“Passive-Aggression” Top 5 Misused Psychology Terms – Part 3

Recently, a woman was complaining about how an ex-boyfriend was badmouthing her around town because she broke up with him.  The friend she was talking to replied:  “Oh, he’s just being passive-aggressive.”  In fact, in his anger the boyfriend is deliberately trying to hurt this woman by smearing her reputation.  You can call it passive-aggressive, but this game of indirect get-back is anything but “passive.”  I also frequently hear people use the term passive-aggressive to describe all sorts of subtle, hard to detect aggressive tactics that people sometimes use to emotionally brow-beat others into acceding to their demands.  This kind of behavior is also not “passive.”  In my book, In Sheep’s Clothing, I point out that this behavior is very active, albeit carefully veiled or “covert” aggression, and it’s generally the culprit in manipulative behavior. 


So, just what is “passive-aggression?”  Well, as the name implies, it’s aggressing through passivity.  It’s passive-resistance to cooperating with someone you don’t feel like cooperating with (generally because you’re angry with him or her for some reason).  It’s not talking or pouting when someone is trying to engage with you.  It’s not-so-accidentally “forgetting” to do something for someone who you didn’t really want to do that something for in the first place.  In extreme forms, it can take the form of a sit-down strike, hunger strike, or some similar act.


Passive-aggression is not a very effective strategy generally speaking (a notable exception would be the passive mass resistance of Ghandi and his followers in their nonviolent opposition to British rule) because it usually inflicts a higher cost on the person resisting than it inflicts on the person who is the target of the resistor’s anger. 


Lay persons are not the only ones who misuse the passive-aggressive label.  Professionals often misuse the term, also.  In fact, there is a particular personality type, the passive-aggressive personality, which was removed from the official diagnostic manual in large measure because of the often contradictory and unclear descriptions clinicians in the field provided.  Most of the time, when people use the term “passive-aggessive” they’re generally trying to describe someone’s active but covert-aggressive behavior.  In Sheep’s Clothing provides a comprehensive definition and makes a very clear distinction between passive-aggressive and covert-aggressive behaviors and passive-aggressive (ambivalent, negativistic, and often self-defeating) personalities and their covert-aggressive (deceptive, conniving, and manipulative) counterparts. 


So remember, if someone’s trying to hurt someone else, get the better of them, or play “get-back,” and is deliberately trying to conceal their intentions, there’s nothing “passive” about their aggression.  Remember also that getting to know all of the subtle, hard to detect ways people can beat you into submission without you knowing how they managed to do it (i.e. learning the tactics of covert-aggression) is the secret to never being manipulated again.  You can find the most common manipulative tactics and the best ways to respond to them discussed in my book In Sheep’s Clothing. 

27 thoughts on ““Passive-Aggression” Top 5 Misused Psychology Terms – Part 3

  1. I am off to Amazon to buy your book right now. I am in the Military and I am hoping reading your book will help me to better understand the people I am around because I have always viewed the only persons, to get ahead in this world are “passive-aggressive” persons’.

  2. You’ve got that right. Passive aggressive people do get ahead – by deception. Unfortunately they play games – some people have too much of a conscience and strong set of values to use or devalue other people in this way to protect themselves.
    Just another form of control that is rather narcistic. We’d like to believe that most adults aren’t dishonest, but passive aggressive people appear to be very deceiving, a nasty form of dishonesty that is soley for self gain in some form. – usually to put on airs and make themselves look good.
    The only way I’ve found to understand these people is just watch them and listen, if you say anything they’ll turn it around and twist it in some way and you’ll only end up frustrated. Trust yourself, watch, and listen. They like to be viewed well. It makes me wonder why they do this, but it doesn’t matter that much to me to really figure them out although I have a couple of these annoying people in my family.

