Understanding True Passive-Aggressive Personalities

Passive-Aggressive Personalities

Passive-aggressive personalities are among the most misunderstood and misrepresented types.  And largely because of this, they disappeared as a distinctly disordered type in Psychiatry’s official Diagnostic Manual many years ago. Professionals and laypersons alike just didn’t seem to understand who these folks are, how they operate, and the problems they cause relationships.

Not every passive-aggressive personality can be rightfully considered “disordered.” Still, passive-aggressive personalities are among the most difficult to deal with. And, oddly enough, they’re also among the most self-defeating folks around. As I first pointed out in In Sheep’s Clothing, these folks are NOT the folks properly labeled covert-aggressive. Sadly, many folks still confuse the two types. But passive and covert types are radically different from one another. So it’s worth taking a deeper look at both of them.

The Passive Versus Active Dimension of Personality Styles

Personality has to do with the stylized way a person prefers to see and deal with the world. And some styles of relatating are largely defined by what a person doesn’t do that they probably should do. For, example, some folks simply don’t fend for themselves very well. They just don’t assert themselves when they should or have the chance. They rarely act autonomously. Sometimes it’s because they’re afraid to do so. Maybe they feel inadequate. But whatever the reason, they habitually don’t self-assert. And that engenders a lot of dependency on others. That’s why we rightly call such folks passive-dependent. It’s their failure to act, learn, and become self-confident in the process that leads them to become emotionally dependent upon others.

Passive-aggressive behaviors also involve what a person doesn’t do as opposed to what he or she actively does. It can be as simple as stalling on a task someone has asked you to do time and time again. It can also be just not talking when you’re upset and won’t say directly what’s on your mind. So, passive-aggressive behavior is basically “fighting” in a passive way – by what you don’t or won’t do. It’s passive resistance as opposed to an active assault.

Covert-aggressive behavior is agression that’s inherently active as opposed to passive. The covert-aggressor actively mounts a campaign to win or dominate, but does so subtly, deceptively, stealthily. He or she uses clever tactics to keep the true nature of their intentions and behavior carefully veiled. Covert aggressors employ this strategy because it increases the likelihood they’ll be victorious.

See also: Covert Behaviors Are Anything But Passive

Understanding Passive-Aggressive Personalities

Pasive-aggressive personalities are very different from their covert-aggressive counterparts. Folks with Passive-Agressive Personality Disorder (PAPD) are pathologically fearful of autonomy and are also incredibly shame-sensitive. And those two features work together to create problems. I’ve given the following kind of example in my books and in many workshops:

Joe asks Jane where she’d like to go to dinner. Not one to take an assertive stand, and fearing to make a potentially embarassing call, Jane defers to Joe, who suggests restaurant A. But Jane doesn’t really like the place as well as Joe does, so she stalls, pouts, and looks unhappy. Recgonizing this Joe again urges Jane to simply choose, promising he’ll happily abide by her choice. But she still stalls in making the call, telling Joe she asked him to do so, after all. Joe suggests restaurant B. The frown on Jane’s face suggests the paralizing “dance” of offering and resisting will continue until Joe is ready to pull the hair out of his head!

Jane dreads feeling like she made the wrong call. She’s so sensitive to having egg on her face that she rarely takes a stand. But she also dislikes letting others call the shots because it too makes her look bad, weak, inept. This puts her in a real bind. Moreover, her way of coping is incredibly self-defeating. And that’s mostly because she neither asks for or actively goes after the things she wants.

Covert-aggressors are strictly self-advancing as opposed to self-defeating. And, they’re generally shame-lacking as opposed to overly shame-sensitive. Any care they have for how they look is purely tactical. If you knew what they were really like, you’d be more wary. And you’d probably be more conscious of how they might try to get the better of you.


Response to my latest inteview with Pi Venus Winslow has been high. You can access the interview by following this link: Trusting After Trauma with Dr. George Simon and Pi Venus Winslow

On next week’s Character Matters podcast, I’ll be announcing the details of the first live-streamed broadcast. I’ll be able to take questions live on that program.


