Knowing When Your Levee is About to Give: passive aggression, part II

In my last post, I told you that passive aggression has been on my mind — and this week, I want to keep digging in even deeper.

Not in a research-paper sort of way, though, or a here’s-a-laundry-list-of-things-to-feel-bad-about way, either. The internet is full of both of those things, and neither of them feel especially interesting or productive to me. 

Instead, I’m much more interested in understanding passive aggression on a deeper level, through a lens of building better relationships and reducing inner turmoil. So, with that in mind, there are two things in particular I want to take a closer look at this week:

  1. What it is, and how we can we can get better at recognizing what passive aggression looks like in ourselves; and

  2. Why it's such a commonly used tool in the compassionate person’s communication toolbox — even when we know it’s not a very good one. 

First, let’s start with what passive aggression looks like, and how to spot it in ourselves.

As I mentioned last time, we all know when passive aggression is being used at us. Even if we can’t always name it, those very distinct ‘irked’ feelings are a dead giveaway. But it's harder to recognize that same behavior in ourselves — probably because we can more easily justify it. 

So when we say ‘passive aggression,’ what are we actually talking about? Before we get into the details of what its like in action, it helps to understand when we’re most likely to use it. There are tons of triggers that might cue us to shift into Passive Aggressive mode, consciously or otherwise. But here’s what I think it all boils down to:


Passive aggression shows up when we're unhappy with someone, but we're unwilling or unable to say so directly.


Here are some examples of scenarios that might trigger that impulse to say or do something passive-aggressive:

  • Your friend, who has a habit of bailing on your plans… bails on your plans. 

  • You partner keeps doing that thing you can’t stand (or, forgetting to do that thing you’ve mentioned thousand times!) 

  • Your boss asks you to put something together for them by the end of the day, without realizing (or acknowledging) how much extra work it’ll be for you. 

  • You’ve already agreed to doing something for a friend that you really don’t feel like doing now (“I didn’t have a choice…!”) and now you feel annoyed.

  • Your coworker asks you for a random favor, meanwhile you’re absolutely drowning in work. (Can’t they see that?!) 

  • You’re struggling and need your partner’s help with something, but you wish they’d notice and jump in without you having to ask.

  • Your parent is pestering you about the same old thing you have no intention of changing your mind about, and you reeeally wish they’d take a hint and stop.

In these situations, there’s almost always a reason we think we can’t be direct about whatever frustration or unhappiness we feel. (More on that in a minute.) So instead, we turn to something more indirect — something that conceals our frustration. 

We use passive aggression to do the heavy lifting for us: to imply or hint at our unhappiness, to hopefully get what we need or want from someone else… without ever having to talk about those things directly.

Here are just a handful of examples of how we do this — and I’m willing to bet at least one of these will sound familiar:


  • You might deny that you're angry, when it’s clear that you are. This could look like: saying “I’m fine” or "nothing’s wrong!” while your tone and body language tell a different story. 

  • You might make indirect requests. This could look like asking, “did you move my phone charger again?” when you actually mean, “please stop moving my phone charger."

  • You might ‘bury the lede’ and wrap your annoyance in something that sounds friendly or palatable. This might sound like, “It’s great to see you — I was sure you’d end up canceling on me again!” 

  • You might make wistful statements to imply your wants or needs, hoping someone will offer to meet them. This could sound like, “Obviously it would be ideal if you could be there, but that’s probably not gonna happen."

  • You might use your tone to convey frustration, while still saying all the right things to appear helpful. This could sound like, “sure, I can help” or “no problem” while still sounding noticeably terse, or sarcastic. 


  • You might avoid someone you’re angry with, or withdraw from them to' send a message.’ 

  • Similarly, you might use procrastination as a form of resistance, by continually avoiding something you’re annoyed about having to do. 

  • You might gradually act more and more hostile toward someone who keeps asking you for things, hoping that they’ll take a hint and stop asking.

  • You might complain to others how ‘unfair’ it is that you’re being put in this position, without ever bringing it up with the person directly. 


  • You might use non-verbal signals that imply your annoyance — like eye-rolls, or deep sighs. 

