How to Handle Passive Aggressive People.

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Passive aggressive people can be exasperating to deal with. 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.

A co-worker keeps promising to help with a project but never comes through.

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.

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 on the power of surrender. To learn about other types of draining people read my article 5 Kinds of Energy Vampires & How to Stop Them.

Communicating 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 could 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.

How to Spot an Energy Vampire


This article is based upon The Ecstasy of Surrender: 12 Surprising Ways Letting Go Can Empower Your Life Harmony Books, 2014 by Judith Orloff MD



Passive-Aggressive: Explanation & Cure.


Author: Judith Orloff

Editor: Travis May

Photo: Huffington Post


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anonymous Feb 15, 2016 7:07pm

My mother is passive aggressive and it has taken a toll on me my whole life. My family is a dysfunctional group, my sister verbally abuses me, my dad is controlling, my brother is critical. I am now on the verge of ego decompensation because of all the abuse and from the abuse outside of home. My psychologist is my light at the end of a 30 year tunnel.

anonymous Sep 18, 2015 3:36am

This is a great article. However, it doesn’t address those who are in long-term relationships where the passive aggression is a known and deliberate behavior – in many cases, gut has been trusted and behavior has been addressed, but the pv aggression goes on because of whatever issues the aggressor has. Someone very close to me has dealt with this for 20 years with the father of her children, and while she is a very patient person who respects others’ perspectives, 20 years has a way of wearing you down.

anonymous Jul 29, 2015 3:48pm

The three examples at the beginning are NOT examples of passive aggresion unless the person is doing it purposefully. Thoughtlessness does not equal passive aggresion.

Elephant journal should consider having people who know what they’re talking about write articles 🙂 lol.

^ Now that’s passive aggressive.

    anonymous Apr 9, 2016 4:00am

    Not true. Passive aggression can be unconscious.

anonymous Jun 11, 2015 9:45am

people being late isn't necessary passive aggressive, maybe they are just poorly organized or have bad time management.. to me none of your three examples are PA…maybe he just wanted freaking ice cream or didn't listen which men usually don't.

anonymous Jun 10, 2015 6:27am

If you find you’re surrounded by passive aggressive people, it may just be that you’re a scary jerk. I’m not normally passive aggressive, but when I have domineering people I can’t get out of my life, I can resort to passive aggression. I know it’s not the ideal way to express your anger, but that doesn’t mean they other person isn’t wrong too.

I got into an abusive relationship, where if I ever spoke up for myself I would be gaslit/raped/beaten, so I started spiting them in seemingly innocent ways. I noticed this person described almost everyone in her life as “passive aggressive”. In reality, no one wanted to deal with her tantrums and verbal abuse.

    anonymous Jun 10, 2015 1:07pm

    That actually a bloody good point! 😉

      anonymous Feb 15, 2016 7:19pm

      Not necessarily. I've been emotionally abused my whole life by passive aggressive people. Im per my dr. On the verge of ego decompensation

anonymous Apr 6, 2015 3:48am

life altering – thanks

anonymous Apr 2, 2015 6:18am

After a victim mentality all my life (over 40 yrs) I finally was enlightened to it over the last several years. I am still very vulnerable to it but I have decided that I do not have to allow people in my life, even if they are family, who do this. This has been extremely liberating and is the best thing I have ever done. My life is now more and more focused on peace & the good that I can do for the world rather than giving all my energy to these people. Hugely life-changing for me!

anonymous Apr 1, 2015 9:10am

Very enlightening article for me. Years of frustration with my partner finally explained (both controlling and passive aggressive). Having been diagnosed with breast cancer I seem to suddenly find so many things lately that apply to my life! It's very much like gettin unclogged. Thank you so much.

anonymous Apr 1, 2015 6:16am

I really needed to read this! I wish I read it a while back but now is better than any other time! Thank you!

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Judith Orloff

Judith Orloff, MD is the author of  The Empath’s Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People, upon which her articles are based. In the book she educates readers about empaths, highly sensitive people, and offers strategies for anyone who wants to avoid narcissists and transform difficult emotions to positive ones. Dr. Orloff is a psychiatrist and an empath who combines the pearls of traditional medicine with cutting edge knowledge of intuition, energy, and spirituality. Dr. Orloff also specializes in treating empaths and highly highly sensitive people. She is a New York Times best-selling author of  Emotional Freedom, Positive Energy, Guide to Intuitive Healing, The Power of Surrender, and Second Sight. 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. Republished with explicit written permission from the author. Join her empath Facebook community for sensitive souls here.

Read more from Judith here.