    1. I think I failed in my attempt to distinguish passive and covert aggression. Although both passive and covert aggression are both indirect means of aggression, the similarity ends there. What’s more, true passive-aggressive personalities are among the most self-defeating character types. But covertly aggressive people are very different. They are inordinately manipulative and often quite successful in gaining social power and influence because of how well they conceal their very “active” attempts to do others in. Perhaps I didn’t stress enough the “active” versus “passive” dimension of aggression. There are other dimensions as well, which I outline in both my books.

      1. Actually, I think you explained it rather well. It’s just a hard distinction to make, either theoretically, or when the behavior in question is in effect! I am always wondering if my husband “knows” what he’s doing. He says he doesn’t. Hard to distinguish when they can use “plausible deniability.”

        1. Gforce, Great comment and observation! I think part of their tactic of manipulation is to create confusion in the victim and to keep them in doubt. the victims mind locks in on trying to figure out what is going on, all the while the CA continues his torture of give and take and mixed messages. SO abusive and covertly destructive…………and then they discard you for becoming the exact mess they created.

          1. Pretty sure you just threw gaslighting into the conversation with “manipulation and confusion.” Not you personally; I hope that makes sense.

          1. Oh! I’ve had that feeling with a past coworker from the minute I met her. But I’m an easy going person and we actually hung out a bit outside of work. Somehow over the next few months, I was the one who got labeled “passive aggressive” even though I was the one in charge of a project and I was the one who slowly had the work pulled away from me with no explanation. I was completely floored and then I realized it was this woman who was behind it all and she had been very quietly badmouthing me to the boss (though, as far I could tell there was no reason to do it). After I had been out with her a few times outside of work, I realized she had some serious emotional issues and I had backed off, not wanting to get pulled into them and her flirtatious deceptions. She took this as me being angry with her and apparently the revenge started. I was eventually asked to leave one day after I asked the boss about a decision she made without his knowledge. I gave a thorough explanation as to what my thoughts were on the rearrangement of work and why. It was an impromptu meeting, with her sitting in a chair in his office and me casually leaning against his door frame. When he agreed with me, she actually stormed out of his office. I stood there with my mouth open and asked him why she was not called passive aggressive when she was the one who just stormed out. He told me that I’d come to his office ready for a fight and that my body language told him that I was angry. I wasn’t angry. I was frustrated by the situation but had taken time to get my information together. Now I was angry by his words and went back to my office and slammed my water bottle down. He came into my office and told me to go home. Almost 3 years later and I still am mystified by the whole situation.

