Passive Aggressive Personality

Dec 2010
Hi everyone, this is an excerpt from my website, I try to make my articles on personality more accessable than is typically found in "the literature" (as it's called). Since Passive Aggressive (PA) Personality is very obvious to us clinicians, and yet is not yet in the DSM (although I have heard that's going to change in the new edition), I thought it would be a good topic here. Please make sure you understand that there is too much overlap between PA personality and depression for the two diagnoses to be made simultaneously even though people with PA personality frequently become depressed (so the personality patterns have to exist in times when the person is not depressed in order for the diagnosis to be correct).

Anyway, I hope you all enjoy the article. Please let me know what you think and feel free to let me know what you think of anything you see on

[size=10pt][size=10pt]Passive Aggressive Personality[/size][/size]
by Dr. Dan Bochner​

“That is soooooo Passive Aggressive!!!” I don't know about you, but I have heard that so many times. Often people merely mean to say that a person's actions may seem nice or cooperative on the surface, but those actions truly make others feel like crap. Sometimes people call someone passive aggressive just because they are angry about someone being nice when they themselves think the situation is not really so nice. To psychologists, however, the term means quite a bit more. In fact, there is a whole personality designation, or diagnosis, that goes along with the term.

Behaviors indicative of passive aggressive personality at a clinical level include being argumentative yet avoiding confrontation, having difficulty with authority, having difficulty finishing things, being lazy, and fearing the judgment of others. At the core of being passive aggressive is a conflict between feeling good about oneself (and sometimes exaggeratedly great), while simultaneously feeling as though it is a must to please others. Because the Passive Aggressive feels the need to please others, they also perceive themselves to be constantly doing for others and rarely getting anything in return. They perceive others as controlling them because they feel they have to do what is asked of them. The life of the Passive Aggressive Personality is constantly filled with depleting disappointment as they perceive the world to be unfair and and unjust.

The typical Passive Aggressive appears to be very pleasant and mild-mannered, but is generally filled with resentment. They lack assertiveness, not because they don't think they are deserving, but because they are mortally fearful of others' disappointment or anger. Although they love to take the devil's advocate position in debates and often hone their arguments fastidiously, they can't stand competition of any kind if they think anyone's feelings might get hurt. They are perceived as lazy largely because, in trying to please, they agree to do things but rarely follow through because they don't like being told what to do. They are especially sensitive to judgment in others, not just because they feel it is wrong, but because their lack of assertiveness leads to constant misunderstandings and misjudgments. In short, the Passive Aggressive very rarely gets what they want because they are afraid of hurting or disappointing others if they say what they want. Although they want to succeed and achieve, their inability to compete and their inability to respect authority combine to make success, or any kind of finishing, impossible. The Passive Aggressive feels cheated by life, but because of their self-perception, and the behavior associated with that self-perception, they actually cheat themselves. Because they rarely get what they want and fail to achieve, the Passive Aggressive is typically either depressed or headed for inevitable depression.

The development of the Passive Aggressive Personality can be delineated through a few common factors. The Passive Aggressive's response to their environment, in fact, often makes perfect sense given what they have experienced as children. In the family that will spawn the Passive Aggressive, there is typically a great deal of drama and judgmental behavior. As a young child, the Passive Aggressive quickly learns that, although they are loved, at least one of their parents, and possibly others in the family, are quick to anger or disappointment when independent thoughts are expressed or when independent action is taken. In fact, at least one of the parents is extremely difficult to please and often wants all the attention the family has to offer. A parent of the Passive Aggressive does not like to be challenged and needs others to find them fascinating and exciting. Thus, the Passive Aggressive learns that their feelings are unimportant, or at the least, must be put on hold till the needs of others are addressed. It is interesting, however, that the Passive Aggressive does seem to feel loved.

If it were not for the fact that the Passive Aggressive is confident that they are loved and loveable, their personality functioning would be far worse. In the same type of family from which the Passive Aggressive comes, some individuals will seemingly choose to compete with the drama of the parent(s) and become uncontrollable and irresponsible. However, such competition will prevent that person from experiencing a feeling of specialness because their drama will preclude the possibility of anyone appreciating who they really are (please see article Histrionic Personality). In families where there is too little love and/or abuse, personalities that develop are almost devoid of all compassion due to overwhelming storms of emotion within those personalities related to exquisite vulnerability, vengeful rage, complete deprivation, and a voracious need to control. Knowledge that the Passive Aggressive is loved, and the hope that they can be loved, are at the core of the Passive Aggressive's functioning. They use their well-developed ability to read the needs of others, an ability honed out of trying to please others much of the time, to remain connected. The pleasing of others, although resented by the Passive Aggressive, is the life line for the Passive Aggressive and can be harnessed to help them find a cure to their painful functioning.

