How to Deal With Passive-Aggressive, Petty-as-Hell BehaviorSticky notes on the fridge, meet your damn match.
I’m about to put myself on blast: Whenever my husband comes home late from work—stressed, exhausted, and clearly feeling guilty that he missed bathtime with our twin boys—most of the time, I say something along the lines of, “No worries! You’ll be here tomorrow.” But on the really rough days (see: 7-month-old twins), it goes something like: “I wish I had such a demanding job...just kidding!” Clearly, I am not kidding. This is passive-aggressive behavior.
Honestly, it happens to the best of us. Our partners, friends, colleagues, and family all have bad moments, says psychologist Kelsey Latimer, PhD. When we’re tired, emotionally triggered, or just not our best selves (hi!), we can give in to the urge to drop a smart-ass comment.
Sometimes, that urge bubbles up when we feel like we can’t communicate our feelings or needs directly, says psychotherapist Chase Cassine, LCSW. So we make a “joke” of it, use the silent treatment, or opt for a sticky note to the fridge.
Hopefully, once we cool down, we see the errors of our petty ways and apologize, says Dr. Latimer. But, as we all know, that’s not usually the case. People with passive-aggressive personality styles exist, explains Dr. Latimer. And despite their consistently thorny jabs, they might not even realize they’re doing it, says Cassine. If that’s what’s up, it could stem from some deep stuff like childhood trauma that caused “a fear of conflict, rejection, and vulnerability.” To be fair, it could also happen when someone wants to “evade accountability for their incongruent words and actions,” he adds.
While the origin story of this behavior might inspire a little empathy for whoever’s being salty, which is always good, the passive-aggression fest might not stop until you call it out. And that is why we’ve gathered here today. Below, we explain what you can do to end the drama.
Don’t match the energy.
When a friend is operating in backhanded compliments and sarcasm, it’s incredibly easy to give them a dose of their own medicine. But Cassine says that’s counterproductive to resolving whatever issue you have at hand. Sure this seems obvious, but we could probably all use this reminder. “Sometimes we want to one-up people who are passive-aggressive, but that can just create a bigger conflict,” says clinical psychologist Ryan Howes, PhD, who’s part of Wondermind’s advisory committee. I mean, has anything good ever come from responding to a passive-aggressive sticky note with another passive-aggressive sticky note? Probably not.
Instead, “maintain a calm, mindful, and non-reactive approach,” says clinical psychologist Avigail Lev, PsyD. Take a breath, a walk, or just get some space before you respond if your instinct is to come for them.
Call them out—politely.
When someone is being passive-aggressive, it often helps to respond with assertive communication, says therapist John Tsilimparis, MFT, who’s also a member of Wondermind’s advisory committee. That looks like this: Tell them what you’re seeing (their sticky note with sarcastic undertones), tell them how that’s making you feel, and tell them what you’d prefer.
You could start that with something like: “The way I’m reading this note seems like you might be upset or annoyed, am I sensing this accurately? I could be off, but I wanted to check,” says Dr. Howes. Maybe they’ll be honest with you right away and share the origin story of their saltiness. “Sometimes being confronted is disarming and they’ll tell you more,” explains Dr. Howes.
If they say they meant it earnestly (whether that’s true or not), you can move on to how that note made you feel. This approach is effective because it puts your feelings about the other person’s behavior on the table and paves the way for a healthier dialogue now and in the future, says Cassine. The convo seems less like an accusation and more like you’re just being open with them.
Finally, be honest about how you’d like them to communicate with you going forward. Yes, discussing how their sarcasm makes you feel is a start, but don’t let them off the hook too quickly. By being straightforward about how you’d like them to be direct or even (gasp) polite in the future, you won’t wonder if you were too wishy-washy if/when they keep being an asshole, says Cassine.
You can say something like, “Look, your sarcastic joke about how much I take out the trash made me feel uncomfortable, and I’d like us to be honest and candid about things that upset us rather than sarcastic or passive.” You’re meeting their passive-aggressive comments with direct feedback. After that, it’s on them.
Be open to taking accountability.
Even if their delivery is off, Mr. Petty might have a point. So when your roommate’s response to you calling out their sarcasm is, “I’m really angry that you never pay your half of the utilities on time,” maybe sit with that for a sec. Feedback on how your behavior impacts other people can be really valuable, says Dr. Lattimer. “Listen to that and try to take it in.”
If you’re actually in the wrong, you can (and definitely should) acknowledge that. But it’s also OK to say you’d like them to address the problem directly from here on out.
Set a boundary.
When the problem is them and their inability to express themselves without being a jerk, it’s time to set some boundaries in the name of self-care, says Cassine. Putting some ground rules in place for the kind of actions you won’t put up with anymore enables you to be proactive instead of reactive, says Dr. Lattimer. That will make addressing their shitty communication style quicker and less of a big deal for you, she adds.
Say your mom likes to throw shade at you during family events. Instead of summoning the courage in the moment to respond with something like, “This hurts my feelings and I’m going to leave the room now,” you can tell her in advance. Explain what’s gonna go down the next time she drops a, “She never calls me anymore,” loudly to your aunt—and stick to your word if she does it anyway.
In doing so, you can start to cut down on the opportunities for petty stuff to show up in your dynamic.
At work, give the communication you want to receive.
Of course, it’s harder to set boundaries or avoid the petty people you work with. But setting an example of how to communicate (as in, being the bigger person) might make a difference, explains Amy Morin, LCSW, a psychotherapist and host of the Mentally Strong Podcast.
Maybe you’re collaborating with a coworker on a project and ask if they’d be open to taking on a specific task. If they respond with an exasperated “K,” your next move might be saying (genuinely!), “Thank you so much for your help! If you think there’s another area you’d rather work on, let me know and we can rethink the workload!” Morin says that people who operate in passive-aggressive manners can learn to communicate more directly when others model it for them.
Seeing you respond this way might show them that there are other ways to create a path forward when they don’t agree with someone, she adds.
Try on some radical acceptance.
You can set all the boundaries and make yourself available for direct conversations a million times, but sometimes petty people are gonna be petty. When that’s your experience, accepting that this is just how they are can make you feel less powerless, says Minaa B., LMSW, a therapist, social worker, and author (who is also on Wondermind’s advisory committee). “We can’t change people,” explains Minaa B. “If they’re not doing their own work, then there’s still a likelihood that they won’t be receptive. People can still choose to be passive-aggressive.”
Instead of trying to fix your dynamic, try to honor that this person is difficult, and create boundaries within yourself to help deal. That might mean avoiding them entirely or not allowing their backhanded compliments to get to you. Whatever you’ve gotta do to make this easier, do it.
Talk it over with a professional.
When you’ve exhausted your options or you can’t get out of a situation—like a job, a two-year apartment lease with a chaos monster, or family drama—a therapist can help. Finding a mental health pro will enable you to come up with coping mechanisms, manage the issues as they happen, and deal with the emotional aftermath, says Dr. Lattimer. And who doesn’t need that?
Wondermind does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Any information published on this website or by this brand is not intended as a replacement for medical advice. Always consult a qualified health or mental health professional with any questions or concerns about your mental health.