17 Quotes that Shed Light on Passive-Aggressive Behavior
Passive-aggressive behavior can cause huge rifts and lasting pain in relationships, but you don't have to stay locked in this vicious cycle.
What is passive-aggressiveness?
Passive-aggressiveness is essentially fighting with someone else, but without directly inciting conflict.
It’s a way to fight without admitting to your feelings so you can blame the other person when they react, says Nina Vasan, MD, clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at Stanford School of Medicine and director of the Stanford Lab for Mental Health Innovation.
“The behavior is often subtle and easily explained as something else which is what makes it so hard to counteract,” she says. It’s hard to discuss a disagreement with someone who won’t even admit they’re upset.
The problem with being passive-aggressive
Everyone avoids conflict sometimes. The problem starts when it becomes your main way of coping with negative feelings. Instead of being honest and direct, and discussing those feelings, you resort to passive-aggressive behaviors as a way to punish or impede the other person. It can happen in any type of relationship—with a parent, coworker, friend, or romantic partner.
“Being passive-aggressive shows disrespect and disdain for the other person and also stops any helpful communication,” says Dr. Vasan, adding that passive-aggressiveness is a red flag that a relationship is toxic. If it becomes chronic, it can lead to depression and anxiety, and even end the relationship.
The person who is being passive-aggressive may or may not realize what they are doing and may be unable to admit to or address the underhanded behavior.
Examples of passive-aggressive behavior
Signs of passive-aggressive behavior include procrastinating and chronically showing up late, giving the silent treatment, agreeing with someone just to get them to go away, sarcasm, and backhanded compliments. People who are passive-aggressive may happily agree to run an errand or complete a task, then either not do it, show up late, or do the job so poorly that someone else has to step in to fix it.
However, it commonly involves things that are specific to the particular person being targeted, that only they would recognize as upsetting.
For example, buying your partner a cheesecake for their birthday, knowing that they are lactose intolerant. When confronted, the passive-aggressive person might respond something like, “How am I supposed to remember all your weird diets? Nothing I do is good enough for you.”
People who are passive-aggressive can be unreliable and prone to “accidents” or “forgetting” important things—but often just enough so that there’s a shadow of a doubt as to whether they actually forgot, broke, or neglected something on purpose.
How to deal with passive-aggressive behavior
There are several strategies for dealing with passive-aggressive people. If it’s someone you’re not close to, it’s appropriate to simply refuse to engage with them while they’re being passive-aggressive. However, if it’s a person you care about, it may be worth addressing as these behaviors are often a sign of underlying issues that can torpedo a relationship if not resolved.
The root of a healthy relationship is honest and open communication between both people, Dr. Vasan says. It takes work to overcome this toxic dynamic, especially in relationships that have been operating this way for a long time.
“It starts with both partners being open and willing to change, to work on the relationship, and address head-on the issues that are underlying the passive-aggressive behavior,” she says.
In the meantime, dealing with it can be intensely frustrating and anger-provoking. We rounded up some thoughtful—and sometimes amusing—quotes to help you get through it.
“You know who you are…”
“I’m going to leave passive-aggressive quotes on Facebook instead of being direct and honest. I really don’t want resolution anyway.”—Someecards
Social media is a breeding ground for passive-aggressive behavior. Whether it’s a vague-but-targeted status on Facebook or a meme posted on Instagram, social media makes it incredibly easy to lob the first grenade while pretending nothing is wrong. (This is just one of the 10 negative effects social media can have on you.)
“Don’t let negative and toxic people rent space in your head. Raise the rent and kick them out.”—Robert Tew, writer
Passive-aggressive comments have a way of digging deep into your psyche and coming out at the worst moments to shred your self-esteem. (When you’re feeling down, try these 30 things to instantly boost your confidence.)
Maybe that song really is about you?
“I think I have some anger-management issues, and they end up coming out in these passive-aggressive songs that sound happy.”— Sara Bareilles, singer/songwriter
Where would country music be without passive-aggressive breakup songs? People have lots of ways of expressing their feelings and using music as a creative outlet is a healthy way to vent. That’s just one of the incredible health benefits of music.
Look in the mirror
“Love difficult people. You’re one of them.”—Bob Goff, philanthropist and author of Love Does and Everybody, Always
Passive-aggressiveness exists on a spectrum. Learning to recognize when you’re being passive-aggressive can help you become a better communicator while being more forgiving of others.
