Passive-Aggressive Pattern 

Interpersonal Behavior

Tries to please and fails

Aggression comes out in indirect ways

Sometimes agrees to do things for others and then doesn’t follow through

Often feels pressure to perform, and has expectation and fear of failure, procrastination

Also passive-aggressively defeats his own inner critic, so can’t discipline self

Sometimes acts out annoying behavior while not consciously knowing its impact on others.

Group, Organizational, Community, Work Behavior

In case of people under the power of others, the passive-aggressive behavior can be planned consciously, e.g. employees stealing, being absent



Fails in a way that indirectly expresses anger and defeats others in order to preserve autonomy in the only way he feels he can, because aggression is not allowed


Core Issues

Harm issues, punishment for aggression, shame

Modeled after passive-aggressive parent

Opposite reaction to violent parent



I can’t do it.


Underlying Thought

I will fail in order to preserve my autonomy.


Distortions of Perception

Sees self as cooperative

Sees people who are controlling as assertive

Sees people who are judgmental as perceptive


Dimensions Involved

Power, value


Healthy Capacities Blocked

Assertive, cooperative, self-valuing, responsible


Activating Conditions

Situations where the person’s performance will be judged (or he thinks so)

Authority figures, powerful people



Common with teenagers 

Common in people who are under others’ power



The victim pattern also involve failure and sometimes indirect anger, but the victim is trying to coerce others into caring for her, while the passive-aggressive is trying to indirectly achieve autonomy. The victim blames others while the passive-aggressive blames herself.

The defiant pattern also involves a reaction to perceived domination, but the rebellion is direct.

The compliant pattern also tries to please others, but there is little unconscious resentment or it doesn’t get acted out.

The insecure pattern can feel pressured to perform and an expectation of failure, but there is no unconscious need to fail to defeat others and not a lot of unconscious anger at others.


Related Patterns

The passive-aggressive pattern usually includes the insecure pattern.

Controlling is the opposite of passive-aggressive

Assertive is the healthy goal for a passive-aggressive person.

A passive-aggressive person may need to become defiant for a while in the process of growth.


Dynamics with Other Patterns and Capacities

Passive-aggressive people are often attracted to controlling people in a destructive way, and vice versa.

Passive-aggressive people often gets into serious conflicts with controlling people.

A passive-aggressive person often makes others very frustrated while feeling bad about himself for doing this. He will often not give his partner what she wants.


How to Relate to Passive-aggressive People

Circumventing: Be cooperative. Don’t be judgmental, angry, controlling 

Disconfirming: Be completely accepting of who they are  

Protection: Don’t expect or want anything from them

Using Their Strength: Put them in situations where they need to follow orders or please others

Healing response to a passive-aggressive person being assertive: Be cooperative. Make sure they have a positive experience in asserting themselves


How to Experiment with Healthy Behavior and Attitude

Work on becoming aware of your underlying anger and resentment at being controlled

Work on becoming aware of your desire to defeat others or get back at them or annoy them

Work on becoming aware of your need to fail in order to accomplish the above two things

Work on allowing yourself to be just who you are, on feeling that you are OK as you are, that you’re sense of worth doesn’t depend on other people’s opinions

Work on expressing your anger and standing up for yourself

[and everything listed under the compliant pattern]



Choose people who don’t pressure you to be a certain way or to perform, who accept you as you are

Choose people who appreciate your being yourself, who don’t need to dominate or have their way, who can handle confrontation and anger

Protect yourself from being controlled or harmed or judged

Don’t take on people who are very powerful or judgmental until you are strong enough

Choose people who will support you in becoming assertive




Related Technical Concepts

Masochistic character in bioenergetics

Passive-aggressive personality disorder

Anal character


Possible Symptoms 




Often feels pressured by the therapist to perform. Wants to please consciously, but can’t succeed. Sometimes looks for the therapist to tell her what to do and them sabotages it.

It is very dangerous to give passive-aggressive clients any homework or advice. They usually forget about it or otherwise fail to do it successfully.

Often fail to progress in therapy in order to defeat therapist and preserve autonomy. 


Countertransference toward Passive-aggressive Client

Frustration and anger at inability to help and being defeated. 

Feeling incompetent because can’t help client. “I guess I should refer him to a therapist who can help him.” Being too invested in client’s making progress as measure of your worth as a therapist.


Countertransference of Passive-aggressive Therapist

Feeling performance pressure, especially as group leader or in public settings


Group Roles/Positions

Frustrating identified patient




Understanding Needed

Awareness of need to defeat others by failing

Awareness of hidden anger


Access (core issue)

How she was dominated, judged, and punished for aggression


Access (healthy capacity)

Aggression, anger



Saying no directly, expressing anger at perceived control

Doing what person wants rather than trying to please others


Healing Reponses

Acceptance of person exactly as she is.

Support for her aggression

Respect for her disagreeing with and challenging others


Inner Healing

Client allowing herself to improve in the therapy and acknowledge this


Other Interventions

Being purposely provocative to get to client’s unconscious anger. (Dangerous)

Prescribing the symptom: Tell client to defeat you. Therapeutic double bind.

Avoid suggestions and questions. Use empathy and interpretation.

Allow client to remain in impasse.


Potential Problems

Failing to progress in therapy in order to defeat you

  • Help bring this to awareness. Bring out client’s anger at you. Let go of your investment in the client making progress. Just be with client.


Other group members become angry and frustrated with client.

  • Help them to see passive-aggressive pattern. Get them to stop trying to help in active ways