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How to Deal With Someone Who Is Passive- Aggressive

Interacting with someone who has passive-aggressive behaviours, also sometimes referred to as a "passive-aggressive bully," can be complicated. Oftentimes, their actions are a way of coping with anger that they don't feel comfortable openly expressing.

The person may give you the silent treatment, for instance. You may have no idea why this is happening—especially if the person denied they were even mad. Or they may ostracize you from a group, use passive violence (like slamming books or doors), or engage in subtle forms of relational aggression.

Relational aggression, also sometimes referred to as social aggression, involves damaging a person's social relationships by spreading rumours, excluding them from events, or otherwise making them feel as if they are not accepted.

People who behave in a passive-aggressive way can also be sarcastic, even when sarcasm is inappropriate. When confronted with their mean behaviour, they often pass it off as a joke, accusing the recipient of being too sensitive. Learning how to deal with a passive-aggressive person can help lessen the pain you feel from their actions.

Common Passive-Aggressive Behaviors

It's not always easy to spot someone who might fall into the category of a passive-aggressive bully. Some will sabotage others quietly, when no one is watching, then act innocent when confronted. Others are more sullen and argumentative. These behaviours can help you identify passive aggression.

Denying the Truth

Passive-aggressive people often deny that they are hurt, angry, or offended. They also rarely say what they are thinking, which can be confusing for people on the receiving end of their behaviours—particularly when they lash out in subtle and puzzling ways.

When someone who is passive-aggressive is confronted about acting mean, for instance, they may deny that they were cruel, even though their actions say something completely different.

In some cases, the passive-aggressive person may not even realize that they are angry or feeling resentful because their feelings have been repressed or they have poor self-awareness. This can lead them to complain about being misunderstood or victimized.

Shifting Blame

Someone with passive-aggressiveness rarely takes responsibility for their actions. If they don't blame you for what happened, they will blame their teacher, boss, a family member, friend, or even the weather.

A passive-aggressive person cannot accept that they are at fault. If something happens, it has to be a result of someone or something else. They engage in minimization and victim-blaming regularly.

Someone who uses passive-aggressive behaviours to bully others typically believes that they are being held to unreasonable standards when confronted.

Mixed Messages

Another common passive-aggressive behaviour is that when the person is asked to do something they don't want to do, instead of saying no, they say yes. They feel resentment just from being asked, but they hide this emotion and do it anyway.

To relieve some of their resentment, they may give the person who made the request the silent treatment. Or, they may talk about the person and even spread rumours or gossip. Other times, they may simply never follow through with what was requested.

Suppressing Anger

Passive-aggressive people rarely show anger. Instead, they stuff it down inside.

They may even appear happy and accommodating on the outside but will act on their pent-up anger, taking it out on others in a behind-the-scenes way. By taking this approach, they can let out some of their hostility without ever having to admit that they are upset.

Victim Mentality

A person with passive-aggressive tendencies often feels as if they've been treated unfairly or that they've been taken advantage of. Because of these feelings, it is not uncommon for them to have a victim mentality.

Someone acting as a passive-aggressive bully doesn't see themselves as the bully in the situation. In their mind, the other person is the one who is bullying them.

Poor Boundaries

It's also common for someone with passive-aggressiveness to lack boundaries. At the same time, they gravitate toward others who have the same type of boundary issues, often focusing on people who are conflict-averse and people-pleasing.

This type of person typically won't address the passive-aggressive actions being taken against them. They also won't hold a person with these behaviours accountable for their actions.

Passive-Aggressive Cycles Passive aggressiveness can often lead to cycles of conflict that create problems in relationships. In such cases, an individual may engage in passive-aggressive behaviour to force the other person to respond, which may then be met with more direct anger or aggression. This pattern can lead to cycles of overt hostility followed by withdrawal periods.

How to Deal With

If you have someone who you consider a passive-aggressive bully in your life, you can take steps to protect yourself. Here are a few options to consider.

Recognize That You Did Nothing Wrong

It's not uncommon for the recipient of passive-aggressive behaviours to feel that they are a bad person or deserving of poor treatment. "Many rationalize their mistreatment by believing that they somehow did something worthy of the behaviour they are receiving.

Over time, this can have many negative effects, including eroded self-esteem, reduced productivity, and damaged relationships. One of the first steps you can take when dealing with a passive-aggressive person is to recognize that you don't deserve their poor treatment.

Set Boundaries

"To overcome passive-aggressive bullying, it is important to set boundaries when you’re feeling violated," says Romanoff. "Folks who get targeted often have difficulty with being assertive and affirmative, which is a similar challenge for those who resort to passive-aggressive bullying – creating a vicious cycle."

Setting boundaries can help stop this cycle. How? "These are often subtle moments, "like when someone inquires too deeply, you can pause and think about how you want to respond instead of allowing them to violate your boundaries."

Address the Behaviors

Passive-aggressiveness is characterized by a desire to avoid discussing issues that may be bothering the person. Addressing their behaviours is one way to bring these issues more into the open. It also establishes your willingness to hold the person accountable, which helps stop the passive-aggressive cycle.

Confronting a person with passive-aggressive behaviours at work, school, or home requires honesty. Let them know how their behaviours affect you. Be clear on how they make you feel.

When confronted, the person may make inappropriate remarks and mumble under their breath. Don't let their hostility and inappropriate actions keep you from addressing their behaviours. Calling the behaviour out with no apologies is essential.

Be Direct

When dealing with someone who is passive-aggressive, be assertive and clear about your expectations. This helps establish your boundaries. It also reduces the risk of any miscommunication about what you want or needs in the relationship.

Another benefit of directness is that it holds the person accountable for their actions. It tells them that you recognize what they are doing and that you're not going to allow them to engage in those behaviours when interacting with you.

Control Your Response

Focus on staying calm. Keep your voice neutral and hold your emotions in check. The less you react to a person's passive-aggressive actions, the less control they have over you.

Remind yourself that while you cannot keep someone who is passive-aggressive from slamming doors or pouting, you can control your response. Choose to respond in a healthy way to their unhealthy behaviours to help keep it from being a toxic relationship.


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