5 thoughts on “Understanding True Passive-Aggressive Personalities

  1. “Passive-aggressive behaviors also involve what a person doesn’t do as opposed to what he or she actively does.It can be as simple as stalling on a task someone has asked you to do time and time again.”

    “The covert-aggressor actively mounts a campaign to win or dominate, but does so subtly, deceptively, stealthily. He or she uses clever tactics to keep the true nature of their intentions and behavior carefully veiled.”

    What I have seen in both passive-aggressor and covert-aggressor is that they feign innocence when confronted.

    I know everyone’s experience is different but that has been mine.

  2. I had never thought about the autonomy of the passive-agressive, but have seen that its a way to not take personal responsibility. I have also found they tend to blame. A lot of my family members are like this, I have discovered this in myself as well although I am becoming more aware of it and changing. It is a fear of confrontation as well. Our family dynamics where such that father was very controlling and mom an enabler and very passive. Now when I see that behavior in myself I identify it and choose something else.

    1. Kat,

      Your posts often really resonate with me. It sounds like we had similar family dynamics. My father was also very controlling and my mom was fairly passive although she did fight back some and was beaten for it. He was also abusive with the rest of us if we stepped out of control.

      I was thinking about this too. I see it and understand it as a learned behavior of survival for some. When you’re in an abusive environment, especially with a narc, they are never wrong and are always looking for a scapegoat. Also, the punishments didn’t fit the crime even if you did do it, so no one wants to be the target of that, so they learn not to take responsibility.

      I know I learned speaking up often came with a very heavy price. You’re damned if you stick up and assert yourself and damned if you don’t. He conditioned us all to self sensor. I see it in my younger self as a learned helplessness. Passiveness was self protection when you’re stuck in that environment and powerless. I agree it is also a fear of confrontation as well – a conditioned fear. I think that over time one loses their self and what they want, need, etc…it’s controlled out of you.

      It’s interesting now to witness abusive folks reactions to my assertiveness and asserting my autonomy. I see how they try to invoke fear, obligation or guilt. Usually fear. I have complex PTSD and still sometimes get hijacked, but less often now and I recover much quicker.

      I also use what is considered passive aggressiveness in this article with the aggressive people in my life. I have a primary care provider who is a narc & master gaslighter (actively looking for a new doctor). I’ve learned to just stop responding to her when she’s actively gaslighting me in an email and trying to convince me that my objective reality, is not what I’m seeing. I see how many of these behaviors, are in fact, self protective.

      1. Mindful,
        What you said about how we learn to be helpless is so true. Then I met a narc and he took total control although I had no clue at the time what was happening and why. I think I had PTSD after that relationship ended. From what I have learned in 12 step groups about “character defects” – a term which I question – is that they were survival mode behaviors. The problem with some of these patterns I have picked up in childhood is that I continued them without awareness. Its a lot of work to change patterns of thinking, automatic responses and habits but I don’t see an alternative other than going forward, I sure don’t want to go back. One big plus is I am much more self aware and catch myself much of the time so that I can choose to behave differently. Its a learning process I will probably be working on my whole life. But then we all have our issues so thats ok. As for the doctor – I have also been getting those types out of my life when I identify them – who needs that. At one time in my life I thought I deserved no better, now I know it was just the thought pattern I was in coming from my family of origin and my marriage with a narc. I’m glad you responded, its good to hear from others whose experience has been similar and are overcoming.

        1. Hi, Kat,

          ‘The problem with some of these patterns I have picked up in childhood is that I continued them without awareness.’

          Something that has helped me understand this frustrating phenomenon was learning the Operant and Classical Conditioning model. Basically, we’ve been ‘trained’ to respond in certain ways through reinforcement and/or punishments until our responses have achieved Classical Conditioning. Once Classical Conditioning has been achieved we now operate outside our conscious thought. It is a automatic response i.e. Pavlov’s Dog salivating when the bell is rung. In order to change Classical conditioning we must take an active role in desensitizing and Counter conditioning.

          I have found a lot of success through this method.

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