    2. Here, here! Over the past few years, I’ve been trying to better myself by going back to college, existing any way I can, put my stuff into storage, rented rooms, working part-time jobs, gave up Jeep & old Cadillac, rode my bike and a scooter to save money, paid minimal rent living with friends which all proved difficult….but family “help” was even worse, because it turned hostile, then violent, resulting in the worst nightmare of my life….all because I’m not “grateful” enough in their queenly opinions. THe two passive-aggressives in my family are my mom and sister. They both stood by and watched while their husbands assaulted me, then turned their backs and blamed me as if I deserved it! This set into motion a whole new ugly series of catastrophic events in my life that didn’t subside until I left the area – homeless, sleeping in car, 4 police tickets, bullied at the YWCA where my new bicycle was stolen, college interrupted fall term, no choice but to work at a sweatshop to recover, harassed and then fired for defending myself….that’s not even the end of it! It’s an ugly domino effect that these passive-aggressive types set into motion and pretty much all but destroyed me. After the glaring realization that my mom and sister didn’t care if I lived or died during these acts of “violence against women” carried out by their abusive husbands against me, it was most likely provoked by these passive-aggressive hostiles when they viewed me as the “monster”. It’s because I displayed candor and stood up to them without inflicting violence. They perceived my attitude as intimidating and aggressive and deserving of acts of violence against me in order to dominate. You can also refer to this as “hook, line and sinker,” a victory for passive-aggressive manipulatives in my family, as I fell for the taunt and fired back at them (in their domain, where I was supposed to shut-up, take abuse, and smile like a coward as they do and play the game). I don’t like those kinds of games and I don’t feel like I should have to play them. Because now I’m the supposed “paranoid delusional schizophrenic” who needs counseling ( after Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society and all my dedication and hard work at college)!!! It has damaged me considerably and I’m still struggling to recover. But this is the result of how these awful passive-aggressive people operate covertly and deceptively. They are so destructive and full of insecurity/hate/resentment and they serve it up with a smile. In my youngest sister’s case, she’s gotten away with this for many years and I always knew something wasn’t right but couldn’t quite put a finger on identifying exactly what it was until now, because it’s not really considered “dangerous” or “destructive” behavior like assault. People like me with better things to do in life usually forget about it and let it go, then it happens again, and only escalates to worse. Funny how sister’s new motto in life is from the movie Frozen, cowardly “Queen” Elsa’s line; “Let it Go!” After this final ugly devastating round of abuse from family members, I have permanently disconnected from my mom and sister for good and it will be the best thing I can do for myself. It’s hard to let it go, but the other option is to let them destroy and blame it on me simply because they need someone to take their passive-aggressive hostility out on. However, now I’m living by the grace of another friend of 50 yrs, married and her husband has put across subtle hostile aggressive behaviors when I’m going out of my way to get along or be gone most of the time, studying at college 7 days/wk all day, in order to avoid another potential conflict or confrontation as well as try not to interfere in their “marital bliss”. This friend knows my family and knows what happened, but it feels like the same ol sh*t is happening all over again, where I’m always blamed for the problem. Now my friend always says I have an “anger” problem. That’s funny, I’m gone all the time. I responded by inviting her to a free college Christmas concert. That’s angry alright. … Damn, she manipulated me into proving I’m not angry…. now that makes me angry. Makes me question whether I’m the one that’s crazy, when I’m just trying to get done what I need done, non-violently and as pleasantly as possible, yet exercising my right to freedom of speech, and this is just a temporary for us all. We should be able to get along. But the problem is I don’t submit to bullying tactics because I confront it and that’s where I have gotten into trouble with these dominating/ abusives. However, passive-aggressives can be just as dangerous, instigators of violence due to their deceptive hostile projections. Why are they like this? Years of resentment of being oppressed? Whether this is because men are naturally aggressive or conditioned to be aggressive and women in marriage have to react in passive-aggressive ways, or die….makes sense to me. But it’s also integrated into our belief systems. My friend clings to her patriarchal religion which is community oriented, very nice helping others, etc.. In the churches eyes, the woman takes care of the family home, she cannot be a leader or dominant public figure. But my friend comes across as extremely rigid and unbending and is often very critical (controlling) judgmental and again I’m having the same difficulties with feeling oppressed as well as projected hostility coming across, loud and clear when out of the blue she acts all nice to me, only to mention once again that I have an “anger and hostility” problem and should call the Women’s Crisis Hot Line so I sign up for a Yoga class to alleviate my stress. Now I’m aware of the similarities of dominance/control “games” played in these 3 different marriages of people close to me, and I’m almost ready to say “50yr friendship” OVER after we all part ways, along with my mom and sister. It’s easiest to gang up on the outcast, outsider, third wheel whatever you want to call it and blame them and apparently, that’s me. At least I’ve learned from reading all these helpful Psychology Today articles that I need to put consequences in place. Ok. But “Watch and Listen” is excellent advice for these deceitful operatives. It works if you can’t overcome them by more family/friend support and power in numbers, or call them out on their BS in safety. The best thing you can do is save yourself and leave as soon as you can. It’s too destructive and costly being at the mercy of these monstrous game players who erode your sense of self-worth over time and they’ll blame it all on you, even when you’re gone, regardless if they kicked you out or you left, so be prepared to be the “schizoid who needs counseling” if you call them out or confront them on their BS like I did. IF you want to beat them at their own game, trust yourself, watch and listen, it seems to work. Thanks!

