5 Ways To Stop Being Passive Aggressive — Even When You Don't Realize You're Doing It

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Passive-aggressive behavior is so frustrating, anger-provoking, and disingenuous.

So why might you (or someone you love) resort to such relationship-damaging behavior?

And why might you find it so hard to change the pattern? If you want to change, it is vital to understand why your passive-aggressive behavior continues to thrive.

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Three reasons why you are passive-aggressive

1. Since you were a kid, you’ve learned to express your wishes indirectly

Kids are often passive-aggressive when asked to do something they don’t want to do. 

When a parent asks, “did you do your homework,” they could say ‘no, stop pestering me, I hate homework,’ but then they’d be subject to a barrage of disciplinary lectures. It’s so much easier to say, “I’ll get to it in a minute, Ma.” “Don’t worry. I’ll take care of it as soon as I finish this.” If these responses are true, great. But if you use them to get a parent off your back, you’re honing your passive-aggressive skills.

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2. Others view you as 'good' when you squash your anger and resentment

Hide your angry feelings. Conceal your resentment. Put a smile on your face. From a young age, we’re taught to express our negative feelings in socially acceptable ways. Not a bad message, but some people take it too far.

Rather than say what you mean and mean what you say, you might simply say what you think others want you to say. Trouble begins when your actions don’t fall in line with your words.

“Yes, hon, I’ll take care of cleaning up this mess.”

“Yes, I said I’d do it.”

“Yes, I’ll do it shortly; I’m busy now.”

“Get off my back, will you? I’ll do it in my own damn time, not yours.”

Passive-aggressive behavior often begins with a “Yes” and “No Problem,” yet finishes

with endless excuses and angry blowups.

3. It’s so easy to cast yourself as the 'victim.'

If you’re a member of a group and don’t take care of your responsibilities in a timely way, others will get annoyed with you. Rather than owning up to your obligations or re-negotiating your responsibilities, it’s easy to view yourself as the “victim,” being “persecuted” by others.

“Why do I need to take out the garbage?”

“These rules are ridiculous; the coach doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about.”

Instead of working as part of the team, you keep yourself apart from the team, then wonder why you feel so alienated.

If you don’t know much about conflict resolution skills, you’ll just keep on doing what you’ve always been doing, letting resentment and rancor ruin relationship after relationship. Too bad. It doesn’t have to be this way.

So, is the alternative to passive-aggressive behavior being nice, sweet, obedient, and giving in to what others want? Nope! Learning to be assertive is a much healthier alternative. How do you become assertive; I thought that’s what I’m doing when I’m not doing what the other person wants! Good question.

RELATED: How To Communicate Clearly & Directly (Without Coming Off As Rude)

Here are five ways to stop being passive-aggressive

1. Reflect on your options.
At times, you may choose to modify your plans to accommodate another; other times, you won’t. Make a choice rather than believing you’re powerless. Your choice does not have to always be his way or your way. Be creative; suggest a third option or a blending of both of your ideas.

2. Know your own mind.

Reflect on what you’re willing to do, and on what actions you’re open to in order to accommodate another. This is referred to as being active vs. impulsively reactive (saying a quick no).

3. Reflect on what your obligations are, not because someone’s telling you what to do but because you’re an essential part of a group (family, work, community, team).

Things don’t get done magically. They get done because people, often in groups, work toward a common goal. Hence, be an active part of your group rather than just waiting for others to tell you what to do.

4.  Learn how to say “no” graciously.

Saying “no” can help you create limits, establish priorities, build character and make your “yes” more meaningful. You can respond with:

A polite no: “I’m sorry to say no, I just don’t have the time.”
A no with an alternative suggestion: “No, I can’t do it now, but tomorrow would work.”
A no with an explanation: “No, I‘d love to help you out but I have too much on my plate right now.”

5.  Become more self-confident.

Yes, this is easier said than done. Know, however, that the more assertive you become, the more confident you’ll feel. The more confident you’ll feel, the more you’ll be able to speak your mind, share your feelings and express your opinions in a comfortable and carefree manner.

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Linda Sapadin, Ph.D. is a psychologist and coach in private practice who specializes in helping people overcome self-defeating patterns of behavior, especially procrastination, fear, and passive-aggressive behavior.