Passive-aggressive behavior was initially and clinically defined during World War II in the context of men's reaction to military compliance. Soldiers were not openly defiant and expressed their aggressiveness by passive measures such as pouting or displaying stubbornness, procrastination, inefficiency and passive obstructionism.

Frequently these days, we hear about family members, friends or colleagues who are labelled with Passive-Aggressive Disorder. Passive-aggressive behavior is the indirect expression of hostility.

There is an underlying fear and avoidance of direct conflict, yet a feeling of powerlessness and helplessness. The result is an unspoken power struggle that may manifest itself in several different ways. Some potential manifestations include sarcasm, the silent treatment, withholding intimacy or praise, being critical, sabotage, being late or not doing something that's asked of oneself.

Sometimes passive-aggressive behaviors are intentional -- because the passive-aggressive person wants the other person to engage in conflict first -- but other times, it's not intentional at all. These individuals tend to find people who enable them. They act passive-aggressively towards people who have weak boundaries and who won't call them out.

Psychologically speaking, it occurs most often in our workplaces where resistance is exhibited by such behaviors as procrastination, forgetfulness, purposeful inefficiency, especially in reaction to demands by authoritative figures, but it may also occur in inter-personal relationships.

What causes passive-aggressive behavior?
Passive-Aggressive Disorder may stem from a specific childhood stimulus (alcohol or drug addicted parents) in an environment where it was unsafe to express frustration or anger. Families in which sincere expression of feelings is forbidden tend to teach children to repress or deny their feelings and to use other channels to express their frustration. For example, if physical and psychological punishment were to be dealt to children who express anger, they would be inclined to be passive aggressive.

Children who sugar-coat hostility may have difficulties being assertive and never develop coping strategies or skills for self-expression. Passive aggression could also reflect hidden anger stemming from traits of the angry child or adult. These traits include making one's own misery, the inability to analyze problems, blaming others, turning bad feelings into angry ones, attacking people, lacking empathy, using anger to gain power, confusing anger with self-esteem, and indulging in negative self-talk.

If you live or work with someone who has Passive-Aggressive Disorder, how can you best deal with this person?

  • The biggest mistake people make is to be lenient, claims Dr. Scott Wetzler, Ph.D., vice chairman of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Montefiore Medical Center and author of “Living with the Passive-Aggressive Man". Once you give in to passive-aggressive behavior, you lose your options, he explains. "It's critical to see it as a power struggle, and then use the typical tactics one might use in a power struggle."
  • “Set limits -- and then follow through. Make it clear that you won't tolerate being mistreated”, Dr. Wetzler says. “If a person is constantly late and it bothers you, make it clear to the person that next time she is late meeting you for a movie, you're just going to go in without her. That's a kind of limit-setting," Wetzler says. "It's also a way of saying; I'm not going to pay the price for your behavior.”
  • Talk specifically -- not generally. If you're going to confront a passive-aggressive person, be clear about the issue at hand. A danger of confrontation is that statements turn too global -- phrases like "You're always this way!" won't get you anywhere -- so it's important to confront the person about a specific action. For instance, if the silent treatment is what gets on your nerves, explain that a specific incident where you were given the silent treatment was considered a hostile move. "Call a spade a spade," Dr. Wetzler says.
  • Practice assertive communication. There's aggressive communication, there's passive communication, and there's passive-aggressive communication. None of these is as effective as assertive communication, says Dr. Andrea Brandt, Ph.D., author of “8 Keys to Eliminating Passive-Aggressiveness and Mindful Anger; The Emotional Path To Freedom”.
Everyone can be passive-aggressive sometimes. When you find yourself resorting to this behavior, how do you stop?
“Mindfulness, mindfulness, mindfulness”, claims Dr. Brandt. “By listening to your body and how you're feeling, you can identify when you're disconnecting your actions from what you think or feel (which is how passive aggression gets stirred up in the first place)”.

Getting people to recognize that the behavior is a form of self-sabotage is also key.

It's also important to recognize that the emotion of anger at its root is not a bad thing. "Anger has many positive qualities; It tells us when something is wrong, it can help you in terms of getting you to focus, evaluate your values and goals and strengthen your relationships and connections," Dr. Brandt explains. “So when you feel anger about something, it's OK to express it and directly address it with whom it concerns (using assertive communication, of course)”.

What is the best treatment for Passive-Aggressive Disorder?
It is widely suggested that treatment using psychodynamic, supportive, cognitive, behavioral and inter-personal therapeutic methods which apply not only to the passive-aggressive person, but also to their target victim.

One of the goals of therapy is to promote self-confidence in individuals by helping them realize how they are obstructing their own success and future. Also, it is integral for them to comprehend that if they change their behavior, they can become more successful at their workplace and in their personal and home life.