  3. I’m giving a few links for additional learning from other angles. Just a note here, before you folks read: Some of these posts seem to talk about some specific type of manipulator, who also has other issues. Now, don’t let it confuse you. Manipulators are manipulators no matter what other problems cluster in.



    http://www.heartless-bitches.com/rants/manipulator/emotional_abuse.shtml Someone else posted this here once already and here it is again. Just mind the lingo here: abuser’s problems returning to self-hate and -loathing issues(nope), history of being abused themselves(no established connection, so nope), men being abusers more often than women(I doubt it).

    http://www.heartless-bitches.com/rants/manipulator/redflaglist.shtml A list of indicators of many kinds of dysfunctional personalities that would end up draining your time better spent on more constructive pursuits.

  4. Hello,

    Honestly, I think my PA husband is MOSTLY “passive-aggressive.” In other words, I sincerely believe he is not connecting his behaviors to unexpressed anger and
    hostility. However, I do believe that he indeed does exhibit Cover Hostility from to time to time– in other words, I think there ARE times when he is deliberately trying to hurt me.

    However, my unprofessional hypothesis goes something like this:

    They may be manipulative, but like a child, the passive aggressive guy or gal is doing what they learned from childhood, i.e, they do “what works” mostly unconsciously. If you ask a child “why” they do what they do, they don’t “know” why–they just do what works to get their needs met, however dysfunctionally. When I was a kid, I acted out in destructive ways, but if you’d asked me “why,” I wouldn’t have been able to tell you. If you had asked me if I was “aware” of what I was doing, even as a teenager, I would not have been able to tell you, as I simply lacked the insight at that point in my maturity. This, I think is the “state” of passive-aggressives: They are stuck in that state.

    So, in regard to people who are primarily “covert abusers,” I’d say, that while they may be manipulating “on purpose,” they are still doing what “works” for them. While they may act consciously, they may still lack awareness as to “why,” they do what they do, even if they are “aware” that they are being hurtful “on purpose.”

    However, I’d say these are really tough distinctions to make–the lines are pretty blurry, I’d say.

    1. Just for clarification, the P-A C-A distinction doesn’t have all that much to do with “deliberate” vs. not consciously connecting expressions of anger or hostility. And sometimes C-A behavior is not rooted in anger at all, just the pure intent to victimize (i.e., the motivation is “desire” not anger). The real distinction between passive and covert is the “active” dimension. Aggression expressed passively is aggression expressed by not doing or refusing to do. Aggression carried out covertly is expressed by doing something actively to take advantage while carefully concealing the agenda.

      1. Whenever someone is doing or not doing behind someone else’s back or without informing the person of their true intentions or motivation, in my mind it is abusive. Even the passive aggressive person is concealing the truth and causing mental and emotional damage in the other person.

        1. I agree with that Puddle. In that both instances are deceptive, and have the same effect on the ‘target’. You can’t get anywhere with somebody like that.

          I love the definitions Dr. Simon gave. Passive-aggressive is avoidance oriented, while covert-aggressive is agenda motivated. I think the verb that applies in either case, is aggressive. People tend to focus on the passive part. Nothing passive about it.

          1. Einstien, I think the term “passive aggressive” needs to be changed to “resistant aggressive”. Basically the CA is thumbing their nose at the victim and saying “f’you”…..”.you can’t make me”! Or I don’t have to”! Ot “I won’t”. AND, indirectly and in a chicken sh*t way, they are telling you that you don’t mean enough to them to be bothered doing anything that is important to you. I think it is the most pathetic tactic they employ………….although they are all pathetic.

          2. Honestly, I think they are both agenda oriented Einstien! Think about it……. passive or covert…….they are both covert and they both suit the CA’s agenda not the relationship or the victims best interest

          3. I mean……I think they are both “agenda motivated”. both of them are serving only the Spath’s agenda.

          4. There sure is a fine line between the two. I mean, getting smacked feels the same regardless of who smacks you. In that respect, ‘why?’ makes little difference. It’s impossible to have a healthy relationship with a chronic smacker.

            I do think true passives are a mix of neurotic and disordered, and well….coverts…..just disordered. Both seem to be hung up on the concept of plausible deniability (impression management), deliberate manipulation and feel the ends justify the means in all cases. Neither participate in relationships, they control.

