Be Passive-Aggressive, or Get What You Really Want

The words "passive-aggressive" once popped up in a piece my middle-school students were reading in class. With eighth graders, I can never assume the kids already understand a phrase like that, so I asked them, "Does anyone know what it means to be passive-aggressive?"

Timid hands went up in the air, and the students gave me all kinds of answers—world-changing ones like"kinda, sorta aggressive" and "angry but, like, in the past tense." (Middle school is endless entertainment, by the way.) Finally, one student said, "It's being mean, but not really mean at the same time."

That was pretty close, actually. I then gave the kids all sorts of examples of passive-aggressive behavior. You're being passive-aggressive when:

You insist, "I'm fine," but you're not fine.

You talk (to other people or on social media) about how someone is bothering you instead of talking directly to the person who's bothering you.

You say something nice, but you use it to deliver a blow rather than a kiss.

You think to yourself, "I'm not going to talk to this person for a while so they can feel how upset I am with them."

You use that terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad word: “whatever.”

Several students nodded their heads or said, "Ohhhh yeah!" as I rattled off examples—they've experienced this behavior. They've done it, and they've had it done to them.

We all have experience with passive-aggressive behavior, even if we haven’t quite been able to put a finger on it or call it what it is. The signs of passive-aggressive behavior include but aren’t limited to:


Backhanded compliments.

Intentional “mistakes.”

Feigned ignorance.

The silent treatment.

Withholding words, affection, or presence.

Punishing someone without telling them why.

For some of us, this might have happened as recently as ten minutes ago. Passive-aggressive behavior is something that has become so common, so standard for so many of us that we barely give it a thought. It becomes an established habit, a go-to method of expressing ourselves, especially when we're hurt.

And it's not helping. At best, passive aggressive behavior is hindering our relationships. At worst, it's killing them.

I decided a while ago to work hard at severing my ties with passive-aggressive behavior after a light bulb moment when I recognized someone was being passive-aggressive toward me. I noticed the way it made me feel, and I thought, “This is how everyone feels when I’m passive-aggressive with them.”

The realization that changed it all for me was this: in all of the times I’ve experienced someone being passive-aggressive toward me, I have never, ever been motivated to positive action as a result.

When I experience someone being passive-aggressive, I feel a number of responses boil up inside of me: I feel a lack of respect for that person. I feel hurt. I feel like lashing back. I feel like walking away. I feel like shutting down. If that person wants something from me, wants me to do something for them or apologize to them, I never feel like doing any of that when I experience a passive-aggressive jab. And anytime I've been passive-aggressive, I've seen the same results: more distance, more pain, and more frustration.

If your goal in any of your relationships is to be understood, to connect, to repair, or to grow closer together, passive-aggressive behavior is counterproductive to that goal.

It’s like hoping you get better sleep tonight as you take the last sip of your twenty ounces of coffee at ten p.m.

Passive-aggressive behavior does the exact opposite of what you want it to do, assuming you want good things for your relationships.

It’s a wedge, not an adhesive.

It creates distance, not closeness.

It produces resentment, not repentance or remorse.

It strips you of respect instead of clothing you with it.

It creates and opens wounds instead of healing them.

It reeks of immaturity.

If that's case, then why do so many of us turn to it? Two culprits: pain and fear. When our decisions are fueled by pain and fear, we make poor ones. We make decisions that hurt ourselves and the people around us.

Someone has caused us pain, so we try to make them pay for it. We're insecure, so we lash out to protect our egos. We’re uncomfortable with saying something direct, so we try something indirect and hope someone picks up on it. We're afraid of the possible rejection that comes with being honest about our needs and feelings, so we turn to our masks.

The problem with passive-aggressive behavior is the lack of direct, honest, and kind communication. Rather than say with clarity what we want, what we need, what we feel, or what has hurt us, we play an underhanded game of subtext instead. We hide our true intentions with smoke and mirrors. We want someone to read our minds, read between the lines, guess at how we feel, and/or—if we're honest—feel the sting of retribution, too.

It’s an eye for an eye, a blow for a blow, a circle of hurt and frustration, and it doesn’t help us. We have a choice: be passive-aggressive, or get what we really want. 

And if we want better, we have to choose honesty, clarity, and kindness.

Especially when we feel hurt. Especially when we feel afraid. Especially when we feel insecure.

It can be hard to be honest about how we feel, or what we want, or what we need. It can be hard to just come right out and say it. It can be tough to communicate with kindness, especially when the other person has hurt us. 

At some point, though, someone has to break the cycle of pain, of hiding, of creating distance. If you're reading this, consider this a challenge: you have to be the one to break the cycle. You. If you want to grow closer with someone, being passive-aggressive isn't going to get it done.

I’m certainly far from perfect, and I have my moments, but I can say this: after I dropped the passive-aggressive moves from my conflict-resolution repertoire, my life and my relationships have been healthier, happier, and—my absolute favorite—drama-free.

We have to choose what we want for our relationships.

I want honesty and openness, not masks and hiding places.

I want to move closer, not further apart.

I want to heal, not wound.

I want what’s better, which means I need to leave being passive-aggressive behind.

What do you want?