Passive aggressive

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Child-like openness

Children often behave inappropriately. They say and do things that shock adults.
The codes of conduct that govern adult society are largely unknown to children.
Children are (in many ways) true to their natures.


Taoism and Zen encourage a person to return to a condition of innocence.
To see the world anew. Without the ugly illusions created by modern industrial society and commerce.
Unfortunately, many people who seek a 'spiritual path' fake such child-like conduct.
They carefully cultivate an image and hide behind the conceit.

Those who are defensive do not understand.
Those who understand have nothing to defend.

 (Lao Tzu) 

Negative emotions

Negative emotions are biologically harmful and can make you ill.
When you become angry, your body is flooded with hormones and adrenaline; you enter a 'fight or flight' mode which is only intended for extreme situations in which your life is endangered.
'Fight or flight' puts your body under duress.
Tai chi encourages a person to change the way they think in order to reduce the likelihood of becoming angry.

Calm? Oh, really?

Tai chi
attracts a wide spread of potential students.
Many people are drawn to the idea of being calm and laid back, at peace with existence.
We come across countless people with soft voices and hard eyes. People with dreadlocks, tattoos, friendly clothes but inner hostility.
Sadly, they often think that dressing calm and affecting a peaceful demeanour is the same as actually being composed and detached.


We find out quite quickly that many of the seemingly calm people are actually very angry inside.
They mask it with an image.
Zen has no time for facade. It is hard enough to come to terms with reality without hiding your own nature.

Inward aggression

Not everyone shows their anger outwardly. Many people brood inwardly and a quiet kind of anger develops.
This inner anger is never expressed through overt action or confrontation.
It is manifested in small ways, through pettiness and dishonesty. Stubbornness. Awkwardness.


People who feel angry inside find their lives changed by the pent-up emotion.
It twists their behaviour in unpleasant ways.
The anger becomes second-nature and involuntary. The person ceases to be consciously aware of it.


Here are some examples of passive aggressive behaviour:

  1. Act contrary to your feelings

  2. Act contrary to your word

  3. Afraid to show your anger openly

  4. Agree with something when you do not really agree with it

  5. Ambiguity

  6. Avoid conflict at all cost by giving in to others, only to deceive them

  7. Avoiding responsibility by claiming forgetfulness

  8. Blame other people for your own mistakes

  9. Chronic lateness and forgetfulness

  10. Complaining

  11. Failure to be true to your word

  12. Failure to take responsibility

  13. Falsehood and benevolent-seeming behaviour

  14. Fear of intimacy

  15. Feel pressured to act or believe in a certain way when you really do not want to

  16. Hide your hostility by seeming to be nice to someone you dislike

  17. Inability to be honest about your true feelings

  18. Intentional inefficiency

  19. Lie habitually

  20. Losing things

  21. Making excuses

  22. Obstructionism

  23. Procrastination

  24. Quietly manipulate to get your own way, rather than be honest

  25. Resentment

  26. Resists suggestions from others

  27. Sarcasm

  28. Stubbornness

  29. Sullenness

  30. Tell people what they want to hear

This is not an exhaustive list. It simply provides an indication of what 'passive aggressive' behaviour means.

Low self-esteem

A passive aggressive person often has a poor self-image and low self esteem.
They blame other people for their situation.
They feel disempowered and unable to change things.


Instead of dealing with problems, they always back down publicly.
Rather than have a confrontation, the passive aggressive person acts sneakily.
They lie and deceive. They give their word but do not keep it. They mumble rather than speak clearly.
Sadly, a passive aggressive person actually reinforces their situation by behaving in a manner that encourages other people to mistrust them.

The 5 ego defences

A passive aggressive person causes a lot of difficulty and conflict in their own lives.
They create relationships that are unhealthy and unpleasant.
If their behaviour is questioned/challenged, the passive aggressive person hides behind well-practiced ego defences:

  1. Denial/understatement

  2. Distrust

  3. Blame

  4. Projecting your thoughts/feelings onto others

  5. Intellectualisation/rationalisation/justification

Anger must have something strong to hit against. If there is no response, no feedback, anger dissipates.

 (John Lash) 

Quietly hostile

Passive aggressive people are often quite hostile and sometimes unwittingly vindictive.
Unfortunately, they are unaware of this and see themselves as being unable to behave in that way.
It contradicts their own self-image.


Instead of being openly hostile, the passive aggressive person is evasive and indirect.
They avoid addressing their problems. They avoid improving their relationships.
Here are some examples of this behaviour:

  1. Putting people down in a sarcastic way

  2. Malicious gossip

  3. Deny that they have any problems with their relationships

  4. Avoid discussions about unpleasant topics

  5. Talk about others in a negative or disparaging way, yet are nice and friendly to their faces

  6. Make people look foolish by letting them down

  7. Talk about change but take no action whatsoever

  8. Show a consistent pattern of exerting no effort toward improving their relationships

  9. Minimize the extent of the problems facing them in their relationships

  10. Continue to deny that a problem exists when all the evidence points to the opposite


Speaking is the primary form of human communication. It serves to express ideas and feelings.
Mumbling is a common occurrence amongst passive aggressive people. 
By mumbling, the passive aggressive person is once again withholding honest, open communication.
They are failing to express their inner feelings.


Imagine that talking is like throwing a ball to another person...
You need to throw the ball to the person your are interacting with. They need to be able to catch it.
If you hurl the ball randomly off in any direction, this lessens the chance of the catcher receiving the ball.


Clear, direct, open speech improves the likelihood of other people hearing what you have to say and understanding the intended message.
Mumbling assumes that the listener is prepared to be patient.
Eventually most people grow tired of asking the mumbler to repeat themselves and give up.
They simply pretend to hear, but do not.
The person who is mumbling may realise that other people are not listening to them and feels increasingly marginalised.

A talker

Not all passive aggressive people mumble. Others love to talk but their words seldom have import.
They talk rather than act.
Words are used as a veil to hide behind.
The passive aggressive person feels safe behind a screen of 'lies and evasions'.


Passive aggressive people may hide behind an internet 'personality' in order to avoid face-to-face confrontation.
They may even own a dog and use the dog to express their anger by allowing it to aggress people.

Overcoming passive aggressive behaviour

If you behave in a passive aggressive way, and want to do something about it, there are options:

  1. Be assertive, open, and honest

  2. Admit your negative feelings and anger

  3. Contemplate your own behaviour, especially when it is inconsistent or dishonest

  4. Look for the root of your conduct in each situation: what is making you upset?

  5. Be in the moment, addressing your problem as it is happening

  6. Behave in a manner that is consistent with your feelings

  7. Interact with people in a more honest way

  8. Admit that you are a liar

  9. Be honest, even if it causes contention

  10. You do not need to agree with everyone

  11. Consider how irrational you are when you become angry

  12. Learn to compromise

  13. Speak clearly, simply and honestly

Become genuine

Ignoring passive aggressive behaviour is foolish. It will not simply go away.
Your daily interaction with people demonstrates the truth of your conduct.
Pretending that you are friendly and nice is a fallacy when you behave in a manner which contradicts this.
Talking with a soft voice is a deceit when your heart is hard and unyielding.

One step?

The journey of a thousand miles may start with one step, but that step entails doing something.
Taking action. Being committed.
If you are earnest enough to take one step and have the integrity to take another, each step will lead somewhere.
Do not be disheartened. Do not give in to hate. Have courage. Be strong.

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Page created 18 April 1995
Last updated 04 May 2023