When things seem to get worse for the Passive Aggressive, it typically has occurred because their personality characteristics have led them to relationships with others who need someone to constantly care for their needs. Such a person feels familiar to the Passive Aggressive who has experienced such people in their family of origin. Because the Passive Aggressive is so good at pleasing during the initial phases of a relationship, the person who needs so much attention will feel especially loved by the Passive Aggressive. Unfortunately, over time, the Passive Aggressive, who was hoping that all their care would lead to the final undoing of their unrequited existence, finds that the other is so used to being on the taking end of the relationship that they are unwilling or unable to give up the deal. They have been having everything their way and they think that's the way things should be. To them it doesn't even make sense to give back. The Passive Aggressive, thus is confirmed in their belief that others are unfair and that they will never get what they want.

Quite often, it is not necessary that the people they meet be at all selfish. Just the fact that the Passive Aggressive seems to have few needs leads most people to take what they want first. Most people assume a person who says they have no preference for things actually has no preference. So, they get what they want because they know they have a preference. When such a situation devolves into the Passive Aggressive becoming increasingly negative, the other person typically feels like they have been misled by the Passive Aggressive. They resent that they are being resented when the Passive Aggressive did not even do anything to suggest their needs weren't being met until they are suddenly completely upset and acting cheated.

The typical person will respond appropriately, however, if the Passive Aggressive can manage to develop the behavior that will help cure them of their difficulties. Assertiveness is the cure. In their relationships, and upon entering relationships or any new situation, the Passive Aggressive must be assertive. Being assertive is completely alien to the Passive Aggressive, so it must be learned (please see article, Assertiveness, the 30% Solution). Essentially, being assertive means expecting, and asking for, your needs to be met, while simultaneously understanding the needs of others and the context of the whole situation. Assertive people tend to get what they want enough of the time to feel happy. When they enter new situations or new relationships, others know who they are and what they want, but they also know the assertive person will be fair most of the time in understanding the needs of others. Thus, relationships are much more likely to move forward in healthy directions and no one is likely to feel cheated. Two parts of assertiveness actually come quite easily to the Passive Aggressive. Because they have spent their lives trying to please others, they are exceptionally good at understanding the needs of others and the context of situations. To be assertive, the Passive Aggressive really only needs to figure out how to say what they want.

It is typically quite difficult for the Passive Aggressive to change while in a relationship with someone who is already used to them being so pleasing. In those cases where the other is relatively healthy, however, even though it is difficult, two main tools can be used to bolster assertiveness and help the Passive Aggressive figure out what they want. In the Passive Aggressive's striving for assertiveness, they will need to amplify their preferences and view their own needs as completely legitimate. In the process of pleasing others, the Passive Aggressive has learned to fool themselves into truly believing their preferences are not very important (they often tell themselves they are strong enough not to have needs). In that process, they are actually acting as though their own needs are less legitimate than the needs of others. If they amplify their preferences and treat themselves as legitimate, the Passive Aggressive can, simply stated, put themselves at the same level as others. By seeing their own feelings as legitimate and amplifying their preferences, the Passive Aggressive can get used to figuring out what they want and how to say it.

Assertiveness leads the Passive Aggressive to normal functioning. As they start to get their needs met, the idea that their needs will never be met starts to crumble. Others start to understand them because they are no longer so indirect. The feeling that they get what they want when they try, leads to ever increasing efforts and hard work. Their need to argue about impersonal topics, borne from feelings of powerlessness, diminishes and is replaced by a legitimate desire to push for what is important to them. Carping at authority figures merely due to resentment about control is replaced by cooperation with authority (when authority is congruent with one's own interests) with the confident knowledge that everyone, including them, makes their own choices. Successful efforts in being assertive leads to the complete turnaround in functioning. Where once depression was the only possible outcome for the Passive Aggressive, after assertiveness is learned, growth becomes inevitable and life can then be fully embraced.