Turn Passive Aggression into Assertiveness


Passive-aggressive behavior is an indirect expression of hostility, and it’s frustrating for everyone involved. If you’re prone to acting out in this way, you mind find that you show your annoyance to others by sulking, procrastinating, holding back group projects, and maintaining a negative attitude. Those you interact with may call you bitter, contrary, or close-minded. But what can you do about this tendency? Turning it into outright aggression will not improve your life—the key is to instead find a way to be assertive, expressing your opinions and feelings directly but respectfully. Here are seven ways to develop that kind of assertiveness.

1. Understand the origins of your behavior

Passive-aggressive behavior doesn’t develop in a vacuum—in fact, psychologists advise that it’s usually a response to early life experiences. For example, one large study of couples in long-term relationships showed that individuals who had controlling parents during childhood were more likely to be withdrawn, distant and struggle with emotional expression in adulthood. If you think back, do you remember being discouraged when trying to share your feelings, or were you repeatedly told “not to answer back”? If so, you may have learned at a very young age that speaking out leads to rejection, causing you to develop more subtle ways of sharing your displeasure. Alternatively, perhaps your passive-aggressive behavior emerged when dealing with a controlling or dismissive partner. Engaging in some thorough self-reflection (perhaps in a journal or through working with a therapist) will foster self-knowledge that lays the foundation for lasting change.

2. Empower yourself to make choices

Frequently, passive-aggressive behavior is partly a response to feelings of helplessness. Instead of being sullen and uncooperative when someone makes a suggestion you don’t like, encourage yourself to see the situation as involving a choice. Is there a third option you could suggest? And do you really have to accommodate this other person, or is there room for you to decline on the basis of a further commitment? Moving out of the martyr role is a key part of becoming assertive instead of passive aggressive.

3. Work on saying “no”

On a related note, you’ll benefit from learning effective, respectful ways to say “no” to requests. For example, if your week is already packed full of work and family commitments, you may want to say “Sorry, but I don’t have any spare time to do this for you” (perhaps in conjunction with a suggestion of someone else who could help out). This is the happy medium between being rudely dismissive and acting like a burdened masochist who has no say in the matter.

4. Be active in groups

When you’re working with a group (whether professionally or socially), try to become more involved in directing the process. Sure, you can sit back and let others decide what the group will do, but that triggers passive-aggressive indications of distaste (like sullenness, or taking ages to complete group tasks that you think are ill-advised or downright stupid). Voice your ideas at the early stage of planning, and find new ways to work towards your shared goals.

5. Find ways to build your confidence

As suggested above, passive-aggressive people often learned very early in life that their feelings were inappropriate or worthless. Consequently, low self-esteem is a common companion to passive-aggressive tendencies. What would make you feel better about yourself? There’s no “one size fits all” solution to confidence problems, but some changes that might help include devoting more time to your passions, prioritizing self-care, and eliminating sources of negativity from your life. So, for example, you might go back to classes revolving around a hobby you always loved when you were a child, commit to having an indulgent bubble bath at least once a week, and stop associating with that friend who always puts you down.

6. Avoid sarcasm

If you tend towards passive aggression, sarcasm is probably one of the most commonly used tools in your arsenal. After all, it’s a way to imply your feelings without really being held accountable. Figure out some of your triggers for sarcastic comebacks, and think about how you could offer more congruent responses.

7. Experiment with direct ways of expressing difficult feelings

Finally, if you’ve spent a lifetime suppressing feelings and only allowing them to leak out in passive-aggressive ways, it can be incredibly powerful to start giving yourself permission to speak more freely. Consequently, when you move away from passive-aggressively expressing feelings like anger, hurt or fear, there’s a real hazard that you can end up at the opposite end of the spectrum (airing these feelings in destructive and intimidating ways). When you’re not feeling emotionally overwhelmed, try thinking of acceptable ways to express and own these types of feelings—perhaps by writing a list. Aim for sentiments along the lines of “I have certain expectations in a friendship, so I’m feeling hurt and a bit foolish because you didn’t meet me when you said you would” and “You told me that you weren’t still in contact you with ex, so I’m angry and struggling to trust you now that I know you lied.”