USA Today. She is a New York Times best-selling author of Emotional Freedom, The Power of Surrender, Second Sight, Positive Energy, and Guide to Intuitive Healing. Connect with Judith on  Facebook and  Twitter. To learn more about empaths and her free empath support newsletter as well as Dr. Orloff's books and workshop schedule, visit her website.

Carole Ann commented on 21-Apr-2015 01:08 PM
This is so useful as usually self aware people think it's them that aren't communicating effectively with the Passive Aggressive person and it can be so frustrating. This is helpful as it helps us to see what is their stuff and how to handle it.
Can you do narcissism/borderline personality disorder next? :-)
Kitt commented on 22-Apr-2015 01:50 PM
Thank you Judith, you hit it out of the park yet again. I have been dealing with a severe passive aggressive recently and this is very helpful though she is no longer in my life. Bless you.
Anonymous commented on 14-Aug-2015 11:30 AM
Been reading up on this passive aggressive behavior, and another one I found was people who "tut-tut" or "tsk-tsk" at people generally don't have the capacity to express what they're really upset about either.
Anonymous commented on 12-Apr-2016 07:25 AM
Thanks. I've just had 2 people die around me, lots of drama around it all and been on an incredibly tight budget which I blew out about a month ago. Odd phone messages and an odd text message entered into my phone p, not sent to it, police saying there was something wrong with me when trying to discuss it with them, .....

The point is I spent money I couldn't afford to spend. The person I owe it too is angry with me. I'd tried to discuss this with them for weeks before I did the big emotional spend, now they don't trust me, are angry, agree for me to pay it one way then say the opposite.... I know my own behavior was not good, but nderstandable. I have to work extra hard to make up the financial downfall and am apprehensive about their anger.

I'm a bit like a rescue dog sometimes, having left an odd DV relationship, I withdraw when I feel a sense of aggression etc... Which was another catalyst for my odd spend. I have to share a house. It's a great house and the people are ok. I'm told it's a boys house though and little things seem to be done to just show me it's a boy house. I feel unwanted in the kitchen when I go to make my food and feel isolated by the sadness around my life experiences and now, have to work harder to rebuild again.

I'm doing my best but really don't quite know how to deal with it all. I can see bits of nacissism in my behavior, in others behavior and bit of passive aggression on each side too. I try to deesculate difficult communication generally to find the solution that will work.

I've tried to get a psychologists support and have found the analytical approach restrictive and the terminology of their text books to find something wrong rather with you rather than work with you to find a solution to a difficult life situation. Am I delusional if I'm worried about odd phone messages after someone died? The odd text message was much weirder and had larger implications beyond me, but is someone stuffing with my head? And then the person that I have let down, their saying my emails trying to work out from scratchy notes how much I owed then were disjointed. I've asked for email notification of what's due and they only want to send it by text message. My last phone with the odd texts went missing, including all the text messages discussing my payments to her. I feel bad asking for clarification and they are then angry and frustrated with me. I'm hoping in 6 weeks, when most is paid this will decease. It scares me too, as I really thought I was owing half of what I'm told I do.

Am I loosing it ?

Hermitage commented on 04-Nov-2016 05:21 PM
Re:a friend who was always late. Eventually I said to her very calmly, that for future meetings I'd give her 30mins grace (quite generous I thought) then I'd leave or go to the cinema alone, go home, go to the hotel etc whatever was appropriate.

And that seemed to do the trick. If she was late again then it ceased to bother me and if she wasn't then all well and good. It's about setting clear boundaries.

She was also prone to sulking as well, which is also passive aggressive behaviour.

Dealing with p/a behaviour can be emotionally taxing and draining, so setting boundaries is a real imperative and no doubt some relationships will fall away, making way for healthier ones.

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