  • Similarly, you might use a deliberately tense smile, furrowed brow, or slow blink to convey sarcasm nonverbally, without expressing your frustration directly. 


Now that we’ve looked a little more closely at what it looks like, the second part I want to dig into is the why.

Why are so many of us guilty of reaching for this very mediocre tactic, time and time again? How did passive aggression become a mainstay in our communication toolbox?

In the scenarios I listed at the very beginning, I think so many of us choose a passive aggressive response over a more direct one because it feels easier, safer, and less vulnerable. It offers a way to sidestep the uncomfortable task of asking for what we really want — an apology, an out, a helping hand, or a change in behavior from someone else — without having to worry about coming off as too harsh, awkward, or aggressive. 

And as problematic as it is... the more closely I look, the more I absolutely see where it comes from.

First: there’s research that suggests many of our struggles with communicating uncomfortable emotions (like so many things) can be traced back to childhood — specifically, how you experienced anger as a child. This could include any combination of: how the adults in your life expressed their anger, how they reacted when you expressed anger, and the gender-based stereotypes and expectations you absorbed at a young age.

From these experiences (and more!), many of us learn really, really early that anger belongs on the list of ‘bad’ emotions. 

We learn that the world sees anger as unpleasant, unfeminine, and unlikable — so we find ways to conceal it, to distance ourselves from it, and to stuff it down.

When you consider all this — not to mention any situation-specific factors that might make it even more uncomfortable to be direct about how you feel, like being in your boss’s office or at a Thanksgiving dinner table — it makes sense that passive aggression has become such a common tactic. It offers the illusion of a win-win: a safe and easy way of giving our frustration a voice, without having to take much responsibility for it.


I think so many of us just want to maintain harmony — and we do it by trying our best to be warm and likable. And that likable exterior we fight so hard to maintain starts to act like a levee, holding back all our angry emotions. Over time, the pressure builds.

Passive aggression can be the very first sign that our levee is starting to give.


In other words, when we find ourselves being passive aggressive, I think of it as a sign that whatever frustration we're feeling toward others is butting up against a deeply-held belief that it’s not safe to communicate those feelings.

So instead of communicating them, we hold them all in. And the holding-in becomes a habit. Meanwhile, the pressure of stuffing all those feelings down starts to build, and build, and build some more  — until, of course, the pressure becomes too much for the levee to take. 

And those first few drops of subtle-bitterness that slip through at the levee’s weakest point? The ones that seep out through the cracks in our friendly façade, and hint at all the resentment or frustration we’ve been holding in? That’s what passive aggression looks like.

As nice as it would be if passive aggression truly did what we wanted it to do for us — giving us away to brush past our uncomfortable feelings towards others without having to address them directly — the truth is, it’s designed to fail us. 

  • Where we might hope it’ll help us avoid confrontation, it creates tension instead. 

  • Where we might wish it would compel others to change their ways, it undermines trust.

  • Where we want it to help us sidestep discomfort, it creates disconnect.


To be honest, ever since I decided to write this series, I’ve become hyper-aware of my own patterns and habits around passive aggression.

Where I expected to give myself an A+ and a pat on the back, I think a more realistic grade in my day-to-day life is more like a B. Maybe a B+. Good, but definitely not always great. I’m noticing just how engrained this sort of behavior is in me, and why — and, it’s made me that much more intent on unlearning those types of responses and replacing them with something more productive.

So, what does that process look like? 

In the next and final part of this series, I’ll be getting into ’the good stuff’ —  the actual process of unlearning these patterns, and how we can take small steps toward more clear, productive conversations. I’m excited for this one!

In the meantime, a little homework for you:

For the next few days, my simple challenge to you is to pay attention. Start to notice your reactions in stressful or frustrating moments. No need to make any changes yet. Instead, just focus on the noticing.

Are you hinting at your frustration and hoping others will notice? Are you being ‘subtle’ about your anger, hoping someone will take a hint? What does that look like for you? I’ll be back soon to talk more about what to do with those observations — and really-truly, I can’t wait!