          5. Probly right E…….maybe my mind just goes to automatic default here! SPATH!
            Anyhow, I think that passive aggression, as Dr. Simon describes here, can be just another tactic to further their agenda. SO maybe people who are neurotic are passive aggressive in a different way then a Spath. I’m trying to put words to a realization that is kind of vague and not completely formed perhaps!

          6. So wait, if someone is trying to manipulate you into doing stuff you don’t want to do, and you don’t do it, that’s aggressive somehow?
            What if you are just getting on with living your own life, and some aggressive type (possibly a member of your family) comes at you with a bunch of insults and excuses why you should be doing what they say, and you don’t have time, are not interested in doing it, or are aware that the activity’s only purpose is to involve you in a power game? My point is there is a difference between assertive defiance, declining to be a selfless doormat/pawn, and being aggressive. It is not aggressive to retain your right to personal freedom, yet the accusation of ‘passive-aggression’ (because you’re being passive and it annoyed them) is often used to coerce or defame those who do not roll over for narcissistic manipulators. There is nothing aggressive about non-participation (though there may be other things you could do as well that make it aggressive). Example: “My girlfriend says she doesn’t want to sleep with me because I offended her. That’s so passive-aggressive.” NO!

  5. Hi I found this very interesting….I haven’t read your book so answer to my question may be in there. My question is can passive aggressive people change for the better. Some of the behaviors described above I recognized from myself and people I care about.

    1. I felt the same way, and I have to say I don’t agree with other commenters’ conflation of passive-aggression (in the sense in which Dr. Simon uses it) with covert aggression. For example, if I say I’ll do something and then later back out, it’s not because I want to jerk people around or inconvenience them. Far from it–I hate inconveniencing people! It’s because I’m torn inside between two conflicting needs or desires: (1) to be of service and develop healthy relationships, and (2) to stand far away from other people so they don’t trigger my neuroses. (This latter desire is a pro-social instinct as well as a self-interested one, BTW–I don’t want to dump my reactivity on other people, so it’s safest for everyone if I stay away from them.)

      These warring priorities flip-flop in unpredictable and frustrating ways, but they aren’t malevolent or opportunistic. That doesn’t mean everybody else has to accommodate them: if someone sees my behavior as abusive or deceptive, that’s entirely their call and they can stay away from me preemptively. But I don’t agree that that’s the only or most appropriate response.

      Now, maybe I’m not really a passive-aggressive personality, but Dr. Simon’s description of it elsewhere really resonated with me. So I think it’s important to think twice before conflating all forms of difficult behavior as equally destructive and reprehensible. You can do that in your own mind if it makes it easier for you to protect yourself, but that doesn’t make it universally true.

      1. Just saw some later comments acknowledging that there’s more of a difference than there might seem at first–sorry to jump the gun! :-)

        I totally relate to being abused and then wanting to protect myself from EVERYTHING that even looks like abuse, whether it’s intended or not. Intent isn’t magic, and meaning well doesn’t mean you get a free pass on being stupid or hurtful.

        On the other hand, it can make a big difference in the way someone responds when you confront them. But that itself is a risky thing if you aren’t sure how they’ll react or are afraid of being manipulated again, so playing it safe is sometimes the best bet after all.

      2. Hello, DC!

        Thanks for commenting. You come across as candid and self-reflecting.

        I’ve heard and read the word “passive-aggressive” being used, when someone makes a veiled insult, provocative remark or other subtly disrespectful comment. The word is so misused.

        You make good points. I hope you get a lot out of this blog.

  6. I have an interest in bullying behaviour or when someone sabotages a relationship, whether personal or professional, to try to break the other person to make them quit a job or leave a relationship. I know this is passive-aggressive behaviour but when it is intentional to harm even if it is only a desire to get an end result, would this be considered sadistic narcissism? Can people be treated for this? If so, how long does it normally take if they are middle-aged adults and not willing to look at their behaviour to change? Are they unaware of their actions? Thanks.

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