How to Deal with a Passive-Aggressive Person, from Your Co-Worker to Your Mother-In-Law

passive aggressive cat

We have all, at some point or another, had to deal with a passive-aggressive person. You know this person. The co-worker who expresses their anger with a smile, the mother-in-law that seems sincere but isn’t dependable or the sister who says they’re fine when they’re clearly angry. They will promise you anything, but then do as they please. Passive-aggressive people refuse to admit what’s wrong, meaning you’re often left spending way too much time either trying to figure out what they’re really feeling or bending over backwards to make sure they’re happy. Read on for more examples of passive-aggression, plus how to deal with every passive-aggressive person you encounter (and trust us, they’re everywhere).

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What Are Some Examples of Passive-Aggression?

Dr. Judith Orloff, in her book, The Empath’s Survival Guide, provides the following examples of passive-aggressive behavior. We’re willing to be at least a few of them will look familiar.

  • Your partner keeps forgetting your birthday, even though they know how important celebrating is to you.
  • A friend brings cupcakes to your house when she knows you are on a diet.
  • A colleague keeps saying “I’ll get back to you” about a mutual work project, but never does, making you chase after him.

According to Dr. Orloff, “Passive-aggressive people are known for making sarcastic comments about you and then saying, ‘Can’t you take a joke?”’

How to Deal with a Passive-Aggressive Person

1. Recognize the pattern and address the behavior with the person

We all have bad days now and then, and sometimes our bad days manifest in behaviors we wouldn’t normally take part in. If someone you interact with a lot is passive-aggressive to you one time, you might be able to chalk it up to them being in a bad mood (and that’s OK—as we said, it happens to all of us). If a person in your life is consistently passive-aggressive, that’s likely a sign that it’s more of a habit than a one-off. In that case, it’s important to address it with them. But the thing is, many people are passive-aggressive because they don’t want to have that exact conversation. Says clinical psychologist Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D. in Psychology Today, “Passive-aggressive people act the way they do because they are afraid of how you’ll react. They’re scared that you’ll yell at them, reject them, stop loving them, or otherwise react in a much stronger manner than you actually will.” That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have the conversation. “Therefore, whether at work or at home, make it clear you would rather someone bring a problem to light than leave it roiling under wraps,” Hendriksen says. “Critically, reinforce this by not reacting with the very thing they’re afraid of. If you blow your top, belittle them, or otherwise silence their anger, they’ll go right back into their shell, like a hermit crab with only the claws hanging out.”

2. Trust your intuition

It’s not uncommon to experience passive-aggression and think, Oh, maybe I’m just being too sensitive; this is all in my head. But here’s the thing: Just because their anger is hidden doesn’t mean it’s not real, meaning you shouldn’t question your response to a passive-aggressive person. Again, as long as it’s not a one-time thing, you’re totally valid in being upset by passive-aggressive behavior.

3. Focus on resolving one issue at a time

According to Orloff, this is so the passive-aggressive person doesn’t feel attacked. For instance, if a friend keeps saying “yes” to helping you with a task but never follows through, tell them in a neutral tone, “Please don’t make a commitment if you can’t follow through.” Then notice how they respond. They might say, “I apologize. I have to be more focused.” Then see if their behavior changes. If it doesn’t, you can raise the issue again, or simply accept that this person is not dependable and stop making requests of them.

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sarah stiefvater

Wellness Director

Sarah Stiefvater is PureWow's Wellness Director. She's been at PureWow for ten years, and in that time has written and edited stories across all categories, but currently focuses...