What Are the Causes of Passive Aggressive Behavior?

Words or actions that are purposefully employed to harm or upset someone form the basis of passive-aggressive behavior. Passive-aggressive individuals mask their malicious intentions by lying to prevent being blamed for a misfortune incurred by another. Their duplicitous behavior also allows them to avoid confrontation and accountability for their actions. According to the "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders," 4th Edition, Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR), their behaviors stem from a negative attitude toward and resentment of others 1.


Children learn how to express their feelings from their immediate family, especially their parents. Like their intentions, passive-aggressive people hide their true feelings from others. According to "Minding Your Mental Health" by Don R. Powell, Ph.D., children who are raised by overly controlling parents in an environment where self-expression is not permitted are forced to learn other ways to express feelings of anger and hostility 2. Since they are dependent upon their parents, they risk punishment if they don't do as their parents say. Therefore, they lash out at their parents covertly.


Passive-aggressive adults resent authority figures such as bosses, teachers, older siblings or in-laws because they place demands and have certain expectations. Although passive-aggressive people will openly comply with requests made of them, they will secretly plot sabotage. Procrastination, purposefully forgetting and deliberately doing a poor job are common forms of sabotage. By engaging in these activities, they are passively resisting authority, which makes them less vulnerable to repercussions.


According to the DSM-IV-TR, passive-aggressive behavior stems from a lack self-confidence. Individuals who are unable to be assertive lack the capacity to ask for what they want. As such, they become dependent on other people to meet their personal needs. In addition, they use criticism and sarcasm to deflect focus from their own weaknesses.


People who are unable to express their feelings in a healthy manner are prone to irrational outbursts of anger, which allow them to release pent-up negativity. These outbursts fuel the fire for passive resistance. Dr. Les Carter states that passive-aggressive acts allow people to preserve their personal worth, needs and beliefs at the expense of others. These acts enable them to continue to see themselves as good people.


Passive-aggressive individuals covertly avoid responsibility and tend to blame others for their misfortunes. They have an arsenal of lies and excuses at their disposal to deflect responsibility from themselves and redirect it to others. Individuals who choose to "keep the peace" and accept someone's passive-aggressive behavior are actually reinforcing it, causing future acts of passive aggression.