“I’d rather have an enemy who admits that they hate me than a friend who secretly puts me down.”—Karen Salmansohn, author of Happy Habits
Gossiping and talking about people behind their backs is a classic passive-aggressive move as it tears them down without giving them a chance to defend themselves or correct falsehoods.
Avoid passive-aggressive or ambiguous texts
“In the hands of a passive-aggressive person who wants to abdicate responsibility for things, texting is a great tool. You can really go nuts.”—Daniel Mallory Ortberg, author and advice columnist
Anyone who has ever gotten a single, solitary question mark in an otherwise empty text knows the power of passive-aggressive texting. Texting is also common in “micro-cheating,” another type of relationship-destroying behavior.
Conflict is hard
“Peace is not the absence of conflict, but the ability to cope with it.”—Mahatma Gandhi, Indian political and spiritual leader
There’s a reason people choose to be passive aggressive: Facing conflict is really hard. And doing it in an open, honest, and direct manner can make you feel really vulnerable. Here’s a healthy way to resolve conflict with your partner.
Back away slowly
“You don’t have to attend every argument you’re invited to.”—Unknown
Just because someone is engaging in passive-aggressive behavior with you doesn’t mean you have to play into it. In fact, sometimes the best reaction is no reaction at all. (This is one of the five secrets of calm people.)
It’s OK, you can say it
“Mean people suck.”—Unknown
Sometimes there’s nothing else to say other than to acknowledge that passive-aggressive behavior is mean, it makes you feel bad, and that sucks. (If you do start to feel yourself getting heated, use these strategies for controlling your anger.)
“Parents know how to push your buttons because, hey, they sewed them on.”—Camryn Manheim, actress
You don’t have to stay locked into a difficult family dynamic. (Start with these 50 habits of healthy families.)
Hurt people hurt people
“Beginning today, treat everyone you meet as if they were going to be dead by midnight. Extend them all the care, kindness, and understanding you can muster. Your life will never be the same again.”—Og Mandino, author
Passive-aggressive tactics are often used as a smokescreen to hide underlying issues like fear or anger. While you should never take abuse from anyone, responding with kindness can defuse a lot of situations. Make sure to include yourself—being kind to yourself is incredibly powerful.
Speak your truth
“Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.”—Bernard M. Baruch, American financier and presidential advisor
Staying true to yourself can feel difficult in the moment, but it is one of the surest ways to disarm a passive-aggressive person. Here are some other strategies for dealing with passive-aggressive people.
Take the high road
“Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.”—Oscar Wilde, poet and playwright
Nothing bothers a person trying to get a rise out of you than refusing to take the bait. Forgiveness is one of those things that can be easier said than done, however. (Use these steps to help you forgive almost anyone for almost anything.)
Fill in the blank
“Stopping mid sentence is the worst thing people can do. It’s, like, totally passive-aggressive, because you can’t take issue with anything they’ve said. You have to take issue with what you think they were going to say.”—Sophie Kinsella, novelist
Denial is an important tool that passive-aggressive people use to put the blame on you and avoid taking any responsibility for the bad feelings.
You deserve better
“Your life was meant for more than being a life-long doormat for deadbeats, losers, gossipers, naysayers, dream-crushers, energy vampires, users, abusers, ragers, and passive-aggressive backstabbers.”—Bryant McGill, author of Simple Reminders: Inspiration for Living Your Best Life
Many victims of chronic abuse come to believe that they deserve to be treated that way. “Know that this is not your fault,” Dr. Vasan says. “You are not responsible for someone else’s bad behavior, even when it is directed at you.” (For more comfort, read these 17 quotes about abusive relationships.)
The silent treatment
“You cannot become a peacemaker without communication. Silence is a passive-aggressive grenade thrown by insecure people that want war, but they don’t want the accountability of starting it.”—Shannon L. Alder, inspirational author and life coach
Giving someone the cold shoulder or the silent treatment is one of the simplest and most painful passive-aggressive tactics. It hurts because you’re refusing to acknowledge the other person’s humanity. This is also one of the warning signs you are being gaslighted.
Hey, we like you
“If you’re reading this, I hope something great happens to you today.”—Unknown
If you’re feeling overwhelmed or hurt as the result of someone’s passive-aggressive attacks, one of the best remedies is to remember everyone who does love you, Dr. Vasan says. You can also use these 22 ways to remind yourself that you are worthy.
- Nina Vasan, MD, MBA, clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at Stanford School of Medicine, director of the Stanford Lab for Mental Health Innovation, and Chief Medical Officer of Real, an online mental healthcare platform